I am privileged. Are you?

It’s been a tough year.

We’ve had to confront both an indiscriminate killer in the form of a virus as well as discriminant ones, it seems, in the form of the American police force.

The killing of George Floyd (and many others like him) brought to the fore conversations that I hadn’t heard in a long time.  I was reminded that, just because we don’t see racism – speaking as a white, middle-class woman – it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  The Black Lives Matter movement reminded us to think of those who are less privileged than us.

So I want to say a few words about privilege.

You see, I know about privilege – other people’s privilege.  Men’s privilege over women.  Yes, I have been in several conversations where the man conversing with me and my friend/husband/male colleague only acknowledged the other male in the conversation, not making any eye contact with me.  I’ve also been ogled, propositioned and humiliated by men for being a woman.  I have been passed up for promotions and have been criticised for doing what men do to get ahead because that’s not what women do.  I have frequently experienced the impediment of being of the wrong gender.  Yet none of that prepared me to see myself as privileged over others.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the privilege bestowed on the rich over the poor, the smart over the not so smart, the native speakers over accented narrators.  But during the conversations that started bubbling up as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, I learned that I really didn’t understand privilege at all.  White privilege that is.

It’s true what they say.  Privilege is invisible to those who have it.  You just take everything for granted.  When you’re pretty and everyone smiles at you, you think everyone is nice.  When you’re straight and you unassumingly mention the opposite gender of a person you’re speaking to, you don’t see them squirming inside, trying to hide the fact that their partner is, in fact, of the same sex.  When you’re white in America, you see the police as your protector whereas as a black person, you might turn the corner to get away even though you’ve done nothing wrong. As a white person, you don’t see that.

Malcolm Gladwell made the point in his latest book Talking To Strangers that we all apply a double standard when it comes to understanding what’s happening to us and understanding what’s happening to others.  We think that when someone says something shocking about a black person, they are racist – not like us.  We would never do that.  And yet I know that, if I pushed my non-white friends, I’m sure they would tell me of instances when I said things to them that made them cringe inside.  They spared me the embarrassment; they knew I didn’t mean it.

In a recent roundtable discussion that I moderated, one of the speakers made the point that it is up to each one of us to educate ourselves on what type of behaviour or language might amount to a microaggression.  It should not be up to the person experiencing the blow to educate us.  So I picked up that call to action.

Enough with the blind spots.  Let’s acknowledge the facts: men have it easier in life than women; white people have it easier in life than non-whites; heterosexuals have a smoother ride than LGBTQ+ and so on and so on.  Let’s acknowledge it and agree to educate ourselves.  Let’s stop and think before we speak.  Let’s not begrudge people opportunities where none existed for centuries.

Our eyes may not be opened instantly, but we can try to see what previously escaped us if we keep trying.

Will you try?

For a great explanation of White Privilege, watch John Amaechi’s Bitesize on BBC.

How to enlist men as ‘agents of change’ for gender equality

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.