Men vs. women: Broadening our narratives about men on International Men’s Day

November 19 marks International Men’s Day, coinciding with what is better known as ‘Movember’, an initiative created to help raise awareness about men’s health issues. International Men’s Day also draws attention to the challenges related to workplace diversity and inclusion faced by men. The 2021 theme is aptly: Improving gender relations between men and women.

With so much going on around us, it is understandable that, when we consider workplace gender equality, it would be more convenient to opt for a simplistic narrative: men vs. women; us vs. them; radical transformation or no transformation at all. While this approach might provide some much-needed psychological relief from the utter inundation of information we all suffer, it also comes at a cost: missing out on the complexity of the issues at hand and, in this case, potentially neglecting a whole identity group — men.

By indiscriminately simplifying the complex narratives related to men in managing gender relations, we risk omitting subtle yet critical complexities, such as their unique identity concerns. Our penchant for reverting to extremist epithets such as ‘it is too complicated’ is too readily exercised, and does nothing to justify our apathy and lack of urgency when it comes to improving gender relations between men and women.

Discussions around gender, and men, in particular, tend to oscillate between oversimplification and succumbing to the limitation of thinking it is too complicated. Given the slow pace of change towards the creation of a more just society, I think it is safe to say that ‘business as usual' has not worked.

Some of the prevailing narratives (particularly prevalent in diversity management literature) about men paint a rather static view of them, such as that they are merely a singular, dominant group. That said, dominant group theory — which explains the insularity and arrogance of the dominant — can be helpful in explaining the status threat felt by men, “born of a sense that the outgroup is doing too well and thus, is a viable threat to [their] own dominant group status.”(1) Scholarly perspectives of men such as this conveniently omit the human side of each man pejoratively labelled a dominant group member. In short, the narrative avoids the sticky but salient issue of identity. As a result, it fails to acknowledge men’s changing position in society. A case in point is the increasingly ostracised position of white blue-collar workers in the USA.(2) Members of this constituency feel that the ‘new elite’ — women, immigrants, and racial minorities — are jumping the queue at the expense of these men, making the men oppositional to public programmes, even those that would also improve their own quality of life.

Similarly, in South Africa, where the debates around race and gender are often intertwined, the simplistic view of white men fails to account for nuances such as when “both black and white males feel discriminated against by female competitors.”(3) Prevailing narratives about men fail to include the various ways in which identity needs form a crucial part of why men might feel threatened by calls for gender equality — why support something that seemingly excludes you? Both men and women of all races need to self-reflect while bearing in mind that self-interest is the common denominator across race and gender.

As a possible remedy, we should avoid shortcut solutions devoid of complexity. In our haste to find solutions, we forget that we are dealing with complex individuals with rich personal narratives. By lumping men into a singular grouping with a blanket narrative, we fail to gain a deeper understanding of the multivariate experiences of men, who have to adapt to changes related to increasing diversity in all spheres of society. Left unaddressed, we risk indefinitely forgoing their participation as part of creating more inclusive and gender-equitable organisations.(4)

I recently came across Solution Journalism, an initiative to address the issue of polarisation in the media. Spearheaded by the Centre for Understanding Conflict in New York and headed by journalist Amanda Ripley, the focus of Solution Journalism is to transfer some of the insights from the field of mediation to journalism.(5) This includes changing the way journalists report on polarising issues through a move to widen the lens and ‘complicate’ the narrative. Whereas the typical approach would be to focus on a portrait of an individual, there should also be due consideration of “the neighbourhood, the family, the church and the government and all the things that have contributed to that person’s experience.”(6) By taking a more complex view, a more complete perspective can be created about polarising issues, to provide context and a nuanced view of the other side of a story. When taking this perspective, all parties to the debate are more likely to feel heard and included, and would be less inclined to revert to extreme measures to have their grievances recognised. This sense of being heard creates new links between stories, and thus also grievances that, at face value, would be regarded as opposites.

Advocates for improving workplace gender relations and inclusion face the similar and just as daunting task of overcoming polarisation and forestalling an indefinite stay in ‘apathetic lane’. Far too often, the prevailing narratives related to gender equality divide us, and we miss out on engaging a crucial constituency — men — who should be on board and not just in the boardroom if inclusion is to work at work.

