Resistance to women’s equality in the workplace and wider society

Are we seeing the beginnings of a backlash against women’s equality?  Two in five Britons think efforts to champion women’s equality are so robust that men are being discriminated against, a major new study has suggested. The research, carried out by King’s College London and Ipsos, found that 53 per cent of men but only a third of women take the viewpoint.

In an article on the same study  in the Telegraph  it was reported that just over one half (52%) of GenZ and (53%) of millennials felt women’s rights had gone too far and  broken down by sex this was 55% of men and 41% of women.

Kelly Beaver MBE, the Chief Executive of Ipsos, UK and Ireland, said: “Our ongoing research into gender equality shows that we have made significant progress with nearly half of people now agreeing equality will be achieved within their lifetime. “

“However, there are signs that the public are starting to push back on this progress to date, which is potentially worrying, but it may also be a sign that real change is happening in society and change can often make people uncomfortable and resistant.

The role of resistance to women’s equality both in the workplace and in wider society doesn’t get a lot of attention but it has been there from the start.

Over the years working with mostly senior men in workshops about male culture and its impact on women in their organisation I became accustomed  to feeling the resistance in the room. It was usually expressed by exaggerated  displays of boredom, looking  distractedly at phones ( which I then insisted were turned off  in my workshops), non-participation or downright hostility (the latter being the easiest to deal with!) I understood. Having one’s viewpoint and behaviour challenged is profoundly uncomfortable and as human beings we are always resistant to change. The best route I found and still do is to use humour.  

Cynthia Cockburn wrote a book in 1991 called “In the Way of Women: Men’s Resistance to Sex Equality in Organisations” that was very influential in my own thinking. In it she showed, through four case studies, the myriad of ways in which women’s equality was resisted.  I echoed this theme in my book Women’s Work Men’s Cultures: Understanding Resistance and Changing Organisational Cultures. Within organisations we can view many of the barriers to women’s progress in the workplace as forms of resistance.

“Cultural impediments arise in discourses and interaction and influence what women and men think feel and do”  (Cockburn)

Many of the intangible barriers around informal socialising, humour, banter can be interpreted as ways of saying to women “you don’t really belong here”. The higher the status the job (the better paid) the more likely it will be defended by barriers.

The pushback against identity politics and what is frequently called ‘wokeism’ has not helped women’s equality work either as commentators often ignorantly put all kinds of diversity initiatives into one basket – the good and the bad – and  positive gender equality initiatives are unfairly included.  

Organisations reflect wider social values too and there I see a backlash to women’s progress manifested in a number of ways (See Susan Faludi’s book Backlash in which she  recorded the historical  resistance to women’s equality). There are different means of  resistance; they may be religious, legal or merely ideological. As legal and physical force is used less in the West – unlike in countries like Afghanistan and Iran – ideological means are the most common. We are all influenced by wider culture and those who have the most resources to influence the cultural environment will dominate what we see and hear about a subject.

I see resistance and backlash to women’s progress currently expressed through:

  • the increased sexualisation of women and young girls which serves as a reminder that we are in the end mere bodies for men’s enjoyment.  
  • This sexualisation and objectification of women is evidenced through the  huge increase and availability of pornography much of it showing violence to and degradation of women  and
  • through the increasing acceptance of prostitution by validating it as ‘work’.  Prostitution de humanises women and reduces their bodies to objects to be sold to men for their pleasure.
  • the diminishment of the importance of biological sex as the dominant social category.  If the sex class of women can be diluted down enough to include men then that class is delegitimised and meaningless. Feminism requires a coherent definition of women as has been in existence over centuries hence it is weakened.

Awareness of backlash and resistance helps to fight against it, whether this is in organisations or wider society. It can come in the form of common sense –e.g.  the idealisation of motherhood following the second world war which encouraged women back into the home or even appear part of a progressive movement like the sex work is work discourse. But the result is the same – the status of women is lowered and progress can be halted