Gender equality and dealing with male backlash

If you are working to promote gender equality, you can expect to meet resistance from men. We provide five ways to prevent or counter accusations of so-called reverse sexism in your workplace.  

1. Don’t be surprised by backlash

Backlash is a natural part of change, with resistance most likely to come from the people who are advantaged by the status quo.

Be proactive by having strategies in place from the very beginning of your change program that will minimise male backlash rather than letting it delay or derail gender equality in your organisation. 

2. Include men in gender equality initiatives

Research from the 50/50 By 2030 Foundation found that nearly half (46 per cent) of Australian males believe that gender equality measures do not take men into account.

Why does this matter? Because alienating a group by leaving them out of the discussion may mean your gender equality measures effectively deepen (rather than fix) existing inequalities and perceptions.

3. Encourage open debate and discussion

A whitepaper from VicHealth stresses the importance of being willing to listen to those resisting your organisation’s gender inequality initiative. Rather than shaming or sidelining, bring men into the conversation by creating spaces for diverse views and experiences to be expressed: “When people can have their say and talk about their own beliefs (and biases and fears) without being shut down, they are more likely to be open to other messages.”

That being said, researchers for VicHealth also recommend focusing efforts on those you can influence, as entrenched opposition won’t be convinced. Instead, focus on:

  • leaders: getting senior leadership involved is vital for moving gender equality from the discussion stage to implementing real change

  • allies: males who are committed to equality and can join your network of support, and

  • the “moveable middle” – people who are unconvinced or curious but can be convinced of the benefits of gender equality.

4.  Articulate the benefits of gender equality for men

Appealing to a sense of altruism will only get you so far when convincing others of the need for change. Rather than framing your change agenda solely in terms of equality and social justice, make sure you let both men and women know what’s in it for them. This may include:

  • Equality is better for business: McKinsey & Co found that top-quartile companies with gender diversity in executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to outperform their peers in terms of EBIT margin, and 27 per cent more likely to outperform their peers on longer-term value creation.

  • Gender equality improves the talent pool and makes your organisation more attractive to top female talent.

  • Gender equality, as with other types of diversity, makes your organisation more relevant to its customers

  • Better work-life balance: organisations that intend to attract top female talent usually offer flexible working hours and other work-life balance improvements that will benefit men, too.

  • Men will be less likely to face disapproval or be otherwise penalised for choosing a non-traditional career decision such as taking extended parental leave or taking time off to be the primary carer for their children.

5. Understand the different forms of resistance

Resistance to change can come in a variety of forms, including:

  • Denial of the problem or the credibility of the case for change.

  • Inaction, or refusal to implement a change initiative.

  • Appeasement: placating or pacifying those advocating for change in order to limit its impact.

  • Repression, which involves reversing or dismantling a change initiative.

  • Backlash: active, aggressive opposition to the change initiative.

Keep in mind that while backlash may not be openly expressed at the office, online forums are a different matter. Policies may need to be put in place to prevent online abuse stemming from discontent with gender equality initiatives.

Talk to us about minimising male backlash to gender equality in your organisation.