Backlash: Past Frictions and Future Directions
Published on 21.08.2020 | By Trent Severin
The HeForShe movement launched with British actress and UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson pioneered ‘Gender Equality is your issue too’. The key point being a “formal invitation for men to participate in the conversation surrounding gender equality”. As some of you may remember, #HeForShe went viral with the support of many notable celebrities of 2014, only to then fade into another trend that came and went, with the key message waiting to be widely implemented throughout the professional environment.
Given the traction that the HeForShe movement gained, in hindsight are we observing the improvements in male involvement in the gender equality discussion? Have the issues at the centre of the backlash to gender equality policy been addressed? And how much better are we at getting men involved and supporting such policies? These are key questions that regulators and stakeholders alike are demanding answers to and beginning to hold senior management accountable for.
Gender equality issues within organisations continue to attract the attention and resources of many leadership groups, boardrooms and diversity committees across Australia due to their social and economic importance. Challenges continue to persist for women in their careers with regards to pay disputes, company culture and female representation in senior leadership groups. This is evident in the recent Housing, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey, asserting that women are still encountering higher levels of conflict between working hours and doing the majority of the domestic housework. Further, women are under-represented on the boards of Australia’s 200 largest companies at under 30% according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD).
Backlash or inaction from men on gender equality is one of the biggest barriers towards progress and failing to involve men in the conversation brings us further away from the desired results. Widely published topics including the #MeToo movement, persistent “boys clubs”, lingering social stigmas and false preconceptions on gender diversity policies all continue to impact upon male participation in gender equality initiatives. To this day large firms who champion their commitment to gender diversity become riddled with accusations of bullying, macho work practices and female representation in upper management. Considering differing perspectives on gender equality issues and opening a safe environment for discussion on what the concerns are will be pivotal in addressing backlash as and when it arises.
Concerns that are often raised regarding the promotion and engagement of gender equality practices often later manifest themselves in the form of backlash if left unaddressed. Key examples include a perception of the demise of meritocracy, gender equality as a zero-sum game and their misunderstanding that gender equality is not an issue that they need to be involved in, or perceiving that they have nothing valuable to contribute. Further and likely most pressing is the fear surrounding the opinions of their male colleagues and fear of being held personally accountable for perpetuating any gender equality issues that may exist in an organisation dominated by male involvement. Finally, there is the view that men gain very little from becoming involved in policy discussions on gender equality, which further inhibits their willingness to provide input in the discussion.
Articulating the business argument for gender equality in an organisation is an essential step towards promoting gender equality in a way that will best champion male involvement. Extensive literature supports greater representation of women in senior leadership positions as a key driver of financial performance. Further, leaders and CEOs being more open about personal factors that contribute to their involvement is key to developing broader male support for gender equality initiatives. Often leaders with daughters and/or those who have witnessed their partners’ career changes will be more likely to lend their support to gender equality initiatives within their organisations. Opening men to a wider sense of empathy within the discussion surrounding gender equality is key to bringing them on board. While not only reaping the benefits from greater gender equality in the workplace, the empathetic development of men in the professional setting benefits their support and improves their willingness to be supporting and involved in the discussion.
Institutionalising the HeForShe mentality within an organisation’s gender equality initiatives is a significant step in cementing a culture that facilitates progress towards an organisations gender equality objective. Organisations like ‘Male Champions of Change’, which prepare and encourage senior male leaders in Australia regarding their gender equality policies and action, are incredibly valuable in attracting stronger support. A key example of this in practice is the ‘Manbassador’ program at Bain & Company, where men take an active and recognised role in pursuing gender equality within the organisation. Fostering men to be involved in the solution will not only push towards the established goals that the organisation has, but also open the floor for discussion in addressing backlash as and when it arises.
I began this article posing several questions:
Are we observing the improvements in male involvement in the gender equality discussion?
Yes, especially at the top level. As mentioned, programs like the ‘Male Champions of Change’ and firm specific policies seen in Bain’s ‘Manbassador’ program are becoming ever more prevalent.
Have the issues at the centre of the backlash to gender equality policy been addressed?
Slightly. The raising of controversial viewpoints and admitting doubts surrounding diversity policies and political correctness create unnecessary and unhelpful barriers to men being involved in the gender equality discussion. Opening the dialogue surrounding the points like the ones we have addressed in this article is key to improving male involvement in the discussion.
How much better are we at getting men involved and supporting such policies?
Improvements are visible but a broader consensus needs to be established to systematically involve men in the discussion. The creation of a safe space to encourage men to become more involved in the discussion are key. This is difficult to do on a broad scale and each firm should tailor the program to the characteristics and the personalities of the people involved in the firm.
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