Emma Watson addressed the United Nations in 2014, urging men to join the feminist movement; Barak Obama supported the cause when he proclaimed he was a feminist. Many companies recognise “men as allies” as a critical component of their diversity and inclusion efforts. And yet, support by men for gender equality is waning. Particularly in companies.
According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report, “[a]lthough company commitment to gender parity is at an all-time high, companies do not consistently put their commitment into practise and many employees are not on board. ” This is supported by research. A 2014 Pershing Harris poll found that younger men were less open to accepting women leaders than older men and a 2014 Harvard Business School (HBS) survey of MBA graduates showed that three-quarters of millennial women anticipated their career would be at least as important as their partners, while half of the men expected their own careers to take priority. Likewise, less than 50% of the women MBA graduates believed they would handle most of the child care, while two-thirds of their male peers believed their wives would do so.
The privilege of invisibility
Why, I ask myself, does this gap in perceptions exist and how do we bridge it?
One reason is the so-called 'privilege of invisibility'. Michael Kimmel – eminent sociologist and high-profile women’s rights campaigner – explains that because people in power set the norm, they fail to see the privilege this bestows on them. An example of this is race. A white woman looking in the mirror sees a woman; a black woman looking in the mirror sees a black woman. Because ‘white’ is set as the norm by white people, white people don’t understand that other people’s skin colour impacts on many aspects of their lives. Their own skin colour is invisible to them. Similarly, because men think of gender as ‘women’, they do not see its relevance to them and don’t engage with gender equality; they see it as a “women’s agenda” – with little benefit to them.
Societal norms and expectations
There are also societal norms at work. Attitudes rooted in the 1970s predispose men to reject characteristics associated with femininity and define success as wealth, power and status. Men are supposed to be strong in a crisis, take risks and be daring and aggressive to others. Think Axe from the TV series Billions.
Although much of the above is still the benchmark for masculinity, we know that men are moving away from the stereotype and want to embrace some typically-feminine freedoms. They want to spend more time with their children, show feelings beyond the limited repertoire of lust and rage and enjoy life outside the office.
However, most boys are penalised for displaying emotions and are considered ‘weak’ if they are seen in any way as ‘feminine’. They are encouraged to be brave, ambitious and powerful and suppress individualistic urges to express oneself. This type of restrictive behaviour has been linked to an increase in suicide rates in men and underachievement at school for boys.
Compare this to the ideal of sharing responsibilities at home and at work, seeing girls and women as equals, allowing oneself to choose between career paths and redefining success for oneself. Wouldn’t that liberate men from the shackles of societal expectations?
So how do we engage men?
In a sense, men are right when they say gender equality is all about women. What I mean is that, while focusing on equalising the playing field for women, we have neglected men’s voices, concerns and horror stories. There has been a lack of interest in listening to men talk about their experiences and to delve deeper into what they truly think, need or want.
My suggestions, therefore, is to start with an open and honest, non-judgmental conversation that is based on a foundation of support for each other. We need to understand how gender stereotypes disadvantage men and give men a platform to be more than what society expects of them. After all, inclusion is about giving every individual space and freedom to be themselves. In that spirit, perhaps engaging men as change agents for women’s equality is as much about engaging women in understanding the restrictions and stereotypes that society places on men.