Earlier this week, a new report was released by Chief Executive Women (CEW) and Bain & Company that is likely to take the wind out of sails of all the engaging men to achieve gender equality enthusiasts, of which there are many.
The report entitled “Better Together: Increasing Male Engagement in Gender Equality Efforts in Australia” indicated that we have a long way to go: Only 17% of men are “highly engaged” and “prioritising action”, while more than half of men, 55%, ranked it as a “low” or “non-priority”.
These statistics belie the reports’ slightly cheerier headline finding that, in theory at least, 76% of men in the workplace support gender equality. In practice, it seems, too few are prepared to do anything meaningful about it.
After nearly a decade that has seen a proliferation of such initiatives here in Australia and abroad, including the Male Champions of Change (which celebrates its tenth anniversary next year), and UN Women’s HeForShe global solidarity movement for gender equality, that’s not a very good result.
How did we get here? Why has nearly a decade of effort yielded so little?
A closer reading of the new CEW report provides some clues, and I have a theory of my own.
“Champions” missing in action?
Over the years, programs that have sought to engage men have not been without their critics, including those who take issue with the fawning accolades and extra credit given men who publicly advocate for gender equality while the women who have long done the same are relentlessly vilified and trolled. Or the feeling that men’s involvement and actions are superficial and tokenistic, limited to wearing a ribbon or taking a pledge.
There are also those who worry that male champions further entrench the very male dominated leadership they say they seek to dismantle.
More recently, in the midst of fevered moments on the gender equality battlefield, for example the relentless trolling of AFLW player Tayla Harris last week, many have expressed their frustration that the so-called male champions appear to be missing in action.
Such instances tell us something anecdotally that the new CEW research now reveals more concretely: men’s “engagement” is not necessarily translating into enough action, or at least the kinds of action that will make a difference. And that, perhaps, is one of the most searing indictments of all.
Talking at cross purposes
So here we are. And men, we need to talk. Or, put differently, we need to start talking about the same thing.
The most interesting thing about the CEW report garnered little comment at the time of its publication but is actually the most illuminating.
There is a huge “perception gap” between men and women when it comes to the promotion of gender equality, not only the extent to which men think they are already doing “enough”, but what men, as opposed to women, think would have the greatest impact.
Men and women are simply not talking about the same thing, even when they think they are. (I know, shock…it won’t be the first time.)
The majority of men (64%) already think they’re doing a great job, while the majority of women (70%) think men need to do more.
What’s more, men’s top priorities, what they think would make the biggest difference, are things like “engaging in conversations with other men”, “participating in training” and “leading a gender diversity group”, while women place a greater emphasis on “calling out instances of gender discrimination”(Tayla, anyone?), “sharing household responsibilities with a cohabiting partner” and “taking steps to remove bias from hiring or promotion processes”.
The gap between the kind of more symbolic activities men are prioritising vis-a-vis the concrete actions (with associated outcomes) women are prioritising is pretty glaring.
Fear of backlash
That said, I have my own theory as to why there is such a glaring perception gap and ten years of effort has not yielded results.
Any one of the number of reports and toolkits on how to more effectively engage men in the pursuit of gender equality will advise you to “make it personal”, a sort of twist on the classic feminist saying, “the personal is the political”.
Thinking about this, it seems to me that the problem is that the political has not been quite personal enough.
The advice has been interpreted by those who seek to engage men in different ways: a focus on “what’s in it for them” vs. the more difficult exercise of asking men to recognise that they experience privilege and they will have to relinquish some of that privilege if we are to achieve a more gender equal world.
Those that focus on the former while minimising or brushing over the need for the latter are, in my view, disingenuous and unlikely to succeed. Yes, there are undeniable benefits for men from gender equality, but it is also undeniable that they have something to lose, to which they attach a high premium, privilege.
In that regard, this line of thinking, the notion that we could essentially be “cute” about the whole thing by emphasising the business case and putting to men a kind of win/ win proposition was, in my opinion, very much a product of its time born from a fear of backlash that I believe has prevented us, and still prevents us, from having some of the harder conversations.
Recently in an essay in the Atlantic, Catharine A. MacKinnon, the US legal scholar who established sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination in US law, reflected on the potential inhibiting impact fear of backlash could have: “While often realistic, fear of blowback can impede insistence on change and the collective mobilization it requires. Anxiety about backlash, however well founded, keeps one’s antenna endlessly attuned to giving power what pleases (and please pacifies) it.”
I wonder if we have been giving power what pleases in the way we have been framing men’s engagement in gender equality.
And ten years on, I think it’s high time for men and women to not only get on the same page, but cease avoiding the tough topics of conversation.