By Michael Kimmel. When speaking about diversity and gender equality, I’m frequently challenged about how the culture of political correctness can actually hinder real equality. Mandates, quotas, targets—they can seem to “collectivize” individual experiences and aspirations, forcing some people forward who might not want it, and indefensibly, holding others back.
These challenges are often a mixture of personal anxiety and political discomfort. The personal anxiety stems, in part, from a fear that one might be replaced, that one’s hold on one’s position is not as firm as one might have thought. Yes, being the beneficiaries of affirmative-action makes you worry that you haven’t really earned the position you hold. You might have gotten it because you are white, or male, or straight, or because you remind the boss of his self when he was your age—and not because you were the most qualified.
Meritocracy sucks when you’ve been the beneficiary of discrimination. Who wants to play on an even playing field when it’s been tilted towards you for so long you think it’s actually level?
But I want to address the political part of the discomfort for a moment. I think that despite our official political proclamations, we’re actually afraid of equality.
We’re raised in a culture of difference and inequality. And we believe there is a relationship between them. Different talents, different motivations, different abilities, different ambitions will, naturally and inevitably, lead to different outcomes. The idea of meritocracy holds that hard work, discipline and talent will pay off; that unequal outcomes (some people have more than others) is the natural and inevitable result of difference. Inequality is the reward for different applications of talent.
Now, think about how we think of equality. We think of equality as synonymous with sameness. We fear that economic equality will look like communism—everyone gets the exact same amount, no matter how hard we work or how ambitious we are. Equality rewards sloth, indolence, dependency.
And we think of this socially also. Remember those commercials several years ago for Wendy’s, the fast-food chain? In a Soviet-style fashion show everyone looked alike, talked alike, dressed alike (and was equally unattractive).
That’s what we think real equality looks like: sameness. Equal outcomes mean that some are punished for their initiative; others are rewarded for their indolence.
When it comes to gender, this fear that equality equals sameness is expressed as a fear of androgyny. Male and female blended together in some ambivalent soup, the “heavenly ecstasies” of difference somehow “drowned in the icy water” of blandness, as Max Weber might have said.
I believe that fear is misplaced. Gender equality does not mean de-gendering people— making women and men the same. It means de-gendering traits, attitudes, and behaviors. Gender equality recognizes that there is nothing inherently masculine about being assertive and ambitious (two human traits that are coded as masculine) nor anything inherently feminine about being loving and kind (two traits coded as feminine).
The movement for gender equality has nearly accomplished the first half: women have made it clear that they can be as assertive and ambitious as men. It’s the second half we need to work on: men recognizing that love, nurture and compassion are deeply human traits, and that we express our humanity, not our “feminine side,” when we embrace them.
Gender equality embraces and recognizes difference between women and men, and the much larger differences among women and among men. In a gender equal world, we won’t necessarily become more like each other. Instead, we’ll become more truly ourselves.
Michael Kimmel is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today. He is Distinguished professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University, where he directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Kimmel is the author of more than 20 books, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History, which was hailed as the definitive work in the field.