Why are white men over 50 so scared?

Published: 13/09/2016

This article was originally published on LinkedIn – August 2016.

I once had the opportunity to hear Abigail Disney speak, and she stopped me in my tracks with one powerful sentence:

“Slavery did not end in the U.S. because black people thought it was a bad idea, Slavery ended because white people thought it was a bad idea.”

Abigail Disney used this sentence to call men to think about the gender inequality that exists in Australia, and to make a choice as to whether we wished to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

It was a sentence that has stayed with me and at times, if I am to be honest, it is a sentence that has haunted me.  There was this clear issue of inequality – right there in front of my face, as obvious as gravity, but like gravity I had taken the issue for granted, not noticing it despite its constant presence.

Because I had been raised in a culture that had a clear bias against gender equality, I had more or less assumed that gender inequality was normal. Things had always been this way, and because that is how things had always been, it would be how things always would be.

The bizarre thing is that not for a moment, I had considered the situation in Australia as the way how things should be.  It just had never cut through to me that it was my problem to fix, and that my state of inaction was really a state of “cowardice to a cause”.

At this point, just a few statistics might help (and yes, you have heard them all before – but perhaps, you have not heard them straight after someone suggested he was a coward for not acting on them):

  • Women account for 1 in 5 (19%) board members in publicly listed companies.
  • Only 8.9% of female employees in Australia are in management positions.
  • Australia has a gender pay gap of 18% and is ranked 16th of the 22 countries listed by the OECD.
  • Women hold only 7% of all Federal Parliamentary seats.
  • One in two mothers reports experiencing discrimination as a result of pregnancy, parental leave and return to work, and
  • Sadly it would be easy to fill the page with similarly shocking statistics.

I think every man my age, is aware there is a long list of statistics indicating that for some reason or other, men end up being paid more, having more superannuation, holding more seats in parliament, taking more seats at the board table, and so on.  However, as a society, we remain with change being achieved at a glacial pace (and like many of the glaciers on the planet today, some of the change is regression not progression).

Without any research to support this I would posit the following (and I think most would agree):

  • The vast majority of Australian men believe that gender inequality is not the best social outcome for our society.
  • A good number of Australian men understand the purely economic business case for gender equality.
  • Many Australian men in organisational leadership positions give speeches in support of Gender Equality.

So with so much support, the critical question is why is the progress so slow?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that a considerable proportion of the men who publically support gender equality are “All Hat and No Cowboy”. They make it sound important, but take little action to achieve it. Clearly, if all the men who support gender equality were taking steps to change their workplaces then we would not see progress at a glacial place.

This public support and private reluctance for change seem to have its roots in the fact that men have enjoyed the playing field tilted in their favour. To see the playing field move back to equality is a move away from the status quo that they enjoy.

There is this fear that if we achieve equality, then it will be harder for them to compete for the few roles they perceive will be available to them. It is true that as we become more senior in most organisational contexts, there are fewer positions available. But it is bizarre that we would be scared of an equal playing field.

Surely the rules of any game should be fair to all participants, so if we are confident in the value we add in an organisational context, we will not be scared to compete on a level playing field.

Men of my age have shared a dream run to the roles we hold. I hope we can have enough generosity of spirit to see that gender equality is normal and not a state that favours women. We would be small minded to think treating women as equal to men in some way favours them over men.

Abigail Disney was right – we won’t see change in gender equality until men see gender inequality as a bad idea, and regard it as their role to be part of the change.

David Wakeley – CEO of Autopia (and white male over 50)

David Wakeley is a passionate advocate for Gender Equality – both for a better world and for better business performance.  If interested I post my random thoughts on the topic @davidwakeley1.