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Backlash has been described as a complicated struggle over normativity

| August 11, 2016

Title: Backlash has been described as a complicated struggle over normativity (Robinson, 2000). What does this mean? How can the concept of backlash help us understand the relative positioning of men and women in organizations?

Abstract

Men have historically occupied an invisible, gendered space within the work environment. Their privileges compared to women, and their power compared with women, have gone unnoticed through this invisibility.   Through feminism, there has gradually arisen an awareness of these hidden inequalities, and the ways in which men have been prioritised as the ‘neutral’, over-riding voice in the workplace. This awareness has led to some redistribution of power, as women take on greater responsibility, more powerful roles, and obtain better pay. However, the consequences of this have been that men have, in some instances, started to see themselves as victims of women’s growth in the workplace through the phenomenon of backlash. Although seemingly a simple concept, backlash is complex and tricky to measure, and has a number of consequences for both men and women.   The notion of normativity helps us understand the ways in which victimhood has been appropriated by some men to reclaim the power they feel they have lost.   Ideas around backlash and normativity have had a number of repercussions for the workplace and organisational politics, some detrimental to women’s position, although there are suggestions that the right approach to equality can overcome these issues.

 

1. Introduction

The following essay will look at the concept of ‘backlash’, the notion that people are resisting structured organisational attempts to ensure that marginalised workers are employed and given opportunities for promotion. While the concept embraces a number of marginalised workers, for example people of colour and people with disabilities (Burke and Black 1997), this essay will consider only the case of ‘backlash’ for men against women employees.   Male ‘backlash’, it has been claimed, has existed for some considerable time, and is stronger now than in the past (Faludi 1991).  Backlash can be unconscious: men may be unaware that they hold the attitudes they do towards women (Burke and Black 1997).

First, the notion of ‘backlash’ will be discussed, and the ideas that it presents “a complicated struggle over normativity” (Robinson, 2000) analysed. Next, the essay will consider how the notion of backlash is useful for understanding the hierarchical relationships between men and women in organisations.

2. The Concept of Backlash

In order to understand the concept of backlash, it is first necessary to look more closely at men’s position within organisations.   It has been argued that men’s status as gendered goes unnoticed by themselves and by others within the organisation.   Men are assumed to be the norm, and to speak for the whole of human kind (Nelson 2006).  Typically, men in organisations are unaware of themselves as men, with “self-knowledge as gendered subjects … noticeably absent” (Whitehead 2001, p. 309).    However, the state of being a man means occupying one of (at least) two possible gendered positions.  While gender is a visible ‘fact’, with most (but not all) men and women being visually distinguished as such, behind this ‘fact’ “gender is enacted, and society has a pattern of practices and expectations that make this enactment visible” (Bilimoria and Kristin, 2007, p. 38).    While often seen as a genderless, cerebral environment, the workplace, no less than other cultural and social contexts, is one in which organisational decisions are made in an embodied, gendered context (Whitehead and Moodley 1999).  Within the workplace, gender differences exist both visibly and invisibly, and at a number of different levels.  One of the most important of these levels is the symbolic: the ways in which language, clothing, physical symbols, printed media and similar function to express positions about gender. Ideas, attitudes and perceptions also contribute to the complex mix of engenderment in the organisation. The social and political structures of an organisation might appear neutral, however it is likely to be based upon invisible engenderment at deeper levels (Blanpain et al 2008).

 

It should be noted, however, that recognition of the gendered nature of the workplace should not be taken as a simple binary between male and female: “transgender identities further complicate notions of the gendered subject”. Additionally, invisibilities of sexuality further complicate the matter: the relationship of lesbian to womanhood, and the gay man to masculine identities, needs also to be considered  (Melzer 2006).

 

There is an unfair balance of power between men and women in the workplace, with men generally getting better pay, conditions and holding higher positions within organisations. Women’s abilities as leaders often go unnoticed or are ignored, and the phenomenon of the ‘glass ceiling’ is well-documented (Haslett et al 1992).  This unfair balance seems to be a function of men’s invisibility as gendered subjects: if men are perceived unconsciously to be the norm, then women are by definition outside the norm, and are consequently subject to poorer work conditions including pay and promotion.

