Before returning to the office, we must tackle adland’s toxic imbalance

According to a new survey, the workplace is still falling short when it comes to gender equality and inclusion.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and the global pandemic’s exposure of deep-seated inequality in our society should inspire every one of us to make some positive changes in our lives and communities.

As we contemplate a return to the office (in whatever form it may take), this drive for change must also extend to the workplace, which, according to a new survey, is still severely lacking when it comes to equality and inclusion.

In Rapp’s recent study Modern Masculinity in the Workplace: What’s Changed Since #MeToo?, conducted in partnership with YouGov and Campaign, thousands of men and women across advertising, media, marketing and PR were interviewed to gauge how the workplace has changed in the past couple of years in terms of the gender power balance.

We put masculinity under the microscope because, with – predominantly white – males still dominating powerful roles in business, politics and society, examining issues around the male experience is critical to dismantling the systems that have maintained this white, heteronormative, patriarchal order.

The #MeToo movement has had a seismic cultural impact around the world by putting the spotlight on gender inequality. But, as this survey shows, the ripple effect is not yet being felt enough at work.

The overwhelming majority (70%) of men and women surveyed felt #MeToo and Time’s Up have not resulted in any change whatsoever, with an average of 59% saying that behaviour towards women hasn’t changed post-#MeToo.

Nearly half (47%) of men agreed that men’s behaviour towards women is now “constantly scrutinised” – yet no-one is seeing a positive outcome of that perceived scrutiny.

Notably, there is a wide gap between male perceptions of the female experience in the workplace and the reality of that experience. A total of 43% of men believe that men are increasingly viewing women as equals at work, compared with just 27% of women who feel the same way.

The research tells us the industry has much to do in order to detoxify its work culture. A staggering 35% of men and women surveyed agreed that levels of toxic masculinity have remained the same post-#MeToo and Time’s Up, with just 20% agreeing that it has decreased a little.

Cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women and society in general – such as suppressing emotions, limiting at-home responsibilities to merely “pitching in” or maintaining an appearance of hardness as an indicator of power – have long been a highly corrosive force in business and responsible for promoting “dog eat dog” attitudes as an aspect of strong leadership.

There has been a general acknowledgement that masculinity is being redefined, with 36% “tending to agree”. In the survey, both men and women said they see being a hands-on father, reliability and taking responsibility as “very important” qualities of men, closely followed by being compassionate.

But compassion and empathy are not the same, and there remains an empathy gap. Our research suggests that many men are only passively engaging with the issues that must be fixed.

Portrayals of masculinity in advertising

In addition, harmful stereotypes still exist. Only 15% of men surveyed feel advertising portrays masculinity in a more realistic and less stereotypical way.

Men need new role models. We have seen an increase in investment around more diverse female representation in advertising, but there needs to be a similar rebalance in how we explore the depiction of men.

We often find ourselves talking about opening career paths to women by saying things such as “see it, be it”; the same is also true for men. We need to rethink what “success” looks like at all levels and celebrate others because they are empathetic and generous individuals. Onus should therefore be placed on those who show up for their family, their workplace and their community in meaningful ways.

Worryingly, 25% of men are “not at all” confident in talking about mental health – harkening back to outdated perceptions of men not opening up about their feelings. There seems to be a more open dialogue among men in advertising, with 32% more people in marketing industries agreeing that men talk more openly to other men about their problems compared with other professions. Also, despite feeling their behaviour towards women is constantly scrutinised at work post-#MeToo, almost half – 47% – of men are fairly confident about asking for advice at work.

Along with introducing open forums where both men and women can talk about issues around gender, businesses in adland need to better promote their workplace policies. Only 6% of participants in the survey agreed that policies responding to #MeToo had been communicated. Quarterly unconscious bias training should be introduced and smaller businesses should reach out to larger networks for support in making their culture more inclusive.

The push for creating inclusion and more diversity faces increased challenges as a result of the pressures on businesses during the current pandemic. As budgets are squeezed, diversity and inclusion efforts are vulnerable to being the first to be cut. In addition, working remotely robs people of many of the day-to-day valuable interactions with colleagues and leaders, and can result in discussion around these issues getting lost, with people feeling they have no opportunity to speak up.

The industry should be using the time away from the physical workplace to reflect on how to collectively tackle this issue and redress imbalances that have gone on for much too long.

Jess Geary is senior channel strategist at Rapp UK

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