How much is too much? Thoughts on resistance to gender change

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Author: Pierre Brouard

How far can we push our colleagues on gender change? As a gender change agent in my own workplace, I have found that the answer to this question is: “it depends”!

Resistance to change in general is one factor – not everyone responds well to it because change disrupts what we know and usually do – but where gender is concerned, it’s often very personal. Our very own beliefs and practices are placed under a microscope and it can be an uncomfortable experience. And we also know that our capacity for change, our flexibility and willingness to compromise, can depend on a number of other variables: our current mood or circumstances, other pressures we may be facing, our work satisfaction, and even the extent to which we have been consulted about the change.

A recent article on this topic highlighted some interesting themes in resistance to gender change:

  • This resistance can be hidden and undermining, not always obvious. For example, subtly sexist comments aimed at a women leader in a high-level meeting. “It was just a joke” often hides a more sinister intent.
  • Seeing gender change as about taking power from men (a dominant group) and giving it to women (a subordinate group). The idea that power is something to be fought over – a “zero sum” game of “either I have power or you have power” – means that the battle lines get drawn very early on. Opportunities for sharing and compromise fly out of the window because people (often men) take an “all or nothing” approach to power.
  • People who have been used to being in charge, because they are men, suddenly face closer scrutiny about their abilities and contributions. Male privilege often means that men are the “default” for competence and promotion. When gender equity changes happen, and women are eligible for positions previously held by men, those men may be held to a higher standard, or asked to account for how they have performed. This is uncomfortable, and one strategy men may adopt is to undermine gender change, to protect themselves from being looked at too closely.
  • A focus on “women’s needs”, so that the workplace is more inclusive, can be ridiculed by men as making the workplace too “soft”, or is seen as “feminising” the workplace and moving away from productivity and hard work. The fact is that these changes do not make workplaces less efficient, they may them more inclusive, and everyone is on board to be the best they can.
  • Questions of equal pay for equal work are reduced to “what can the company afford”? Not surprisingly, it is the women who are being asked to accept that equal pay “will come in due course”. Resistance framed in a narrow “business sense” argument does not factor in the idea that equal pay may itself be a good business decision in the longer term.
  • Recognising men’s titles but not women’s is a way of “informalising” women’s achievements. We often call women by their first names in the workplace, or drop their titles because women are, stereotypically, more comfortable with informal communication styles. This has the effect of minimising their achievements and making them appear less professional. In one US study of more than 300 MD/PhD introductions, men introduced 72% of men as “Dr.” but introduced only 49% of women as “Dr.” Women, on the other hand, introduced speakers as “Dr.” regardless of their gender.”

In my own work at the University of Pretoria, I can think of at least one instance where resistance to gender change manifested itself.

Over the last few years I helped to develop a guideline protocol for working with staff and students who are diverse in terms of gender (they may be transgender, intersex, or simply not easily fitting into neat gender categories).

To bring this protocol to the point where it was formally adopted by the university as part of our anti-discrimination policy, I had to engage with a range of stakeholders, and to build enough consensus for this change to be possible. Here are my reflections on some resistance I experienced, noting that there was also a lot of support!

  • People made a lot of jokes! It is “easy” to make jokes about trans people, or people who are not gender conforming, because they have less social power and can easily be humiliated or embarrassed. On social media, when our university’s trans initiative became more widely known, there were jokes about gender and wondering “where this would end”.
  • We had to persuade the university to allow students, for example, to self-identify (names, pronouns, gender marker) on our online platforms. In fact, this was not difficult to set up, from a technology point of view, but part of the initial reluctance, I believe, was informed by the idea that “we are giving students too much power”! In a system where university administrations are like parents towards students, you can see that handing power back to people to self-identify seemed a step too far.
  • Focussing on the rights of trans and gender diverse people made some people uncomfortable because they were being asked to challenge their belief systems about gender. The resistance was also expressed through the language of “but why are we making all these changes for such a small number of people”? Apart from the fact that inclusion is precisely about recognising all the different groups in our workplaces, irrespective of number, we argued that increasing the chances for people to self-identify on our online platforms made everyone feel this was a safe and inclusive workplace!
  • Finally, resistance showed itself when people authorised to make changes to online naming systems, for example, insisted that they needed someone higher than them to authorise these changes. In fact, there was already authorisation for these changes, but it took an explicit instruction from a senior person to make it happen.

Gender change is almost never painless. What I learned from this experience is that for some people, any change is too much. Usually the status quo suits them. For other people, change is both exciting and necessary. Usually the status quo has not been kind to them.

If you are planning or running a gender change project, remember that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but change is necessary to redistribute power and build inclusivity. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done.