 

One reaction to this is for the oppressed groups to act to make people aware of men’s privileges and bring to light their hidden engenderment.  This opens the possibility of making the inequalities between men and women visible to all.  Mutua (2006) describes “unearned benefits” which men possess, just by being born men, and suggests that rather than seeing the inequalities between men and women in the workplace in terms of how poorly women are treated, we reverse this and look at, for example, how much more men earn on average than do women (Mutua 2006).

 

In general, there has been a concerted effort in many countries to make gender inequalities in the workplace more visible (Kabeer et al 2008). This can, however, make the privileged group – men – defensive and angry.  By making people more aware of male engenderedness, and by  bringing  the inequalities that this hides to light, ‘backlash’ can result, as men start to see themselves as victims.   As such, they begin to occupy an ambivalent position, both invisible and visible. There are reasons for men to claim both these states. Robinson suggests that men have good reason to want to be invisible, as invisibility allows them to continue to enjoy benefits that women cannot access.  However, they can also gain from being visible, and visible as an oppressed group, a victim of female power (Robinson 2000).  Faludi (1991) made the concept of ‘backlash’ popular.  While, she suggested, anti-feminist feeling has always played a part in modern America, there have been particular incidences of backlash in recent history, particularly when “women are poised to make real gains in social and political life” (Boyd 2007, p. 5).  For Faludi (1991) backlash works by presenting an opposite position as the truth, and by blaming women for wider social difficulties, that is, blaming feminism for creating problems for women, rather than offering a solution to such problems (Walby 1997)

 

The notion of ‘backlash’ is often presented as a simple reaction by men against a growth in women’s rights. However, the idea is more complex than this suggests. For example, it can cover different types of male resistance to attempts to redress inequalities between the sexes: men who may once have approved of this in principle, but now no longer do so, and those who have never approved of equality for women (Goode 1982). Backlash has also changed over time, with Faludi (1991) arguing that it is more common now than in the past. This increase may be down to a number of reasons including increased competition in organisations for pay and position, the growth of political correctness in the workplace, and increased media coverage of gender inequalities. Men are also increasingly aware of how the workplace is changing, with women gradually gaining more power and taking on roles that used to be the sole preserve of men (Burke and Black 1997).  Backlash can also be seen as a function of male insecurity over a changing world, as men blame women’s increased power for ills which befall them.   These feelings are fuelled by a predominantly right-wing media and corporate culture (Kimmel 2004).

 

Estimates vary regarding the prevalence of backlash. Early studies (Astrachan 1986; AMOI 1988) suggested that up to 90% of men were in favour of women maintaining a traditional role.  While backlash in organisations seems to have been clearly identified, there are relatively few empirical studies assessing its prevalence, and a lack of clarity about the best ways of measuring it. Many researchers use the Implicit Association Test, a wider social psychology test designed to measure automatic associations between mental concepts in memory as a way of quantifying implicit stereotypes about gender (Rudman and Glick 2001)

 

There are also different understandings of the impact of backlash on the wider workplace: backlash can increase tension between men and women, makes bonds between men stronger, and can fracture relationships between women to the extent that women have carved a role within the male environment or not (Burke and Black 1997). Backlash is sometimes known as ‘competing victim syndrome’, a term used by Cox (1995) to describe the ways in which, in education, boys interest groups tried to define a position of victims of feminism (Mills 2001).

 

There are several factors which can exacerbate backlash.   If an organisation lacks effective communication both about the phenomenon of backlash and measures that can be taken to combat it, men are likely to be suspicious of any changes. If a clear case is made for proactive measures for women, backlash is less likely (Gandossy et al 2006).  If men are excluded from equality planning, or if they are not seen as part of the solution to inequalities, then this can also make backlash feel worse.  Organisations can take practical steps to including men in such planning, for example identifying a core group of men who are committed to women’s rights and ensuring support from senior management (Ruxton 2004).   Certain organisational structures can also make backlash more intense. For example, where a culture of blame is fostered, with men seen as the causes of women’s disadvantage, men are more likely to react negatively against any perception that women’s situation in the workplace is improving.  Equally, if the organisational culture has prioritised men and masculinity, perhaps unconsciously, men may react more strongly against women’s improving situation (Angus 1993). It is also possible that backlash is stronger in organisations where a higher number of minority employees have been taken onto the workforce.

