Looking for the silences – about masculinity and organisations

Walking along the London South Bank on Sunday evening I passed a restaurant where a group of twenty-something men were standing greeting a number of their mates.  They all hugged and kissed.

For a moment, on seeing the hugs and kisses, I was taken aback and then amused for reacting. But it led me to reflect on what made me feel that discomfort; the social change that has happened and is happening and on what it is to be “acceptably” masculine.  It led me to think about how those social changes may create a more inclusive working culture and power structures which do not exclude.

Another issue swings into play at this point:  I have always had that creeping doubt that fixing women was ever the answer, or went anyway near answering gender inequality.  For instance I argue, not against women networks, but for their being more focused on the politics and power of why women are not well represented.  I am frustrated, too, at the lack of ambition of the 30% Club.  Avivah Wittenberg-Cox sums it all up brilliantly in her recent blog:  Your company doesn’t need a women’s network

So let’s instead look at masculinity and power.  This theme is represented in academic literature by the work of Raewyn Connell who suggested that masculinity – ‘hegemonic masculinity’ structures our thinking and social interactions and holds the status quo in place.  So in relation to organisations examples such as: the long hours culture; the limited acceptance of part-time or flexible working; the implicit disapproval of  maternity leave; the career penalty paid for having children;  the machismo behaviours of senior management meetings; the alpha male ideal, unequal pay and even unconscious bias; – all these phenomenon are rooted in hegemonic masculine structures.

Women, as well as men are ‘victims’ as well as upholders of the status quo which rules some discussions in and others out.  So it is OK to tell women to ‘lean in’ but not OK to question the culture and politics which makes ‘leaning in’ such an astute observation nor is it OK  to consider any alternatives to it that we can invent.  I recall a meeting where I addressed perhaps two hundred people, mostly men, about the need for better gender balance at senior levels.  The only passionately dissenting voice was a woman’s who accused me of wanting to promote women who lacked skills and ability.  In other words “second class citizens” – I proposed nothing of the sort but perhaps most people heard me say that.

Although in order to be a victim, you need to be conscious of it… and this is the point and power of Connell and her associates’ work.  Structure dictates thought and it takes the change agent with courage to set other agendas.   In the 1970s Peter Tatchell stood up for an alternative view of society and was reviled, laughed at and thought a dangerous nut-case.  He carried on.  Today he is honoured as a human rights activist, who brought into the national consciousness ideas which were ruled out by the mainstream; he questioned homophobic hysteria and helped usher in those young men’s freedoms to be affectionate and loving to each other without their masculinity being questioned.

But how does this all relate back to the organisation?  Well, Diversity & Inclusion professionals just don’t talk enough about men and different sorts of masculinities and we don’t talk enough about how the organisations of today still reflect the masculine organisations of the 19th century which are no longer fit for today’s world.   Still less do we consider the likelihood of alternatives and change.

So how do we create that change?    Bordieu offers insights into the imposition of categories of thoughts and perceptions which limit how we understand and evaluate the world, but just as importantly indicates the possibilities for change that exist outside  the invisible rules and regulations of our cultures.  Financial Times journalist and Anthropologist Gillian Tett says: “Journalist should take nothing for granted but instead, look at all the silences in the world and ask: why?”  She should know: she looked at the silences in the financial world – warning of the potential for disaster, years before the crash.

So if we insert Diversity & Inclusion professionals for ‘Journalists’  we can  understand her suggestion for our own work and start to look carefully at our organisations to see what is left unsaid.


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