The diversity and bias conversation
This is the second part of my interview with Bill Proudman, CEO and CO-Founder of White Men as Full Diversity Partners, at the JUMP event for gender equality in Brussels. You can read the first half here. In this part of the interview we discuss toxic masculinity, the ‘angry white male’ and diversity and bias.
Delving into diversity and bias
I have some questions about young men and toxic masculinity, which I’m sure you will have some great views on. So the first was; you’ve been doing this since the 90’s your workshops with white men for diversity. How in that time have you seen, sort of the playing field when it comes to sexism change, and has the fight changed from how it started in the 90’s?
Well I think; men are more willing to get engaged with each other. I find men, they’ll do this work and it doesn’t take much to push them into it. It’s been actually really gratifying to watch them own the issue in a way that’s about them, and other men [in] the cause, so in some ways that feels like we’ve made good progress. You’ve got the work in the US of Jean Kilbourne, about objectification of women in advertising. Jackson Katz who’s another one with his work about tough guys.
There’s Ted Talks, there’s a lot more material now with social media, it’s all two clicks away, so my sense is that its hard to hide out from that. So I think there’s a lot more exposure with young men. Just watching the conversations again my 32-year old son, has now as a father with a young son, a young daughter. He’s just at a very different place than I was at that age, because it just wasn’t even on my radar screen yet. I see that as good progress.
In the UK there’s been a big movement at the moment with charities such as Andy’s Man Club. It is a charity that raises awareness around suicide in young men, particularly to do with emotional outlets and asking for help. We have that conversation going on in the UK as well as the conversation of toxic masculinity, and are men being forced to be over masculine? Are the ways that conversations are changing about men’s roles? With toxic masculinity and the ‘angry white male’ persona online that’s been coming forward, do you have an insight into why there’s this push against gender equality at the same time we are asking men to be open and be emotional? It seems to be at the moment you have one group of men suggest “lets be emotional, and support each other” and men who are saying “let’s prevent male suicide, but lets not talk about our emotions and fight back against everything”.
Yeah we use a clip from the film Billy Elliott, when we are working with men around how we’ve been conditioned and how it gets passed down from our fathers and other men in our lives- it’s a good clip.
Well I think the pervasive conditioning for young boys and men around what they’re supposed to act like to be a man is deep and it’s so entrenched, it’s not going to go away because someone realises it so you got to really push against that. I think for me, coming back to Trump, I hope, maybe I’m going to be wrong on this, but [I hope] he’s the last gasp of a group of people that basically want to ‘make America great again’ or ‘take America back’, but who’s it great for? Cause there’s a lot of people who are not only not ‘great’, but they are dying in the streets. So I think in our society we’ve been so divided our strength comes from always having a common enemy. That’s why we’re the most war mongering culture on the planet, we’ve [the US] spent more on military defence than something like the next eight countries combined.
I think that’s been part baked into the psyche which is in tied a lot with male violence. As well as our sense of being able to hold our own, and the suppression of our own emotion and feelings so it’s a bad toxic mix. I honestly think there’s some research coming out that says men are basically loosing sense of their own identity which I also think is a back lash for people saying ‘I’m going to be this manly man”. I’m going to talk about that tonight at the awards dinner, Putin, Trump, you’ve got the guy in the Philippines (Rodrigo Duterte), that ultra masculine sort of back it up and my hope is that is the last gasp of a dying archetype.
The toxic male
I’m fully with you on that, I hope it is the back end. We discussed in the workshop this morning, about how you find being a man in a space that is traditionally for women, gender equality. It’s normally run by women, and normally with women speakers. Do you find you get a lot of backlash as a white male in that space?
Oh sure, I mean I have friends who don’t talk to me anymore about work that I do. I’ve got other people in this profession, women people who come to me like ‘why are you here? We’ve carved out what little small piece of the pie at the corporate level, and now you’re trying to take this other too”. So there’s this suspicion of motivation, authenticity, there’s things that we talked about. I don’t take that personally, that’s part and parcel of the landscape of how the conditioning around gender equity being a women’s issue is so deep, that it actually keeps a lot of men continued to be on the side-lines, and it puts then a lot of women in the role of having to be the teacher, be all of that stuff.
That’s going to take some time to break that apart and it’s not just work men need to do, it’s a lot of work that women have to do as well, they’ve been breathing the same air so they’ve internalised it.
You spoke earlier about hostages (men who are resistant to diversity training). Do you think that men have to already be receptive though for those for workshops, and those sort of things to work for companies? You talked about hostages do you think all men can eventually [be full diversity partners]?
Yeah, I think there’s a couple there not going to get there. But my experience is the vast majority, everybody [is open to it], absolutely. The path is different, there’s been a lot of really bad failed attempts trying to engage men, and there’s a residual scar tissue that’s been created with that. But some of the best success stories I can think of are men that were hardened sceptics, hostages even for that matter, and part of that is just to really acknowledge and say “I’m really sorry of how you got shown up here”. I’ve had conversations with guys I said “if you need to stay in your room for all four days and you want to show up in this room that’s OK because I have people saying if they didn’t come to this they would be fired. So they had no choice, they were pissed.
As I would be so I said ‘if you show up in the room, I’m assuming you want to do the work, you don’t have to, you can be sceptical but if you don’t want to be here it’s OK. And at first they were like ‘you’re just pulling my leg’, and I said no I’m serious I’ll cover for you, you’re here, but if your coming in the room your going to do some work. I think an issue for white men in the states is that they’ve been told that their personal belief system is wrong, and they need to change that. You know one of the whole notions of America is freedom of thought and ability to believe whatever we want to believe.
I said ‘its not my place to tell you what you believe it’s my place in a corporate setting to help you understand the impact of your behaviour, and if you’re in leadership role your going to have to change your behaviour. You don’t need to change your beliefs, you may choose to do that in time on your own, but that’s not mine or anybody’s place to do that’. That’s been incredibly comforting, because a lot of these men have been told their belief systems are wrong, they’ve got to change those, and they’re rightly resistant to that. You know as I would be.
So obviously diversity covers gender, sexuality, race, the whole thing. Is there a part of it that you find is easier to get through to people? Are people for receptive to talks about race or talks about sexuality?
There’s not a standard answer, just like what you were talking about. So you know in the US in certain parts of our country the race conversation, while difficult, is easy to get into. So when you’re in the South, because it’s much more accessible. Where we live in the north west, there’s a perception by the whites that live there because of their social, political realm, is there is no racial strife. So it’s harder for them to get into that conversation. In the deep south talking about sexuality and sexual orientation, they want to do conversation therapy. Other parts they don’t even have to talk about it.
Generally, our country still has difficulty with the topic because there’s an assumption that if I talk about this and I’m not spotty clean about it you going to confuse me with the end of the [spectrum] that’s the intentional misogynist, sexist pig, racist Klan member. And so there’s a lot of avoidance, so there’s a lot of what I call covering behaviour, ‘fake it till I make it’. So people are reading the script, same thing with bias, even though unconscious bias everybody has it, it’s how the brain functions.
“Bias is s a four letter word and it feels like I’m having to admit I’m a bad person.”
We all have bias.
3Plus would like to thank Bill Proudman and JUMP EU for their thoughts and time.