On the simplicity of being fair - and the difficulty of demanding fairness

On the simplicity of being fair - and the difficulty of demanding fairness

By Gabriele Schambach and Julia Nentwich
June 24, 2021


Equality is seen as an imperative of fairness - but why is it so difficult to demand it?

Male managers are committed to gender equality for reasons of fairness. At 93 per cent, this reason for motivation received among the highest approval of the approximately 1,200 managers who participated in the survey on the commitment of male managers to gender equality conducted by the University of St. Gallen.
This very pleasing result shows that the current status quo in the companies is perceived as unfair. That is, the persistent under-representation of women in management positions is apparently no longer seen as an unquestioned matter of course in companies or as the result of women's lack of career ambition. 

According to the Duden dictionary, the English term fairness means an accepted concept of justice, appropriateness and decency. In relation to the topic of equality, fairness could then be understood as just, appropriate or decent treatment towards women - and also men! 

The aforementioned survey shows that most men believe that they already do exactly this: 62 per cent, for example, stated that they are careful not to make any remarks that (perhaps unintentionally) devalue women or do not take them seriously. Another 34 percent can imagine doing so. So behaving fairly seems to be self-evident and easy to implement. 

However, it is more difficult to demand fairness, i.e. to intervene when women are treated unfairly, inappropriately or indecently. According to self-disclosure, half of the male managers still support their female colleagues when their competences are ignored, disregarded or questioned. But not even every second man addresses his male colleagues, employees and/or superiors when they make remarks that (perhaps unintentionally) devalue women, are sexist or misogynistic. 

Yet it is precisely this intervening behaviour that many women would like to see! Because most of them know situations, especially when they are in rounds with a majority of men: A raunchy joke, a remark about the buttons on one's blouse, questions about whether the discussion is not too technical. Experienced thousands of times in this or similar forms, women often do not want to or cannot defend themselves - paradoxically out of self-protection: because if they do, they are often called hysterical, oversensitive or humourless. In any case, their needs for fair treatment are not taken into account and they run the risk of losing respect and standing in the group as a professional and leader. So they smile benignly, keep their mouths shut and make a fist in the bag. But if no one complains, men don't have to reflect and question their behaviour. And so everything stays the same!
Now, there are a lot of men who are also bothered by unfair or degrading behaviour. But even if they themselves pay attention to their behaviour, they do not intervene to the same extent. Why not?

This is where the so-called bystander effect comes into play. Most people are familiar with this effect in accidents or robberies: The more people there are around the victim, the less likely it is that someone will intervene or help. Transferred to the aforementioned meeting round, this means: a single man who rejects behaviour that degrades women will not intervene in such a situation. And for a comparable reason to the women concerned: They fear being discredited as a wimp, a henpecked man or a womaniser. And because they do not intervene, both the women and the men interpret the silence of their colleagues as approval. And so everything remains the same!

In order to demand fairness, something important is needed: allies must be found! After such a meeting, it is easier to talk in pairs among men about the situation experienced in order to find out who also experienced it as inappropriate. Together, a discussion can then take place with the colleague in question and then possibly intervene together at the next meeting. It is also helpful to initiate "gender dialogues" in the company. On these occasions, women and men exchange examples of unfair and derogatory situations they have experienced and share what exactly they understand by fair and appreciative treatment of each other. In this way, (also unintentional) inappropriate behaviour becomes defined and visible. And with jointly agreed changes, fairness emerges - which everyone simply demands and for which it then also becomes easy to stand up.


We are pleased that the Handelszeitung as our project partner published this article in the print edition on June 17 and in the online edition on June 20.