 

As we have seen, the concept of backlash is not as simple as it has sometimes been portrayed in the media (for example, a recent daily mail article appeared to blame feminism for crises in the National Health Service (Phillips 2011)), but rather, as Robinson suggested, it may rather be a complicated struggle over normativity. That is, it concerns a wider debate about the concept of the ‘norm’ and what is considered the ‘normal’ in society today.   The notion of the norm can be seen as rooted in concepts of the natural, and what is inherent or given in human nature, rather than a social, political or cultural construct.  By recognising that the ‘norm’ is, in fact, a construct, we open ourselves to the possibility that the given can be changed.  Feminism in general can be seen as a struggle against the notion that femininity and masculinity as they are experienced in today’s society are fixed. This notion that the female (or male) is a given is supported by much of contemporary science (Cameron 1995).   Robinson suggests, in this context, that seeing men as victims of feminism is not as straightforward as a reversal of positive discrimination, but is part of a larger debate about the ways in which normality is defined, and hence as part of a debate about normativity (Robinson 2000).  As Robinson (2000) points out, the notion of masculinity, and the understanding of what it means to be male, is open to debate, can be challenged, and may change.  He also emphasises that the debate over normativity is one about power; who holds power in society, and whether they rightfully do so.

Seen in this context, the move by which men have presented themselves as victims is not simply one which happened by chance. Instead, men have been able to take on board the power that is currently vested in the ‘victim’: portraying themselves as oppressed (Bekerman and Zembylas 2011).  Backlash, under these terms, becomes a complex struggle for control over scarce resources and power over the symbolic languages in which notions of masculinity and femininity are normalised.  Men use backlash as a means of making themselves visible as men  and as victims, to accrue the benefits which come with being seen as the disadvantaged partner (Robinson 2000).  Consequently, by claiming the status of victims, men are able to maintain their position as those in power and control, with the added respect and material gains that goes along with this. Privileges are masked by the guise of victimhood which men have decided to wear.   It should be noted, however, this issue is made more complex by debates about the notion of power. Some suggest that power relationships are a myth, while there is an illusion that power is vested in the hands of a minority, in fact all groups in society are oppressed: “power is actually a form of a myth which subjugates all people” (Bad Subjects 1998, p. 55).

 

3. Backlash and the Contemporary Positions of Men and Women in Organisations

The above suggests that backlash is a complex concept which underpins recent developments in contemporary awareness of feminism and women’s rights. But what repercussions does this have for understanding the positions of both men and women within organisations? There are signs that backlash is thriving in business and business organisations. Writing of the USA in the early years of the 21st Century, Bilimora and Piderit suggest that women were increasingly ‘opting out’ of the business world, for example moving on to start their own businesses, partly as a result of a backlash against the notion that women can ‘have it all’ and successfully juggle home and work (Bilimora and Piderit 2007).  This move to self-employment and starting one’s own business as a way of stepping outside the hostility of the male-dominated business environment has been reported elsewhere, for example The United States Small Business Association reported a 58% growth in women running businesses (SBA 1993), while Carey and Bryant (1995) suggested that women-run businesses were expanding into previously male-dominated areas (Carey and Bryant 1995).  It has also been reported that women can experience hostility as result of special initiatives designed to promote equality, can become over insular as they bond together in women-only networks, thus ruling out the possibility of a further assault on male power structures, and open to charges of elitism (McCarthy 2004).

However, some organisations have found that promoting equality measures in the right way can avoid backlash. Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland (2009) describe the case study of Nestle, who sought to prioritise gender equality within the workplace. They rejected the diversity approach popular in the USA in favour of promoting gender balance. Their approach was to involve men, and particularly male leaders, from the outset, with gender awareness workshops for leaders and executives. They found that this approach saw men committed to and leading organisational change, and the company thus “avoided the backlash that is common in companies that launch “women’s” initiatives” (Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland 2009).

