White men have been the beneficiaries of the greatest affirmative action program of all time. It’s called world history.
People often ask me why men don’t support gender equality in the workplace. After all, if you looked at it from an ethical standpoint, it’s as American as apple pie: it’s the right thing to do, it’s fair. You know, with “liberty and justice for all” and all that.
That argument, what we might call the ethical imperative – supporting something because it’s right – doesn’t necessarily resonate with a large number of men. That’s not because men are “bad” or “stupid” or anything of the kind. Partly, it’s that those abstract principles feel so remote and distant, as if you could agree with it in the abstract and not really
do anything about it.
Actually, most men are quietly – and without much ideological shift – accommodating themselves to greater gender equality in their homes and in their workplaces. In many cases we’re more egalitarian in the concrete than in the abstract.
But I think we need to go further than simple accommodation. We need to embrace gender equality because not only is it right and fair and just, but because it is in our interests as men
to do so.
In order to do that though, we need to get underneath the ethical imperative, underneath the casual statement of general support for equality “as long as it doesn’t hurt me.” We need to untangle that knot, examine the equation that somehow gender equality is a loss for men.
Many men see gender equality as a zero sum game: if women win, men lose. There are only so many positions at the top, right? So if women get half of them, then there are fewer of them for us. Affirmative action, diversity awareness, and gender equality projects are thus seen as actively discriminating against men.
Looked at another way, though, we’d have to admit that white men have been the beneficiaries of the greatest affirmative action program of all time. It’s called world history. By excluding women, we’d insured that we stood a far better chance of getting those positions. Equality can feel pretty unfair when you haven’t had to share any of your toys before.
This historical affirmative action program led to a psychological barrier that keeps men from often embracing gender equality. Let me tell you a little story:
Not long ago, I appeared on a television talk show opposite three “angry white males” who felt they had been the victims of workplace discrimination. The show’s title, no doubt to entice a large potential audience, was “A Black Woman Stole My Job.” Each of the men described how they were passed over for jobs or promotions for which they believed themselves qualified. Then it was my turn to respond. I said I had one question about one word in the title of the show. I asked them about the word “my.” Where did they get the idea it was “their” job? Why wasn’t the show called “A Black Woman Got a
Job” or “A Black Woman Got the
These men felt the job was “theirs” because they felt entitled to it, and when some “other” person - black, female - got the job, that person was really taking what was “rightfully” theirs. “It seems like if you’re a white male you don’t have a chance,” commented a young man to then-New York Times
columnist Anna Quindlen a decade ago. The young man went to a college where 5% of his classmates were black. “What the kid really meant is that he no longer has the edge,” she wrote of the encounter,
that the rules of a system that may have served his father will have changed. It is one of those good-old-days constructs to believe it was a system based purely on merit, but we know that’s not true. It is a system that once favored him, and others like him. Now sometimes – just sometimes – it favors someone different.
I think it’s hard, really hard, to change that mindset. We were raised to be Don Drapers
, Alpha males, casually, uncritically entitled to a gender order that is vertical, hierarchical. And now we feel we have to be more Al Gore-esque Beta-males, oriented to equality, horizontally.
But change we shall - and not just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also in our interests to embrace gender equality. The empirical evidence is clear: at the corporate level, those companies that embrace diversity and enable everyone (including white men) to feel included and valued have lower rates of absenteeism and job turnover, and higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity. And personally, the more equal our relationships, the happier and healthier everyone will be. This personal part will be the subject of my next blog post.