The unseemly spectacle which unfolded recently in the Australian Federal Parliament where Senator David Leyonhjelm, in the midst of a debate about sexual violence against women shouted across the chamber at a young opposition female senator, Sarah Hanson-Young that she should “stop shagging men” (and later gratuitously repeated the same slur on Sky TV) has been characterised as foul-mouthed sexism. But in reality it is more than this and signifies a significantly more troubling manifestation of how certain men are responding when women assert themselves or progress in the workplace or society to levels where they have not previously been.
Casual everyday sexist comments and slights against women are, and have been, common and sometimes endemic in many workplaces. However, the implementation of diversity and inclusion programs to advance women in recent years, which are now widely accepted as boosting overall business performance, has nevertheless begun to evoke a palpable and more aggressive response from male employees in some quarters.
Cornell University, professor of philosophy, Kate Manne draws a distinction between sexism and misogyny. She defines “sexism” as an ideology which supports the traditional patriarchal superiority which men enjoy. And she describes the attitudes of sexist men in the following way “….these arrangements just make sense [to them]. Women are more caring and nurturing …”
On the other hand, “misogyny” according to Manne refers to efforts to enforce this ideology when threats to it are perceived. It is about hostility towards women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations about serving male interests. In other words, it is overt and visible behaviour designed to communicate to women that they have deviated from the traditional gender schema and overstepped their boundaries.
Applying this formula, we can judge the grossly offensive remarks of Senator Leyonhjelm as not merely a boorish insult but rather a visceral and hostile reaction to a woman who holds equal status in the Parliament and is prepared to stand her ground – an aggressive response to a woman by a man who consciously or unconsciously believes that the rightful position of men has been usurped.
This episode brings to mind the celebrated (or notorious) case of the Google engineer, James Damore who was fired for suggesting in a memo that women are biologically less-suited to engineering than men. His dismissal was justified on the basis that he had engaged in unacceptable stereotyping and that allowing him to remain in his position would create a hostile work environment for his co-workers.
Both these cases are instances in different contexts of excessive and untoward push-back by men against the advance of women and other diverse groups at work and in public life. They have come to be recognised under the general mantra of “backlash”.
Backlash can take the form of indifference, cynicism, subtle undermining or outright hostility. It is a reality with which many leaders have been forced to grapple at various stages of their organisations’ diversity journeys. Indeed, last week saw the release of the report “Backlash and Buy-in” by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change focussing on the negative reactions to diversity initiatives in Australia.
The report mentions a number of factors driving the backlash such as “lack of understanding”; “change fatigue” and “fear” (of losing opportunities). These are all realistic and rational contributors but perhaps the one that is missing from the report is the most pernicious of all—a deep- seated rebellion against the idea that all positions must be open to women and other diverse groups and that organisations must strive in their own interests to promote diversity at all levels. After a lifetime of conditioning by society to believe that men are natural agents of authority and natural born leaders whilst women are inherently more communal and nurturing, there is an intuitive and unconscious response by some men to oppose efforts that deviate from this “natural order”.
The report recommends education, better communication about objectives and more engagement with those who are resisting as ways of countering the backlash. We at Symmetra, however believe that the key is to fundamentally reframe how diversity initiatives are perceived. Placing the emphasis on gender as the axis around which diversity programs revolve and fixing the objective that putting greater numbers of women into more roles is not an inclusive approach in and of itself.
It is preferable not to treat diversity and inclusion initiatives as a zero-sum game. If the focus instead, is on expanding diversity of thought and diversity of experiences throughout the organisation to optimise business growth, performance and innovation, there is a much greater chance of buy-in from the workforce, and those in existing positions of power and privilege, as a whole. In Symmetra’s experience across the globe in a host of multinationals this approach which is inclusive of all, which ensures that everyone is the direct beneficiary of the inclusion agenda, not only makes the idea of diversity and inclusion seem more rational, but energises those who otherwise might feel threatened or downright excluded from any of the benefits to be derived from these initiatives. We have seen this broad based approach cultivate a powerful appetite by leaders of both genders to put their full weight behind the D & I agenda and paradoxically with gender no longer the primary focus, the gender agenda is turbo – boosted as a consequence.