Unconscious bias training is becoming a fixture of many big businesses. Organisations are seeking to understand how people are systemically excluded in our decision making due to the unconscious associations that we may hold about certain groups.
Whilst this subject is long overdue and critically important, I see limited attention being paid to the stereotypes we might hold about the majority and dominant groups in our workplace. These stereotypes can also be harmful and a barrier in the way to true inclusion.
Our biases are closely linked to stereotypes – which is simply the brain’s way of categorising information. Stereotyping is a universal human trait. To be human is to categorise information both consciously and unconsciously. It helps us to understand and process the complexity of the world around us. We categorise information based on our own experience and the representation of other people’s experience via cultural and media messaging. The problem is that the world doesn’t fit neatly in to boxes and the stereotypes around some identities can be incredibly harmful.
Stereotypes around masculinity
What stereotypes do you hold around masculinity? An easier route in may be to ask, what stories do you make up about men, masculinity and being male? For me, it’s words such as ‘strong’, ‘provider’, ‘capable’ and ‘leader’. If pushed (and this gets vulnerable to own pretty quickly), I might add, ‘emotion avoidant’, ‘dominant’ and ‘controlling’. These associations are based on how men are presented in our culture and also my own histories and stories.
Many of the stereotypes around men can help them in the workplace. In fact, one might say that they give them an unfair advantage. In an interview situation, a man might unconsciously be perceived as strong and as having leadership potential solely by walking through the door as a man. A woman, on the other hand, may need to lose family associations and gain leadership associations through how she answers those interview questions. But please let’s not assume the picture is entirely rosy for the male of the species.
Stereotypes can quickly morph into expectations. As women, we may find ourselves expecting these attributes from the men in our lives and as men, we may find ourselves expecting them from each other and from ourselves. The unconscious pressure on men to be strong, to be capable and to provide can be stifling. I have argued in the past that, at its most dangerous, the pressure to be strong prevents men from asking for help when it is most required and is behind the shocking male suicide rate in this country.
I also see it being played out when it is harder for men to ask for flexible working, extended parental leave or to ‘lean in’ at home. I see it being played out when men who don’t conform to these stereotypes are systemically excluded from the workplace, being told they ‘care too much’ or that they need to toughen up. They are having to battle centuries of narratives and expectations to demand fulfilment in the home sphere, just as women have had to battle to demand fulfilment outside of the home. Women will not be free to pursue their professional ambitions until it is considered as usual for men to be as present in the home as it is for women.
Bringing your full self to work
Inclusion is about being able to be yourself in the workplace and to be valued for that. What are the dangers of stereotypes? Not allowing people to express their full selves. Breaking down stereotypes supports everyone in being their full selves. Many companies talk a good game about bringing your full self to work, but few are truly living it. That’s because the behaviours associated with it are hard. Human beings are messy, imperfect and unpredictable.
We have become used to grouping together ‘white, middle-class men’ as one homogenous group in a way that we would not dream of doing with other socio-ethnic groups. We tell them they do not have the right to be part of the diversity and inclusion narrative. It is reductive and it is lazy. It is also the antithesis of inclusion.
One of the barriers we have faced, in preparing for our ‘Masculinity in the workplace’ conference, is that companies were loath to give precious resources to something that would positively benefit the dominant group, when there is so much work to be done for other groups in the workplace. This is understandable when initiatives are competing for financial support and our attention. We get it. However, we believe this is not about choosing one group over another. It is a false dichotomy. We need to come together to debate how the meaning of masculinity can evolve. This will be freeing for men, and it will also be freeing for everyone.
Masculinity in the Workplace is an event curated by HeANDShe and Token Man. It will be held on November 19th, 2018. Tickets available here.