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Male Allies Challenge 4: Men perceive reverse discrimination

Men say:

  • I see some job ads and just think that men need not apply;

  • I think the best candidate should get the job, not the best woman candidate but that doesn’t seem to be the way the world works these days.

  • I saw a woman become Chief Executive Officer without any operational experience! Are you going to try to tell me it wasn’t just because she is woman?

  • Why does my organisation need a program for women? Where’s the one for men?


There are 5 main challenges based on research that men have in dealing with woman – some of these may make you bristle. In the last few weeks we have talked about:


Challenge 1: Men feel they have to be careful

Challenge 2: Men feel confused

Challenge 3: Men fear being accused of harassment


Today we will tackle the fourth one:

Men perceive reverse discrimination


Some men believe that men are slipping further and further down the corporate ladder. Statistics may not support men’s feelings that men are being systematically passed over for the best jobs, but individual and anecdotal experiences are still feeding their pessimism. Many men take a look at their future and come to the conclusion that because of equal opportunity policies, men’s options are becoming more limited because of them.


The men who already have established careers don’t feel they are free from reverse discrimination either.


On a closely related theme, many men bring up the problem of double standards that favour women.


There is also a feeling that men, and incidentally women without children, are still expected to work harder than women with children. “Nobody questions it when a woman has to leave early to take care of her children or something, but I am still expected to be there” one man told me.


Women’s reaction:


Most women think reverse discrimination is a myth. They know that some men believe that women are being promoted because they are women, that there is more focus on women in the workforce than men and that qualified men are being overlooked because of this. This does not cut any ice with women – particularly those who work in non-traditional fields and constantly feel they have to struggle to get taken seriously.


The insight for women is – I encourage women to put these feelings aside when they listen to men talk about reverse discrimination.Many men do genuinely feel that reverse discrimination is working against them and that perception affects men’s behaviour towards women.Whether, statistically reverse discrimination exists or is justified if it does, is not the point.


When men feel reverse discrimination, they react with a kind of cynical defeatist attitude. This reaction in turn, feeds women’s feelings that they are being tested all the time.


Again, recognise that men’s perception is real for them. Women should encourage men to validate their perceptions. Ask for specific statistics which prove that their perception is a reality and soon men will see that it is not a reality but a myth. Tell men that, even today, it remains a perception and not a reality but be careful not to blame individual men for their perceptions.

The insight for men – while employment equal opportunity policies are a reality, reverse discrimination is a myth. What equal opportunities policies have done is to force employers to be more objective in their decisions. They have to justify their choices now. Traditionally, men have been employed for their potential, while women tend to be employed for their track record and proven skills. Equal opportunities mean everyone has to be employed according to the same criteria – it’s about levelling the playing field.




Here is a suggested response from the CEW/ Male Champions of Change Report “BACKLASH & BUY-IN”:


Q: Is this the end of meritocracy?

A: It’s not the end of meritocracy. We must be equally fair and rigorous in performance expectations and management of all employees regardless of gender. It’s how we traditionally think about merit that is the key and a stumbling block. If, by merit, we mean recruiting and promoting like we have always done, all we are really doing is reinforcing the status quo. Leaders have to ask: Are we looking for people with similar backgrounds, capabilities and experience to ‘mirror’ others who have achieved in a role? If yes, the risk is that this approach favours people with typical career backgrounds and trajectories, often men. Having a clearly defined and future-focused role description, and set of capabilities required for the role, will help to identify the best candidate, regardless of gender, and eliminate gender bias in recruitment processes. Clearly communicating the rationale for new appointments mitigates against concerns for both men and women that recruitment decisions may be target or quota-driven.


There is another kind of merit. Fix your eye on what we need for the future. A high performer in the past may not be a high performer in the future. We need to creatively conceptualise roles so that potential is part of the equation as well as track record. This naturally expands horizons about the available talent pool for a position beyond the ‘obvious’ or typically ‘meritorious’ candidate. It leads to us elevating diverse experience and diverse thinking. It brings into focus what additional value a candidate will bring to teams and the way we manage our business. Such a view of merit works both ways – to the advantage of both men and women. It is critical that women are not seen as being ‘parachuted’ into roles to meet gender targets.




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