Counter culture: seeing resistance as part of the process of social change

Counter culture: seeing resistance as part of the process of social change

 A new VicHealth gender equality resource for organisations, drawn from experience at Victorian workplaces, supports change-makers to counter resistance from passive denial to outright backlash.


In 2018, more than a century after Australian women were granted universal suffrage, and some 30 years since the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act, women are still being paid less than their male counterparts, and one in three women experience domestic violence. The very question of gender equality is still an ongoing discussion at work and at home.

If the accounts of female victims coming from the #MeToo movement and the resultant backlash from its opponents have taught us anything, resistance to gender equality is, and will continue to be, a challenge for the women and men proactively involved in the gender equality cause.


Many shades of resistance

Michael Flood has encountered all shades of resistance in his work as a gender equality activist over the last 30 years. An associate professor in the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Faculty of Law and researcher of pro-feminist men’s advocacy, he has experienced death threats and threats to his children.

‘I’ve been attacked in various ways. On occasions I’ve had to go into my boss’s office and explain the letter that they had received [which said] I was dishonest, anti-male, that I was a kind of ‘feminazi’,’ recalled Flood at the recent Managing Resistance to Gender Equality for Policy and Practice forum hosted by VicHealth.

Victoria Police deputy commissioner Luke Cornelius also shared his experiences of resistance at the forum. Many people have a count-to-ten rule before they hit the reply button on a vexatious email. Cornelius says he waits until he has counted to 20.


Resistance is defined as an active pushing back against progressive programs, policies and perspectives. (QUT Evidence Review)


A new resource for change

Aware of this challenge, VicHealth has created a resource for organisations encountering resistance to gender equality policies: (En)countering Resistance Strategies to respond to gender equality initiatives.

The resource was launched at the resistance forum in March with VicHealth CEO, Jerril Rechter, noting that the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report finds that gender parity is still 200 years away.

Gender inequality is the underlying driver of violence against women, which remains the leading cause of death and disability amongst Victorian women.

In her address, Rechter reiterated that gender equality is a core part of VicHealth’s work because of its association with mental and physical health outcomes for women and girls.

‘We also know that gender inequality is the underlying driver of violence against women, which remains the leading cause of death and disability among Victorian women, and we cannot afford to wait another 200 years before it’s eliminated,’ she said.

The issue of how best to address backlash was a topic of conversation at another VicHealth forum 18 months ago. In response, VicHealth commissioned Michael Flood, who had previously worked with the NRL, the AFL and the Australian Defence Force, to undertake an extensive evidence review of whether there were readily available resources being used to counter resistance.

The insights from the QUT review informed the development of the new resource, underpinned by VicHealth’s Gender equality, health and wellbeing strategy, explains Natalie Russell, VicHealth Principal Program Officer Mental Wellbeing.

‘We thought it would be good to translate the findings into an easy-to-understand document that can be picked up by any of the sectors we work with,’ she says, adding that additional tools including videos will be developed and released over the next twelve months.


Learning from workplace experiences

Resistance to change and backlash are not new concepts in social movements and in public health. The new resource brings together the latest evidence around resistance management, including the experiences of Victoria Police in implementing its gender equality strategy and action plan, the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s training initiatives to end domestic violence, and its campaign to promote gender equality in the workplace.

The resource offers insights into the different shades of resistance, from passive denial and inaction through to outright backlash, as well as presenting some tangible strategies for countering that resistance.

Indeed, recognising the nature of the resistance and developing a response to match is one of the 13 steps to resistance management identified by the VicHealth resource. Mild intransigence, for example (‘I agree, it’s just not a priority for us right now’), might be pre-empted by framing the need for action in terms of values and goals the individuals involved already identify with. Genuine hostility, on the other hand (Who do you think you are? You’ve got no right telling us what to do!), might best be left unmet so that efforts can be focussed on those in the middle who are undecided, but open to the discussion.

Russell notes that the resource is also particularly useful for practitioners who feel isolated. ‘Often advocates in organisations are trying to champion gender equality on their own. This resource brings to light the fact that resistance is faced by a lot of people undertaking this work, so people shouldn’t feel they are on their own when they’re doing this.’ 


Chart listing the forms of resistance (Denial, disavowal, inaction, appeasement, appropriation, co-option, repression, and backlash).


Resistance from those who stand to lose the most

Michael Flood makes the point that resistance is an inevitable part of the change-making process. ‘Whenever we are trying to make progress towards social change, we encounter resistance or pushback. That can be as simple as disagreement or disinterest, or it can be more organised.’

When it comes to issues of gender equality, it’s perhaps not surprising that resistance most commonly comes from the party with the most to lose from correcting gender imbalance: men.

