There seems to be a creeping spread of the ‘not me’ syndrome around the workspace these days when it comes to experiencing gender discrimination.
Not from men denying sexism, mind you, but from women distancing themselves from any personal experience or observation of such a thing.
Social psychologists call this attitude an example of the ‘denial of personal disadvantage’ phenomenon, and have observed it occurring even when women agree that evidence shows gender discrimination does occur in society.
In other words, they can see it happens but deny it has happened to them.
The psychological background on how and why this widespread reaction develops is fascinating. US academics Diana Cordova, Faye Crosby and Karen Jaskar researched and wrote about this in the 1990s, noting that numerous studies show denial of personal disadvantage was widespread amongst women, gay men, black activists and minority students.
People ‘typically imagine themselves to be exempt from the injustices that they can recognise as affecting their membership or reference groups’, according to Crosby, a professor of psychology at University of California.
Emotional factors play a role in forming the ‘not me’ attitude in women, the research found. Women – just like men – want to believe they live in a fair world where injustice is not embedded or routine, and they can’t believe sexism could be the case.
Many of us are selective about the evidence we see in front of us. This is particularly if we think our colleagues and managers are fundamentally fair, so we tend to reject or explain away the data about pay and promotions (I didn’t really want that job, I wasn’t confident enough, women are their own worst enemies, I didn’t lean in enough, and so on).
And the recognition of gender discrimination is also about acknowledging you are part of a group and not always judged on individual input or talent. This can be very hard to accept – particularly these days when individualism, personal agency and ‘brand you’ is the management mantra.
Denial also means you can avoid seeing yourself as a victim.
Attitudes to gender discrimination are often a reflection of work circumstances, according to the research.
Women working in small groups in male-dominated organisations and comparing themselves to the dominant group will more likely feel discriminated against. But if they usually compare themselves to other women, they will feel more fortunate or less disadvantaged, and may believe they have succeeded through better personal coping skills.
When women have a strong social identity around their job or career they are more likely to identify discrimination affecting them, as are those women who see a pattern of discrimination, and not just isolated instances.
Feedback I’ve heard over many years, particularly from women who were born in the last few decades when standards around women’s education and some social gender norms shifted, have often reflected the ‘not me’ argument.
In fact, sometimes women blame feminism for drawing attention to gender inequity which can of course make many people uncomfortable, and a focus of unwanted attention or hostility.
Some tell me they feel that even discussing gender bias runs the risks of them being labelled a victim. Yet when faced with evidence of sexist behaviour or the gender pay gap they usually acknowledge there is a problem.
Does any of this matter? Surely if you acknowledge discrimination in theory that’s all that counts?
Actually, ‘not me’ does have implications because it normalises systemic sexism in workplaces instead of allowing it to be identified and addressed. And this denial can reinforce the idea that the barriers women are facing are personal, their own fault, and a result of ‘business as usual’.
If a pay gap and lack of promotional opportunity after having kids is just the ‘way things are’ then there’s not much motivation to try and make changes.
When some of the ‘not me’ attitude is recycled by high profile women, who are role models for many others, the impact can be even more significant. Successful women who deny they have faced barriers may send a strong message that such problems are trivial or a result of poor skills.
This phenomenon does, however, help explain why progress towards better gender balance in organisations can be so difficult to achieve. Resistance can and does come from both men and women.
But examining the personal denial of discrimination reflects an interesting upside. It is evidence that men and women basically believe in and expect fairness from their workplaces and peers, and don’t think such principles are silly, political correctness or unnecessary.
That’s a good place to start. Now we need to some action to close the gap between the workplace we have and the one we think we have.