How to Agree About Gender Equality
5 tips for navigating difficult conversations.
Do you engage with people who disagree with you?
How does it go?
It’s frustrating. When ideas converge, we make progress.
The more we agree, the better we feel.
Behind layers of confusion, defences, and misunderstandings, our fundamental needs are the same. We’re hard-wired for connection.
So what goes wrong?
Why it’s hard to agree
While writing my last post, I read a great piece about protecting group identities¹. I found clarity in these paragraphs:
Social identity theory posits that people derive some of their sense of identity and self-worth from their group memberships (including gender, race, religion, politics, or even sports teams), and are highly motivated to maintain and protect a positive image of their social groups.
Just as an individual’s self-image can be shaken by reflecting on their own misdeeds, threats to social identity may arise when contemplating past misconduct by their group.
This threat can lead to defensive behaviour that diminishes or deflects perceived criticisms. As the historically-advantaged group, social identity theory predicts men will react defensively when presented with evidence of past injustices suffered by women, the disadvantaged group.
‘You failed to mention that women also react defensively around these issues!’
Me, catching the deflection,
‘Yeah ok, this theory is on point.’
The entanglement of blind spots, team mentality, and natural defensiveness, make for difficult conversations. Understandably, this is a recipe for avoidance. The problem is: avoidance is a roadblock to progress.
Equality is built on uncomfortable conversations. We should learn to make them rewarding.
Fuel to the fire
Social media increases our bias (no surprise there!) We’re shown content that confirms and exaggerates our views. It’s interesting and addictive. But worryingly diverging.
We end up with firmly held, but skewed perspectives.
Information that confirms our beliefs makes us feel good. Information that challenges our beliefs doesn’t.
— Tristan Harris | The Social Dilemma
Being able to agree on what’s true is the foundation of progress. Conflict arises when worlds don’t align. This is why science has had such an impact. Compiling shared truths gives us solid ground to build converging outlooks. It makes things work.
When it comes to gender equality, sharing a world view is particularly hard. It seems to generate more blind spots than most other topics. It’s hard to admit: our own views are skewed.
To realign, we need to understand other perspectives.
The path to converging views
Respect each other’s blind spots
Trying to highlight another’s blind spots will usually derail a conversation. This is easy to understand in theory, but usually takes a few thousand arguments to learn in practice. It’s easy to focus on the point being made and miss the bigger picture. I fall into this trap as much as anyone.
Communication is better when we help each other move into non-defensive states. Again, this is hard in practice. It’s habit building. In open states, we can see more clearly.
The film Pride, and the success of the gay rights movement in general, teaches us a lot. People need positive incentives to move through discomfort and explore new outlooks.
We should use dance more, and shame less.
Notice what you’re focusing on
Creating clearer actions in areas of agreement may be more rewarding than debating points of contention. This is easily missed.
When things get challenging: focus on specifics!
‘Was Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet a positive move for Canada?’
Offers more than,
‘Do we need gender quotas?’
Generalisations encourage black and white thinking. Specifics allow for detail and nuance.
When we create space to disagree productively, ideas begin to converge.
Language is so important.
Many feminists have long been stressing the need for collaboration and less oppositional framing. This is gaining momentum.
‘If you stand for equality then you’re a feminist. Sorry to tell you.’ — Emma Watson
Throughout history, women have endured ridiculous notions from men about their essential nature. Nietzche claimed, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexuality.”
It’s understandable for women to have little tolerance for views that echo the past. Expressing support for women, and sharing empowering beliefs, may help to repair the damage done by others.
Men rarely hear how much they will gain from gender equality. They can be shamed out of conversations. Views of equality are often skewed. If we look at the least fortunate people in society: what percentage are male?
We all need support to express pain constructively.
There is a strong relationship between the percentage of female MPs and the happiness of a country. It’s a clear mark of progress. To reduce voter bias, we need better strategy.
Content is generally aimed at those who already agree. This doesn’t change minds or win votes. To progress, we need to build bridges.
Conversation may be the best tool we have for realigning world views and deepening relationships. Things go well when we:
- Keep our own bias in mind. Notice what makes us defensive.
- Respect each other’s blind spots. Help others to move out of defensive states.
- Find areas where we agree. Focus on specifics when we don’t.
- Understand other points of view. Show willingness to change our perspectives.
- Use collaborative language. Show support for the opposite sex. Publicly and often.
We can help each other build habits that serve us, and let go of ones that pull us apart.