Over time, our society has become more aware of discrimination in the workplace. For instance, the #MeToo movement recently spread virally, stemming from the exposure of widespread and grim practices of sexual harassment in the scintillating world of Hollywood. The victims were mostly, but not exclusively, women. When we speak about the victims of workplace discrimination, we mainly think of women, racial, sexual religious minorities, younger and older workers… but what about men? In our article we investigate whether discrimination in the workplace affects men too.
A glimpse into the answers to the European Working Conditions Survey reveals that in 2015 1.1% of men felt discriminated at work because of their sex. This proportion may seem negligible at first sight but it is only three times smaller than the proportion of women (3.2%). So how is it possible that discrimination against men because of their sex is so rarely discussed? And what forms does it take?
In our research we took a closer look at five EU countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France and the UK. We found numerous instances of discrimination against men which were reported in the media, led to legal cases or were the subject of public debates. It struck us that the cases were concentrated on specific sectors and occupations. In the health sector, some male carers and nurses were singled out for special treatment. This often related to patients’ unease with being taken care of by men. In the education sector, the reputation of male teachers – especially in kindergartens – was affected by paedophilia scandals. This resulted in special rules for men, assigning them only specific tasks and in more extreme cases also leading to dismissal. Male job seekers raised concerns that they were disadvantaged in the recruitment process for jobs such as waiter, receptionist or administrative worker. Sometimes the preference for women was even explicitly mentioned in the job advertisements. An experiment in England showed that men were systematically less likely to be invited for interviews than women when they applied for a female-dominated job.
‘Caring is not for men’
Other cases of discrimination concerned unequal treatment with regards to working time and parenting. Some men didn’t receive the same entitlements as their female colleagues. Others were bullied or not promoted when they wanted to take more care responsibilities for their children, with one employer deeming this ‘inappropriate’ male conduct. Cultural perceptions of men themselves constrict them to a stereotypical role vis-à-vis work-life balance issues. The poor uptake of paternity leave, especially in more traditional societies, is a typical example, with men fearful of stepping out of their role of breadwinners to fully share childcare responsibilities. Employers may consider men less committed to their job if they ask for time off to be with their families, whilst the same requests by women are treated as the norm.
Discrimination against men can take on more subtle forms such as a stricter dress code for males. In Sweden this resulted in a collective action when train drivers and conductors circumvented a ban on wearing shorts in the hot weather by wearing skirts.
Workplaces all over Europe have introduced measures aimed at preventing discrimination from recruitment to end of career. Campaigns in school call for girls to study traditionally male subjects such as engineering. But didn’t we forget about men? Many gender equality measures pay little or no attention specifically to men. This is true even in traditionally female-dominated sectors and activities, such as nursing and caring, where we find evidence of discrimination against men.
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Figure: Extent of perceived sex discrimination at work, by sector (%)
Sectors with numbers in italics have fewer than 200 respondents of a given sex.
Source: EWCS 2015
Unfortunately the research is barely ahead of the policy makers. We only found a handful of studies that explore discrimination against men. When confronting the risible lack of research with our findings it seems that there is a big blind spot in our vision of working life. The accepted cultural perception of men in the workplace, assigning them a dominant and often aggressive role, does not necessarily always reflect the reality. Worse than that, it may even discourage victims of discrimination from coming forward as they could be subjected to ridicule and shame.
It is naïve to think that we will achieve a true gender balance in the labour market and that we will exterminate social prejudice against women without addressing the stereotypes about men and their position in the workforce. As long as female-dominated occupations are viewed as less prestigious and unfitting for men, the notion of inequality between the sexes will survive.
It is clear that more research and policy action is needed to change society’s attitudes. More focus on work issues relevant to men would result in more equal workplaces and could improve equal treatment for both women and men. It is only when we dispense with the outdated labels of men as breadwinners and women as family makers that workplaces can really strive for equality.