Bringing masculinity into the conversation.
This article is the second in a three-part series on the BAD Conference. It’s inspired by one of the panel discussions: “male is a gender too: bringing masculinity into the conversation”. The themes raised were the most challenging of my trip.
Shifting my perspective.
Someone once told me that part of my privilege is that it goes unseen; that when I look in the mirror I see a person, while others must carry their demographic identity in the world. At the time that was true, but it’s changed in recent years. Professor Nouman Ashraf’s opening words made me reflect on how I carry my straight white maleness, particularly when working in and around diversity and inclusion.
As the panel continued, I realised I’ve been on the wrong side of this dichotomy. I re-read some of my ‘male-focused’ inclusion articles on the plane home with that insight in mind. All were written in frustration and all in response to some troubling research or anti-diversity piece in the press. Looking back, they strike me as cold and confrontational. Here’s a typical except:
We need to talk about the backlash against gender equality.
“Many organisations express a commitment to diversity and inclusion, but are they brave enough to confront the significant proportion of their workforce who believe systematic bias against women at work is a fallacy? And more, who may feel increasingly victimised by initiatives for change and defensive of their status quo?
The answers need exploration - and while they're likely to be far more nuanced and empathetic than this article, I hope it starts a discussion. Because I’m all for ‘inclusion is for everyone’. But that doesn't work if men are at best burying their heads, and at worst, 'lashing out' at those working toward progress”.
Those last lines hold an unfortunate irony. They find me at my least progressive, lashing out rather than seeking to understand and engage. They stand in stark contrast to the warmer sentiment I heard in Toronto, which I’ll characterise with three words:
1 - Equality
Gender inequality harms men. It forces us into boxes, mocks our fragility, distorts us with toxic expectations, isolates us from our families, damages our mental health and offers a poisoned pedestal from which we can hurt, belittle and limit those around us. Listening to how this twists the development of boys and young men, at a gender equality conference in North America, the day after Dr Christine Blasey Ford offered testimony about her sexual assault by a Supreme Court Nominee, was a searing, unforgettable experience. Allyship with women is an urgent part of the answer. But inclusion IS for everyone.
The focus on young men reminded me that fathers with daughters are among the strongest supporters of gender equality. In the past, I’ve found this a disheartening insight (‘is this what it takes for men to pay attention?’). But speakers like Professor C.J. Pascoe and Professor Christia Spears-Brown helped me see this differently. Bringing masculinity into the conversation may encourage all fathers, all men to pause for reflection. Yes, this is about our daughters but it’s also about our sons. It’s about who we are, who we want to be, and what we want for the men that come next.
2 - Empathy
Empathy is easier in the realm of childhood development than the corporate workplace. Because for white men, this domain is rich with power and privilege. Many abuse that position for self-protection and personal gain or to harass and intimidate. Many more deny gender inequality exists at all.
It would be unjust to skip over the shame in this reality. But I’ll also return to Professor Ashraf’s words - ‘change will not come from that place’. There are different, more empathetic ways to bring men into the conversation.
The most accessible way to do this in the corporate world is to turn to families and flexible working. The day before the conference, Professor Sarah Kaplan told me she sees no distinction between equality at home and work; they’re two sides of the same coin. So, when I returned to the UK, I re-read a report from earlier in the year - Equal Lives by BITC and Santander.
These issues demand greater energy and investment. They are also behavioural (our obsession with policy and legislative change has done little to push things forward), which places them well within our realm of expertise at MoreThanNow. But despite this, we’ve not offered any contribution to date. We can and will do better.
3 - Intersectionality
One of the speakers, Jamil Jivani, is the author of Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity. He stressed the important of nuance and specificity in conversations about gender equality, with a plea to make sure we’re clear what and who we’re talking about and why. He also inspired the central theme of this article with his points on progressive dialogue. The first line below was frantically underlined in my notes.
Jivani’s work with young men seems a long way from the corporate workplace, but his points about intersectionality span boundaries. If we’re to bring equality and empathy to the conversation about masculinity, we must bring a greater understanding of the way it interacts with other parts of our identify like race, sexuality and social class.
A simple way to illustrate this importance is through the research of Dr. Lauren Rivera and Dr. Andras Tilcsik. They sent almost identical CV’s to hundreds of law firms around the US, changing only signals of gender (with name) and social class (with, for example, sailing and classical music interests vs. track and field and country music).
Overall, men had the advantage, receiving 64% of the callbacks. But when the intersectional analysis was conducted, the lowest response was found to be to the Lower-Class Male. This CV-type received only one callback from 78 applications (1.3%). The Higher-Class Male CV received thirteen from 80 (16.3%). When we fail to acknowledge such vastly unequal opportunities in our conversations about men at work, we fail in our responsibility as equality advocates.