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Stereotyped views of men and simplistic, oppositional “men vs women” thinking hamper men and women from finding common ground and being allies in the quest for gender equality.

By lumping men together into a singular, static and dominant grouping with a blanket narrative, those working for workplace diversity and gender equality risk losing the opportunity for men’s participation in creating more equitable and inclusive organisations.

“It’s too complicated” is not a good enough excuse for apathy and lack of urgency in improving gender relations, says University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) PhD candidate Kabelo Gildenhuys on International Men’s Day [19 November].

“We need to resist the kneejerk response that achieving gender equality is too complicated and thus impossible, but at the same time we need to avoid shortcut solutions that don’t recognise the complexity of individuals and their personal stories.”

“Far too often, the prevailing narratives about gender equality divide us, and we miss out on engaging a crucial constituency – men – who should be on board and not just in the boardroom if inclusion is to work at work,” he said.

In an article in the Women’s Report, of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), he argues that a simplistic “us vs them” approach to gender equality comes at a cost: “Missing out on the complexity of the issues, and the unique identity needs of the people concerned.”

Linked to the “Movember” initiative to promote awareness of men’s health issues, International Men’s Day has improving gender relations and promoting gender equality for both men and women as one of its key pillars. This year’s theme is “Better relations between men and women”.

Gildenhuys said that scholarly perspectives of men in diversity management literature blanket-labelled them as dominant group members, “conveniently omitting the human side of men and avoiding the sticky, but salient, issue of identity”.

“Prevailing narratives about men fail to consider how the need for identity, a sense of self in relation to the outside world, forms a crucial part of why men might feel threatened by calls for gender equality — why support something that seemingly excludes you? Where their identity is not considered, the result is an unmet human need.”

He said that the field of mediation and conflict management offered insights to enabling men and women to find common ground, by moving from labels to a more complex and representative view of men as humans with individual identities, experiences and needs.

On polarising issues such as gender equality, mediators “widen the lens” from an individual to all the factors that have contributed to their experience and identity, in order to create a more complete perspective, provide context and a view of all sides of the story, which enables all parties to feel heard and included.

“By layering the narrative about men with information about communities, social norms, religious teachings, physical limitations, and competitive barriers, we provide a starting point for mutual recognition of human complexity in the quest for gender equality.”

“Complexity, when viewed from a mediator’s mindset, can be a source of inspiration. Complexity, when properly managed, can lead to more common ground between opposites, and thus increase the possibility of more mutually enriching interactions between men and women”, Gildenhuys said.

He said that encouraging men to share their experiences and stories – “an approach of curiosity and inquiry” – would be a more constructive way of gaining the buy-in of men and creating the space for solution-orientated collaboration between men and women, rather than opposition and alienation.

Adding complexity to prevailing narratives about men would create a better chance of engaging them to become allies of women, finding mutually-healing solutions, and removing barriers to improving gender relations and equality.

“International Men’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the limitations that prevailing simplistic and deliberately oppositional narratives about men hold for women’s workplace equality and gender relations. For diversity management to maximise inclusion, resistance should be minimised, which is why the support of men is indispensable.”

“On 19 November, we can all choose to add richness to and widen the scope of these narratives, and improve gender relations to the benefit of all.”


About the Women’s Report:

The Women’s Report is an annual publication and web-based resource providing thought-provoking, evidence-driven insights into the lived experiences of women at work in South Africa. The report, sponsored by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and distributed in partnership with the South African Board for People Practices (SABPP), is available at www.womensreport.africa