Fireworks on International Women’s Day are more usually celebratory. Scott Morrison’s International Women’s Day remarks instead created an incendiary reaction with a quite different result. His remarks show a shameful misunderstanding of the significant economic benefit of the increase of women (and others of diverse backgrounds) into workplaces.

The Liberal party “want to see women rise … we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”

Equality “was not about setting Australians against each other, trying to push some down to lift others up”. “That’s not in our values. That is an absolutely Liberal value: that you don’t push some people down to lift some people up. And that is true about gender equality too,” he said.

He went on to say that women’s biggest challenges were in the developing world. “Prosperity brings with it its opportunities, of course it does, for every person.’

His remarks here suggest that because Australia is prosperous, that prosperity is shared equally by anyone. Problem solved?

With these comments the Prime Minister’s attitudes are made transparent, and that makes it easier to identify what tactics might help to shift him towards a more informed position. They provide a path that he and the Liberal party might take to get into step with a modern and evolving society.

Diversity creates economic benefit

But first, to that significant economic benefit: The involvement of women and African Americans in the US labour force accounts for 15 to 20% of total productivity growth between 1960 and 2008, according to eminent economist Charles I Jones. Even hard-nosed economists identify the benefit of diverse workforces. At a time when productivity in the developed world is plateauing, on economic terms alone, the involvement of people from diverse backgrounds to maximise the pool of available talent makes a great deal of sense.

The ability of organisations to innovate and be commercially successful depends on the ability to generate new and different ideas and perspectives. That depends on having diverse thinking. Having diverse people is the easiest way to get diverse thinking. We need productivity growth: diverse people, managed well, is the best way to get it.

Equality for women is not achieved at men’s expense

Morrison’s remarks highlight one of the key arguments used to counter attempts to redress gender imbalance. Women’s equality is seen by some men to reduce the status of men. Male dominated cultures are characterised by particular behaviours and expectations. The characteristics of such work cultures are the physical and social dominance of men, invulnerability, shows of strength and stamina, putting work first, and high levels of contest and competition.  In a contest culture where men are competing against other men, women’s access into the competition is seen as disrupting the structural advantage that men have

When men who strongly identify with masculine characteristics experience threats to their superiority, they also tend to reduce any support they have for gender-equal policies and practices. In this context, when women advocate for change they may be seen as advocating in their own interest. Those men who see programs for gender equality as a zero-sum game, that is, any gains to be made by women will be losses to them, withdraw their interest, don’t get involved, or oppose the programs. They see women’s gains as personal losses to them: ‘You want to take what’s mine.’

Moves towards equal pay, for example, are seen as reducing opportunities for men and placing downward pressure on men’s pay.

“If businesses are forced to pay women the same as male earnings, that means they will have to reduce the pay for the men they employ … And as even more women thus enter the workforce, that creates more competition for jobs (and even men’s jobs) and puts further downward pressure on the pay for all jobs” , US politician James Green

It is faulty to believe that women’s gains equal men’s losses, or that workplace progress for women comes at the expense of reductions in men’s status, as the analysis by Jones shows.

Action for leaders

Leadership needs to frame change as benefiting everyone if it is to enlist men with these views. Where this isn’t the case, and a zero-sum game mindset is perpetuated, attempts to increase the representation of women will remain difficult.

It is when men who identify strongly with masculine characteristics perceive threats to their masculinity that they are more likely to sexually harass others. And they may harass either female or male colleagues.

Where men believe that gender roles are fixed, they tend to rationalise the social system. They are more likely to justify the system and its inequities. On the other hand, where men are primed to see gender roles as socially ascribed, their identification with ‘male’ decreases as does their defence of gender inequities. Their views align more with women’s.

A real part of the problem for change is that working in a masculine culture is associated with greater work engagement and job meaning for some men. Some men find the prospect of winning masculine status so seductive that they will sacrifice their wellbeing for opportunities to be in the contest.

Create change by reducing competitiveness

Much of the diversity work we’ve being doing for the last 50 years has been focused on how to get women and minority groups into work, and more recently to claim their place at the leadership table.

To be more successful, we need to change workplace cultures away from emphasising masculine contest norms to promoting gender-balanced norms. That requires the buy-in of men, particularly privileged men, like Scott Morrison. Organisations that operate within the masculine contest frame that strongly privileges male norms such as stamina, ruthlessness and work devotion also tend to have a strong us and them mindset. They see women as competitors to their domain.

The best way to avoid this is to reduce tactics that are competitive. That means avoiding using language and practices that privilege women. Valorising the feminine is directly competitive and backfires. And in my view, is not what gender balance is all about anyway.

There needs to be support for all workers. Gender-neutral language is good. Emphasise win:win. How are gains for women also gains for men? For example, in countries that are higher in gender equality, men and women both win more Olympic medals. Kuchynka et al in their research consider that this is because structural equality fosters the conditions that allow all talent to reach its peak. This is an apt metaphor for the approach that Scott Morrison can take.

What should Scott Morrison do?

Senior organisational leaders are powerful and highly credible, and their messages carry great weight. People pay particular attention to, and are more likely to be persuaded by, information that comes from a source having a high degree of trustworthiness. People notice the Prime Minister and what he says, he is a role model. What better person then to rescript his messages, so that he is more inclusive, acknowledging the greater gain when everyone’s talent and potential is amplified to its fullest.

As Prime Minister of Australia, whose obligation it is to consider the welfare and prosperity of the country and all its constituents, the Prime Minister should focus purposefully on promoting win:win mindsets. How could Australia be a better country, and how could our institutions and businesses be more productive and successful into the future? With a mindset that promotes diversity, and how we all benefit from it. And that will happen when we can all access it. And Scott Morrison can help us to do that.

Here’s a suggested rescript:

The Liberal party “wants to see women rise … when women rise and contribute at their full potential, we all rise as a society. Everyone gains.”

Equality “is about Australians appreciating the richness and diversity of our society. When we work together, we lift others up, we lift ourselves up”. “That’s our values. That is an absolutely Liberal value: that you lift all the people up. And that is true about gender equality too. We need to open opportunities that have been denied to both women and men, and that makes us stronger,” he said.

“Prosperity brings with it its opportunities, of course it does, for every person. As everybody grows in their contribution to our society, so do we as a society grow.’



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