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Why “Male Privilege” workshops are a bad idea

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It was recently reported that Melbourne University was offering a workshop in white male privilege which encouraged its male participants to “learn to speak more like women”.

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Apparently, despite progressive laws towards gender equality existing in Australia, the irony of telling a man he should “act more like a woman” (i.e take a back seat and quieten down) in order to promote equality between the sexes was lost on the University.

Strangely, although this workshop still causes problems by promoting the idea that women are quiet and uncertain, it is the reverse of what we usually see in these problematic teaching situations. Most of the time, the issue with workshops around gender divides is that they often encourage their female attendees to “speak more like men” – an equal but opposing force to the Australian design. The overarching issue here is that, in creating these workshops, the orchestrators ignore the “double bind” which women face:

Many people will make the mistake of saying things like “Women lack confidence”, and then try and solve this issue with specific forms of training which seek to help the women become more confidence, i.e. masculine in demeanour. This isn’t a solution, because we are treating a symptom of a wider issue instead of the cause itself.

Instead of asking ourselves “How do we make women more confident?” we must instead ask ourselves “Why do many women lack confidence in the first place?” and “What makes them that way?”

The fact we aren’t already asking these questions when addressing gender issues often boils down to gender stereotypes and the way we perceive male and female behaviours. For example, we can have two people – a man and a woman – who are both assertive and dominant in their behaviour. Undoubtedly, we will describe the man with those positive descriptive words. The woman, on the other hand, would often be labelled as “overbearing” or “bossy” instead of “confident” and “assertive”.

Terms like this result in a “double bind” situation. Women often end up being punished for taking on male behaviours by being branded with the above negative terms and descriptions. This in turn leads other women to “fall into line” with stereotypical behaviours to avoid such punishment. Conversely, women are also punished when they behave in too feminine of a manner – as this is perceived as an incapability to take on traditionally male roles, like leadership ones.

This is because we all have existing expectations of how men and women should behave. Thus, if we witness a person behaving in a way which counters these expectations, then there are penalties.

A man behaving in an emotional kind of way is viewed quite negatively – we use expressions such as “Man Up!”, as we feel as though men should behave in a more rational and logical manner.

In the same way, when this workshop was developed, the men were almost told to “Woman Down” by shrugging off their confidence and certainty when it came to their views and opinions.

These kinds of expressions are embodied in our day to day language and understanding of the world, and it is a large part of the problem. Recently, for example, I was told about a meeting where a few team members were talking about strategy. One of the men in the room stated: “We’ve all got big balls in this room” as a nod to the confidence of the team. He’d overlooked the fact the most senior person in the room was a woman. Although this term was used in a perfectly innocent manner, the reality is that it reinforces the stereotype. The worst part is that usually it’s not even noticed.

As long as we continue to address gender disparity and inequality in terms of “Man vs. Woman”, trying to teach one to behave as the other, then we risk going round in circles and not really making any progress.

Until we start approaching gender inequality as a battle to even the playing field and conquer inherent biases between two groups of people who realistically exist across a spectrum, we cannot expect to move forwards.

Approaching disparity from the view that we should separate each gender into two tribes will not create solutions, only more problems, and this is something we should work to recognise and then rid ourselves of.

About the author

This article was provided by Prof. Binna Kandola (OBE), Pearn Kandola.

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