Posted: 29 Aug. 2018 15 min. read

Navigating the gender equity backlash

Insights from a male D&I practitioner

We spoke with Roman Ruzbacky, President of The Equal Employment Opportunity Network in Victoria, to discuss the apparent increase in backlash towards gender diversity initiatives and how organisations can build strategies which engage both men and women.

Roman Ruzbacky presents his perspective as a D&I practitioner working to improve gender equity since the late 1990s. Throughout his career, he has developed gender equity strategies, addressed discrimination and sexual harassment complaints, conducted numerous pay equity analyses, and prepared ten successful applications for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) Employer of Choice citations.

What is the nature of the recent backlash towards gender equity initiatives?

The backlash is coming in a few different ways, which I would classify into three categories.

Outright anger: It has been perceived in some circles that the middle-aged white male has become an “endangered species”. They may feel a sense of personal threat to their opportunities for career progression. So every attempt to even the playing field is met by loud and aggressive opposition, including claims of reverse discrimination. I think these men feel that they are losing their privilege.

Passive fear: Perhaps more and more men are supporting backlash passively, because they remain silent on the topic. Their backlash takes the form of avoidance or zero acknowledgement, meaning that they worry about saying the wrong thing and therefore tend not to engage or are uncomfortable about how to enter the conversation.

Concerns about being labelled: Men are worried about being labelled or called out for being sexist, when they are personally supportive of equality objectives. They resent being misjudged or being asked to explain the behaviours of “bad men”. For this group, there is a feeling that all men are being labelled as bad.

It seems that backlash is an intense form of resistance. Do you have examples of resistance to your work as a D&I practitioner?

When I first started working in the gender equality space, the resistance usually started from a reluctance within the organisation to establish an evidence base, for example, conducting a pay equity analysis or looking at issues related to under-representation of women in leadership. I conducted pay equity analyses for an organisation, but seeing how bad the results were, I was sworn to secrecy and the figures were later fudged.

In another instance, I was involved in setting up a development program for women. A year after the program started, it was obvious that the program was a spectacular success. The backlash then came from some of the executive men who now realised that this group of capable women might gain a seat at the leadership table and they worked to derail the program.

However, the intensity of effort in this work has increased, our narrative matured and our collective consciousness lifted, so we have a better understanding of why we are doing the work and why the progress has been hindered for some time.

What are the reasons for the resistance to equality objectives?

There are a few reasons in my mind as to why backlash happens.

One major reason is many people don’t understand what the evidence is saying and so they tend to be dismissive of D&I initiatives. There may be lack of a basic understanding of the key evidence which shows that under-representation, under-utilisation and discrimination (or a softer term, unconscious bias) permeate society, and go way back in time.

There is also low consciousness of workplace gender issues. Let me give you an example. I once worked for an organisation that had an executive team of eight men and one woman and an overall pay gap of 20% between men and women. However, their culture survey results showed that 95% of their employees (including the women) thought that their immediate supervisor genuinely supported equality between women and men. I couldn’t see how this result was even celebrated. I wondered if people had become used to the homogeneity and no longer saw anything wrong with it.

Our social conditioning (including the influence of social media) may contribute to how we perceive women in leadership, culture, power or authority, in an Australian context. The lack of diversity in politics, mainstream media, TV shows and commercials, helps to normalise stereotypes. And when women try to break through those stereotypes, they experience resistance.

The other reason is that the conversation around targets, quotas and positions designed for women-only is perceived by some as too interventionist and a type of reverse discrimination. What they fail to understand is that quotas are the last resort and are usually introduced after years of nudging people towards equality outcomes or throwing everything into strategies that have not been fully effective.

Another reason is that men in the middle of the organisation are being left out of the gender equity conversation. Virginia Haussegger’s (Australian) research showed that 46% of men believe that gender equality strategies do not take men into account. A gender equity expert recently made a suggestion at a D&I conference that a coalition of male CEOs and men and women in the middle of the organisation may help get more men engaged in gender equity.

The last reason for the backlash is that the lack of men in developing and driving D&I efforts may unconsciously exclude strategies to engage men and achieve gender equity, for example, parental leave provisions and encouraging men to work in traditionally feminised industries.

Perhaps writing from my own male lens it is interesting to see women advocating for men to achieve gender equality. For instance, recent articles about parental leave usually show the photo of a baby being held up in the air by a father. This seems to be the familiar stock standard representation of a father. But, if I was a single father, stepfather, foster father, in a same sex relationship, the imaging would look different. My point is that people (or men in this case) who don’t see themselves accurately represented in these situations, can feel excluded or misrepresented.

This brings us to a bigger issue that few men work in HR departments and D&I, where most gender equity work occurs. If we don’t have more men doing D&I work, then gender equity may still be perceived as a women’s issue.

How can organisations approach D&I differently to bring everyone on the journey and not isolate majority groups?

Organisations need to see D&I/equity proficiency and practice as a key management attribute.

I think there may be a general lack of ‘gender scholarship’ or proficiency in workplaces. Does the layperson need more information about the evidence for gender inequity? With a quick search on the internet, I can find current gender equity data showing the under-representation and under-utilisation of women in Australian workplaces. For example, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s August (2018) Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance. This information would fast-track the conversation in gender equity and really give a clear narrative and rationale for doing the work.

With Australia’s population boom, there is an increased pool of emerging talent coming to Australia. With this growth you would expect to see more room at the top (leadership) in some professions, for example, the finance, service, health, education, transport, hospitality and even building industries. Gender equity strategies may need to become more sophisticated and consider gender and race together, or gender and other diversity dimensions.

Finally, the lack of male engagement and self-initiation over the long course of D&I work leads me to believe that structured spaces are not created for the critical conversations about gender equity in workplaces and to invite men at all organisational levels to be part of those conversations. I’m hoping this conversation will bring a few more men in the D&I and HR spaces to inform future discussion and change in organisations.

For further information contact Shilpa Didla


Roman Ruzbacky, Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Practitioner
President, Equal Employment Opportunity Network (EEON)

More about the author