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Engaging Men is Not the Game Changer for Gender Equality

14 November 2016 at 10:30 am
Wendy Williams
Engaging men is not the game changer for gender equality in the workplace, according to a recent debate.

Wendy Williams | 14 November 2016 at 10:30 am


Engaging Men is Not the Game Changer for Gender Equality
14 November 2016 at 10:30 am

Engaging men is not the game changer for gender equality in the workplace, according to a recent debate.

Hundreds of CEOs and HR directors who attended the Diversity Council Australia and NAB Annual Diversity Debate in Sydney found men needed to play a role in addressing gender inequality, however it was only part of the solution.

The audience voted in favour of the negative team, with 69 per cent to 31 cent, agreeing that more focus should be on elevating women as well as challenging and changing biased systems and cultures.

DCA CEO Lisa Annese said the discussion highlighted key issues for employers.

“Involving men in efforts to drive gender equality is important – but it mustn’t be at the expense of women’s voices and it shouldn’t be viewed as ‘the silver bullet’,” Annese said.

“Organisations also need to ensure programs designed to engage men have clear objectives and are achieving their intended results.”

A survey of the audience found that 84 per cent said gender equality was a priority for their organisation and yet only 59 per cent of men in their organisations were supportive of efforts to achieve it.

Moreover, 51 per cent said their organisation had an initiative designed to engage men but only 26.5 per cent were sure the initiative was achieving its objectives.

University of Wollongong associate professor Dr Michael Flood, who spoke on the negative team alongside screenwriter and journalist Benjamin Law and freelance writer and broadcaster Clementine Ford, told Pro Bono Australia News the debate was a chance to explore some of the challenges and complexities of engaging men in positive change.

“What we have seen to some extent is that the growing emphasis on engaging men has meant that sometimes men are put front and centre when they don’t necessarily have good knowledge of the issues, or… men’s words are given status and credibility that they don’t necessarily deserve,” Flood said.

“So in other words that kind of plays out some very traditional patterns where men’s words are given more authority than women’s words and where men’s experiences are centred while women’s experiences are marginalised and so in that context, when we invite men as members of the advantaged group, or the dominant group, into processes of change we have to make sure that we don’t end up kind of reinforcing those inequalities.”

But Flood said men still had a role to play.

“What was funny was that the affirmative team were able to quote back to me the words that I have published and spoken saying that engaging men is… a game changer for gender equality. It is certainly a critical thing that we need to do and I passionately believe that and I think that was the belief shared in this audience, but whether it is the game changer is more complex,” he said.

“I think one key point is that we need to very much continue to do the work of involving women in progress towards gender equality, and that empowering and mobilising women is an absolutely vital strategy.

“If we see engaging men as the game changer we risk diminishing attention to that.

“I think also, if we see engaging men as the game changer we risk a kind of excessive optimism, a kind of uncritical optimism about what engaging men will mean, that men will enmasse go ‘oh my god gender equality oh yes of course’, and suddenly become energetic activists for change and the experience of engaging men is that is not the case.

“There absolutely are men who have some awareness of these issues and have become passionate and powerful advocates for change and that is very inspiring but this work also meets resistance.”

Flood said there was a difference between engaging men and men engaging.

“Engaging men implies men as the kind of passive recipients or passive audience for efforts, and often those efforts are by women, it is women trying to engage men,” he said.

“What I think will make a more significant change is when men themselves take up these issues, when men themselves start to become advocates on a large scale, for change towards gender equality.”

National Australia Bank executive general manager of culture and capability Stephen Barrow, who spoke on the affirmative team alongside Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and Microsoft Australia managing director Pip Marlow, said the cause had been stalled by polarising arguments about men versus women.

“The best way to make change is through inclusive leadership, through men being included in understanding the current situation more fully and also being part of the solution. This is an issue of numbers and basic psychology,” Barrow said.

Jenkins said men and women needed to work together.

“We are not saying that men are more important or should be running the show, but they can work together with women in the fight for gender justice,” Jenkins said.

“If we can engage the large majority of men in our community who have historically failed to pull their weight, this will make a huge difference.”

Flood agreed men and women throughout organisations had a role to play in promoting gender equality.

“Senior leaders whether male or female should take on gender equality as part of the mission of their organisation and as part of what it means to be a leader,” Flood said.

“What it means to be a good and effective leader of an organisation is to work to build cultures of gender equality in that organisation.

“Now there is a business case for doing that, a sort of economic bottom line to doing that, but even if there’s not, even if it costs money to do that, there is an ethical and legal case for addressing gender equality.

“In fact men and women in at all levels of an organisation have roles to play because we know that gender inequalities in the workplace are sort of kept alive by informal interactions, around the watercooler, informal perceptions of candidates in job applications, the ways in which workers and  colleagues treat each other and so on.

“In other words, gender inequalities, what they’re made of is both formal and informal patterns of discrimination at every level of an organisation.

“So it’s not only the case that CEOs and senior leaders have a role to play, in fact men and women throughout an organisation can make a critical difference.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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