Conflict expert John Burton’s focus on human needs theory in relation to conflict describes identity “as a sense of self in relation to the outside world.”(7) However, what is often ignored by prevailing narratives related to men is instances where their identity is not considered legitimate, resulting in an unmet human need. Drawing on the example of the Solution Journalism project, a possible corrective to this imbalance from the conflict management field would be to create richer, more complex, and more human views about men, to legitimise their identity needs. By layering narratives with information about communities, social norms, religious teachings, physical limitations, and competitive barriers, we provide a starting point for mutual recognition of human complexity in the quest for gender equality.

Dr Peter Mark Roget, in his book It’s not complicated: The art and science of complexity for business, explains that “consciously managing complexity in a business context is broadly a function of four different strategies or tactics. They are: (1) recognize which type of system you are dealing with; (2) think ‘manage, not solve’; (3) employ a ‘try, learn, and adapt’ operating strategy; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, (4) develop a complexity mindset.”(8) Unfortunately, we seem to be more receptive to advice for dealing with complexity as it relates to other social and organisational challenges, but when it comes to gender, and particularly the complexity of multiple narratives related to men, we tend to opt-out.

However, if individuals in this society are to thrive in the 21st century, we need not only cultivate a 'complexity mindset', but also the capacity to handle complexity wisely. It is here that dealing with complexity can benefit from insights from the field of conflict management in order to avoid unnecessarily complicating the journey towards the ideal of healthy relations between men and women.

By taking a more complex view of men, recognition can be obtained for the multiple and varied experiences of what it means to be a man in today’s society. An approach of curiosity and inquiry is a more constructive way of gaining the buy-in of men. We then create a space for collaboration, not alienation. In this way, a more helpful perspective can emerge, as seen in the suggestions raised during the 2020 conference Men Promoting Gender Equality held in Estonia. These suggestions included, amongst others, facilitating programmes at work to enable men to be more engaged in the household, increasing parental leave for both parents, and removing the distinction between the primary and secondary caregiver.(9) Additional and richer narratives related to men broaden the options for this identity group and create more complex, more complete, and more representative narratives of men. Thus, from the perspective of gender conflict management, a new space is created for solution-orientated exchange between — on the face of it — opposites.

In the same way, polarising journalism that advocates improving relations between men and women also stands to benefit from unorthodox insights to help create less polarisation. To overcome the impasse related to the prevailing narratives about men, a more complex characterisation of this identity group by the media can help us find more common ground for cooperation. This means we need to resist the kneejerk response of labelling the achievement of gender equality as too complex and thus impossible. That said, our efforts to add complexity to the gender debate should not be seen as equivalent to complicating the achievement of improved gender relations, which would only be to the detriment of finding mutually healing solutions.

Drawing on the lessons from the field of conflict management, it is time to also embrace the complexity of men through multiple narratives. Gender relations and the narratives about men might be complex and multi-faceted, but complexity, when viewed from a mediator’s mindset, can also be a source of inspiration. Complexity, when properly managed, can lead to more common ground between opposites, and thus increase the possibility of more mutually enriching interactions between men and women. Paradoxically, adding complexity to the prevailing narratives about men will create a better chance of engaging them to become allies of women, and, in so doing, remove further barriers to improved gender relations. That said, the onus is on us to consider how to introduce complexity into the prevailing narratives about men.

This International Men’s Day serves as a day of reflection on the limitations that prevailing simplistic and deliberately oppositional narratives about men hold for women’s workplace equality and gender relations. For diversity management to maximise inclusion, resistance should be minimised, which is why the support of men is indispensable(10). On 19 November, we can all choose to add richness to and widen the scope of these narratives, and improve gender relations to the benefit of all.


Kabelo Gildenhuys

Kabelo Gildenhuys is a joint PhD candidate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa and the University of Ghent, Belgium. His research explores the role of mediation when considering competing discourses about dominant group members with the aim of organisational inclusion. Kabelo holds a Master of Public Policy and Conflict Management from the University of Erfurt, Germany, and he is an alumnus of Stellenbosch University where he holds an MA in Political Science. Kabelo has a long-standing interest in the connection between social cohesion and reconciliation in South Africa.