Men and Gender Equality – an Ambivalent Relationship

Men and Gender Equality – an Ambivalent Relationship

By Julia Nentwich
May 9, 2020

Men are increasingly committed to promoting gender equality. They support women as colleagues, strive for equality in partnerships and aim for a fair division of labour in the family. At the same time, men are unclear about to which extent they want to be publicly exposed - in society or in the company - in their solidarity towards gender equality. They are preoccupied with how they are perceived by other men and whether their commitment puts their masculinity in question. There is also another uncertainty. This one has to do with the extent to which they are welcome by women participate in work around gender equality. Although men themselves recognise the importance of gender equality issues, their relationship towards gender equality appears to be ambivalent. How does this develop?

Working for equality can be risky, for both men and women. In order to achieve changes, gender equality questions what has been taken for granted - questioning these norms causes uncertainty among work colleagues and is initially not appreciated. One makes themselves unpopular and becomes vulnerable. This affects women and men, and in different ways. For example, when a female colleague openly addresses firsthand discrimination, whether personally experienced or observed, she risks being portrayed as "frustrated" or "hysterical" (Morley, 1994). The reactions of others are often very emotional and hurtful (Wahl et al., 2014) and questions the female perception, if not the whole person. Standing up against discrimination is by no means always and everywhere positively connoted.    

When males openly advocate equality issues, they also make themselves vulnerable. They put themselves at risk of not being taken seriously, being palliated, being judged as "too soft”, and labelled as "emotional". Men, however, are affected by these reactions in different ways. Males usually have a much smaller pool of experience with situations in which they do not belong or are not part of the majority. At the same time, in such moments they lose the support of the group of male colleagues with whom they previously (presumably) felt a natural sense of belonging because of their gender. This is an unpleasant feeling of isolation and one is moving in unknown territory and feels insecure.

Moreover, men who advocate for gender equality not only challenge the people specifically involved in the situation, they also put themselves at war with the prevailing assumptions of hegemonic masculinity. They are indirectly or directly challenged with questions like, “why does he suddenly question what is taken for granted?” Or “why does he turn against his male colleagues’ viewpoints?” As such “leaving” the “herd” is often interpreted as a betrayal, not only of that specific group of men, but also by the companies norm of masculinity. Therefore, a commitment to equality does not mean fame and honour and can lead to exclusion and even jeopardise the next career development. 

The observations of the Finnish management professor Janne Tienari clearly illustrate this (Tienari & Taylor, 2019). If his colleagues discover that he - as a man - is dealing with gender and equality issues in his research, it caused irritation. Irritation because the research is then considered less interesting and less scientific. And it is also irritating on a second level. Because he, as a man, is perceived as not investing his interests in career-promoting topics, his vocational ambitions are doubted as well. These irritations and doubts somehow take men’s manliness away. Hegemonic masculinity is - and must be - challenged here. However, because it is questioned, the challenging individual pays an individualised price for it. 

Many men want to work for gender equality. Many men recognise that they can also benefit individually from gender equality. The "business case" is more than clear, and as managers they naturally also feel committed to the company's goals - e.g. to increase the proportion of women at all levels. At the same time, however, it can be difficult for men, because of their gender, to actively commit themselves to these goals. The women's movements and feminist theory developments have paved the way for women to develop a ground which, while not easy and fraught with risks, it offers at least a collective identity that makes it easier to take on clear positions. Men lack precisely this broad and publicly disseminated movement that links individual male identity with the political goals of a collective. A similar development for men would be important and could provide men with more support. 

A solution to this male situative ambivalence, could be the path outlined by Tienari and Taylor (2019). Management researchers, Tienari and Taylor are also concerned with gender equality issues and discuss their personal approach to these challenges in a reflection published in the academic journal "Organization". Scott Taylor refers to the distinction introduced by the US-American feminist Bell Hooks (2000): Feminism is not directed against men, but pursues the goal of establishing equality and preventing discrimination. Here, Hooks disconnects the political concern of feminist approaches to overcome inequalities from the assumptions that discrimination only affects women and therefore must be promoted exclusively by women. Moreover, Hooks brings into perspective that women are not a cohort of equality and certainly their understandings and experiences with discrimination do not agree with each other on every aspect. If one understands equality in this sense as a political concern, then all people - and also men - can and may stand up for equality and against inequality.

For Scott Taylor this distinction is critical (Tienari & Taylor, 2019). It is not correct for him to label himself a "feminist", as this is connected with a gender identity which he does not share as a man. Nevertheless, he can say loud and clear that he shares and supports feminist concerns and the political demands associated with them. He also uses the findings and theoretical positions of feminist theories to identify and expose injustice and discrimination. Supporting feminist concerns for him means addressing and absorbing previously unconsidered or blind spots in his own working context of management research. Supporting equality becomes something that people who can identify with the goals of anti-discrimination and justice can do. He explains, "I feel ontologically secure as a man, but I want to disrupt the behaviours I associate with the uglier aspects of masculinities, such as anti-feminist, sexist or misogynist acts, for personal and politicial reasons" (Tienari & Taylor, 2019, p. 951). In the way pointed out by Scott Taylor, men can also gain access and thus the necessary "backing" from feminist movements: "Feminism is for everyone"! (Hooks, 2000). This does not make the commitment to equality any less risky, and it means that you are no longer completely alone!

Hooks, B. (2000) Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Morley, L. (1994) Glass Ceiling or Iron Cage: Women in UK Academia, Gender, Work and Organization 1(4), 194–204.

Tienari, J., & Taylor, S. (2019). Feminism and men: Ambivalent space for acting up. Organization, 26(6), 948–960.

Wahl, A. et al. (2014). Male Managers Challenging and Reinforcing the Male Norm in Management. NORA 22(2), 131-146.