Left behind: Are gender equality measures excluding men?

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Perceptions of both the fairness and impacts of gender equality measures can help to either promote greater equity or, conversely, create barriers to their uptake. In today’s post, Pia Rowe of University of Canberra’s 50/50 by 2030 Foundation shares highlights from their recently-released report From Girls to Men: Social Attitudes to Gender Equality in Australia (co-authored with Mark Evans, Virginia Haussegger and Max Halupka).


“People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn’t, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.”

-Prof Alessandro Strumia, 1 Oct 2018, The BBC

Arguments for ‘reverse sexism’

Despite significant shifts in the public debate, highlighting in particular the need to ‘engage men’, gender equality is still often erroneously thought of as a ‘women’s issue’. At its worst this may lead to two things: If women are seen as the problem, then it stands to reason that women are also the ones needing to be ‘fixed’. Consequently, if the measures to improve gender equality are perceived to be focusing solely on women, there is a real risk that men may start feeling left out.

Anecdotally, we’ve already witnessed several high profile and public cases of this in recent years. Former Google engineer James Damore gained instant global infamy with his highly publicized memo, which among other things claimed that women were underrepresented in tech because of their biological attributes. Since being fired from his job, Damore has filed a class action lawsuit against his former employer, arguing that the tech giant discriminates against white male conservatives.

More recently, Damore’s sentiments were echoed by the prominent Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia, who argued that the widely documented bias against women in science is nothing but ‘cultural Marxism’, and that the ‘actual victims of gender discrimination are male scientists’ who lose jobs to lesser qualified women due to gender equality measures and political correctness.


Perceptions of gender equality in Australia

But to what extent does this viewpoint actually apply in Australia? While we have certainly not been immune to the backlash, for example as demonstrated by the social media response to the Federal Police’s female only recruitment last year, up until now the data regarding attitudes and perceptions about gender equality has been thematic and fragmented. 

A woman’s world -? There are perceptions that gender equality measures are harming men.  Photo credit: ABC News .

A woman’s world -? There are perceptions that gender equality measures are harming men. Photo credit: ABC News.

The 50/50 by 2030 Foundation’s new survey, From girls to men: Social attitudes to gender equality in Australia reveals some worrying trends. From a nationally representative sample (2,122 Australians), nearly half of all male respondents (46% men vs 26% women) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that workplace gender equality strategies do not take men into account, with millennial males most likely to report feelings of being left out; see Table 1.

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Millennial males were also significantly more likely (48%) to agree/strongly agree with the stronger statement of ‘Men and boys are increasingly excluded from measures to improve gender equality’, followed by Gen Z males at 44% (Table 2).

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Gender equality measures alone, however, are not the only thing that are paradoxically perceived to cause, rather than fix, existing inequalities. The highly contested concept of freedom of speech again revealed significant gender differences, with men far more likely to say that political correctness benefits women in the workplace (41% men vs 23% women) (Table 3).  Again, millennial males were most likely to agree/strongly agree (43%) with the statement.

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However, when it came to perceptions about actually being able to say what you think, the generational differences shifted, with the older generations more likely to agree/strongly agree that it acts as a silencer in the workplace. The gender differences in general were also pronounced, with 54% of men believing that political correctness hinders their ability to speak freely compared to 40% of women (Table 4).

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Perceptions matter

These results give us significant cause for concern. The fact that the younger generations of men view themselves as outsiders, actively excluded from what is now increasingly one of the key debates in many workplaces, indicates that there is no room for complacency if we want to avoid a full-blown backlash on our home soil. Perceptions are powerful, and facts and statistics alone won’t be able to address the problem. 

This goes beyond just simply engaging men in the debate. While identifying key messages regarding the universal benefits of gender equality is an essential component, more attention is required on establishing best practice methods to advance the cause so that no one, regardless of their gender – or any other attribute for that matter – feels alienated.

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 This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.