 

4. Conclusion

To summarise, men have historically occupied an invisible, gendered space within the work environment. Their privileges compared to women, and their power compared with women, have gone unnoticed through this invisibility.   Through feminism, there has gradually arisen an awareness of these hidden inequalities, and the ways in which men have been prioritised as the ‘neutral’, over-riding voice in the workplace. This awareness has led to some redistribution of power, as women take on greater responsibility, more powerful roles, and obtain better pay. However, the consequences of this have been that men have, in some instances, started to see themselves as victims of women’s growth in the workplace through the phenomenon of backlash. Although seemingly a simple concept, backlash is complex and tricky to measure, and has a number of consequences for both men and women.   The notion of normativity helps us understand the ways in which victimhood has been appropriated by some men to reclaim the power they feel they have lost.   Ideas around backlash and normativity have had a number of repercussions for the workplace and organisational politics, some detrimental to women’s position, although there are suggestions that the right approach to equality can overcome these issues.

 

References

AMOI (1988) ‘American Male Opinion Index’, Conde Nast, New York

Angus, L B (1993) Education, inequality, and social identity, Routledge, USA/ UK

Astrachan, A (1986) How Men Feel: Their responses to Women’s Demands for Equality and Power,  Anchor, New York.

Bad Subjects Production Team (1998) Bad subjects: political education for everyday life, NYU Press, USA.

Bekerman, Z and Zembylas, M (2011) Teaching Contested Narratives: Identity, Memory and Reconciliation in Peace Education and BeyondAuthorsZvi Bekerman, Michalinos ZembylasPublisherCambridge University Press, 2011

Bilimora, D and Piderit, S K (2007) Handbook on women in business and management,  Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007 Cheltenham Glos.

Blanpain, R, Dickens, L and Kaj, S (2008) Challenges of European employment relations: employment regulation, trade union organization, equality, flexicurity, training and new approaches to pay, Kluwer Law International, The Netherlands.

Boyd, S B (2007) Reaction and resistance: feminism, law, and social change, UBC Press, USA

Burke, R J and Black, S (1997), ‘Save the Males: Backlash in Organisations’, Journal of Business Ethics, 16, 933-942.

Cameron, D (1995) Verbal hygiene: The politics of language, Routledge, UK

Carey, A, and Bryant, B (1995)  Women-owned business growth, USA Today, USA

Faludi, S (1991) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, Random House, London

Gandossy, R P, Tucker, E and Verma, N (2006) Workforce wake-up call: your workforce is changing, are you?, John Wiley and Sons, USA

Goode, W J (1982) ‘Why Men Resist’, in B Thorn and M Yalom (eds.) Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, Longman Inc. New York

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. K. L. (1998) ‘Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.

Haslett, B, Geis, FL and Carter, M R (1992) The Organizational Woman: Power and Paradox, Greenwood Publishing Group, USA

Kabeer, N, Stark, A and Magnus E (2008) Global perspectives on gender equality: reversing the gaze, Routledge, New York /  Oxford

Kimmel, M (2004) Men and masculinities, ABC-CLIO, USA

Melzer, P (2006) Alien constructions: science fiction and feminist thought, University of Texas Press, USA

Mills, M (2001) Challenging violence in schools: an issue of masculinities, Open University Press, UK

Mutua, A D (2006) Progressive Black masculinities, CRC Press, USA

Nelson, S M (2006) Handbook of gender in archaeology, Rowman Altamira, Lanham

Phillips, M (2011) ‘The real reason our hospitals are a disgrace’, Daily Mail, 17th October 2011, London.

Robinson, S. 2000 ‘Introduction: Visibility, Crisis and the Wounded White Male Body’, in Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis, Columbia University Press, New York

Rudman, L A and Glick, P (2001) ‘Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Towards Agentic Women’,  Journal of Social Issues, 57:4, 743-762

Ruxton, S (2004) Gender equality and men: learning from practice, Oxfam, UK

United States Small Business Administration (1993) ‘Women Business Owners’, SBA, Washington DC

Walby, S (1997) Gender transformations, Routledge, UK.

Whitehead, S M (2001) The masculinities reader, Wiley-Blackwell, Cambridge.

Whitehead, S M and Moodley, R (1999) Transforming managers: gendering change in the public sector, Routledge, London.

Wittenberg-Cox, A and  Maitland, A (2009)  Why Women Mean Business, John Wiley & Sons, USA

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Category: Business, Essay & Dissertation Samples