Have you ever been with a group of colleagues or friends discussing gender dynamics and heard someone, likely a man, pipe up with “Not all men!” or “To play devil’s advocate”?
This kind of remark can make you want to light your hair on fire. But Dr. Ivona Hideg, a psychologist who studies defensive responses like these, says there are ways to minimize these comments—yes, really.
Hideg’s work is centered around why people act the way that they do, especially when it comes to thinking about gender inequality in professional workplaces. Her most recent research with Dr. Anne Wilson illuminates the causes of such defensive reactions and the ways to work around them.
Why people react defensively
For their research, Hideg and Wilson worked with a sample of Canadian students. They asked the men in their studies to read about historical injustices—such as women not being allowed to own property or vote in the early 1900s—then asked them about gender equity programs. Faced with the inequalities of the past, the men reacted defensively, often denying present-day gender discrimation and showing low support for equity initiatives.
Hideg says this is connected to the importance for people to have a connection to a social group or identity. When presented with information that challenges the positive image of their group—whether it’s gender or race or family—people tend to defend the image of their group. So, for men, when learning about past injustices committed by men or that men benefited from, they often act in denial of any present-day problem.
Although Hideg’s studies, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and covered in Harvard Business Review, have so far mostly been around gender-based injustices, she theorizes that the psychological effects of her research would be the same as the defensiveness that comes up when white people are confronted with information about racial discrimination.
Read more: In Defense of Male Managers
How to move the conversation forward
Hideg says the defensiveness doesn’t have to be the end of the road. In her studies, male respondents were more able to acknowledge present discrimination—and be motivated to work to counter it—when they were presented with information about strides toward gender equality in recent years. The focus on progress seemed to reduce defensiveness and create an openness to new gender equity initiatives.
While attempts to educate people about the past can often backfire by resulting in defensiveness and self-protective behavior in the historically-advantaged group, it doesn’t mean that we should avoid confronting history. “People think there is no space for the past in current discussion, but it is still influencing the present-day systems we live in,” Hideg says. “We need to acknowledge this.”
Instead of avoiding the past, sharing pieces of information on progress alongside information about the past can be the most effective when it comes to bringing men into conversations about present-day inequities. When presented with information about positive changes that have impacted women in society, the men in Hideg’s study were more likely to support workplace equity initiatives.
Why focusing on men matters
Much of Hideg’s work focuses on bringing men into conversations of gender equality at work and notes the importance of creating opportunities for men to engage in these conversations. “Men are major decision-makers in almost every organization even today. Without men, we will not change anything.”
In her professional life, Hideg is regularly asked to speak at companies about gender inequality and is often puzzled to find herself in front of an audience of only women. She feels that this relegation of the problem of gender inequality to only one gender is harmful.
“This is not a women’s issue,” she says. “This is an issue for all of our society.”
Furthermore, Hideg believes bringing men into the conversation about gender equality can actually help men, which is a point that needs emphasizing. “Not all women want high-level positions, and not all men want high-level positions either,” Hideg says.
She says that people’s personal aspirations don’t correspond to gender norms—there are plenty of women who aspire to management positions, and plenty of men who aim to spend time with family. And the ability for anyone regardless of gender to access what they truly want is an important goal in gender equality.
“Work has traditionally been prescribed to men, and domestic positions traditionally prescribed to women,” Hideg says. “We should allow men greater engagement with children, flexible work time, and parental leave.”
Moving past the assumption that gender equality can only benefit women—and seeing defensiveness as a psychological phenomenon that can be accommodated for and worked through—can allow people of any gender to better comprehend the hurdles between today and an equitable future. And we can better see the problem, we are more able to work together on solutions.