‘When we look at men’s and women’s attitudes to any kind of gender issue we often find a gender gap where men’s attitudes tend to be more conservative than women’s attitudes are,’ says Flood, who also notes that a proportion of women, around 5 per cent, may also be resistant to change.

Flood believes this group of women feel like this because they have been socialised in the same culture as men.

‘This is a culture that teaches us that gender inequality doesn’t exist, or if there are inequalities, then they are deserved, biologically ordained or just and fair,’ says Flood. ‘Women may have investments in the very patterns of gender that have disadvantaged them. Some women make a patriarchal bargain where they go along with gender inequalities that disadvantage them in some ways because they can find some rewards or status in them.’


Expect resistance, then plan

The key to any resistance, says Flood, is not to be surprised. ‘Expect it, plan for it and strategise to minimise and effectively respond to it.’

He notes that, while more overtly aggressive and hostile resistance can be hard to deal with, subtle forms of resistance, from appeasement to appropriation of the argument, are also hard to counter.

‘One example is the succession of prominent men who’ve claimed that they simply didn’t know their male colleagues were sexual harassers and abusive. In other words, they use the stereotype of men as ignorant or incompetent to excuse their own complicity in violence. That’s harder to name and to challenge than an explicit defence of abusive behaviour.’

There’s no one-size-fits-all response for the types of resistance that can be encountered. Typically, when approached with a gender justice policy, Flood says an organisation will see a split where 15 per cent of men are strongly supportive of change, another 15 per cent strongly resistant, and the remaining 70 per cent undecided.

‘They aren’t consciously invested in sexism but feel they are ignorant about the issue and feel some discomfort about it. We need different strategies for those different groups of men,’ notes Flood.


Engaging the movable middle

If you can bring the 70 per cent on board – the so-called ‘movable middle’ – then you will see organisational change, and Flood suggests starting with framing the argument as to why equality is important.

‘Many people have allegiances to fairness and equality and justice, so you can appeal to them in terms of discussing the obvious unfairness or injustice of girls and women not having the same opportunity as men. You need to make it possible for them to walk in the door of the campaign and feel that they are being heard and they have the values and commitment of experience,’ says Flood.


Diagram showing the target of influencing people who are in the 'movable middle'


One obvious place to start is with men’s existing care and concern for the women and girls in their life, but this is only a starting point, cautions Flood.

‘If that’s as far as we go, that concern may be only paternalistic, so we need to move men beyond that and to increase their understanding of how gender inequality works so that they are more aware of the realities of sexism and the diverse forms it takes. Beyond that, you need to be developing and building on their skills to do something about it.’

The teaching and learning strategies outlined in the VicHealth resource offer some ideas for fostering the readiness of the movable middle to make change. Tactics include being emotionally engaging, encouraging empathy and drawing on the participants’ own lived experiences.


Campaign strategy that works

Pia Cerveri, the Women’s and Equality Lead at Victorian Trades Hall Council, says the Council learned from the Australian unions’ Yes campaign during the 2017 marriage equality debate. The campaign strategy was to support the fully committed and the movable middle, and to avoid engaging with the entrenched opposition.

Cerveri adds that focusing on opponents can actually be counter-productive. ‘If we just hammer them every time they say something that’s not right on, then we lose people. The people who are somewhere in the middle, who are intimidated and won’t speak to us, [they] might leave as well.’


 Case studies: Learning from workplace experiences


Victoria Police

In 2014, then Commissioner Ken Lay commissioned the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) investigation.

When the findings were published the following year, current Commissioner Graham Ashton noted that the results made for confronting reading.

‘When you read the report, you’ll be left in no doubt there have been some terrible behaviours exhibited and some terrible experiences and ordeals have been endured by our staff,’ he said.

The findings revealed a toxic culture where discrimination was embedded and harassment was widely tolerated.

‘We had actually been trying hard in this space for many years, and we [still] didn’t get it. We needed someone external to come in and help us understand that. So that’s what led to the review being commissioned,’ says Deputy Commissioner Luke Cornelius, who was charged with leading the response to the report.

Cornelius also headed Taskforce Salus, established to root out the worst examples of harassment and discrimination by members of the Victorian police, protective services and the Victorian public service, in their internal dealings as well as incidents involving vulnerable citizens.

The VEOHRC report detailed 20 recommendations to counter existing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment which were immediately actioned by Commissioner Ashton. The response included a Diversity and Inclusion Framework, a Gender Equality Strategy and Action Plan and a specialised Workplace Harm Unit to support victims and advocate for them.

Training was organised for all leaders to show them how to call out harassment, promote equality and address bias and sex discrimination. To monitor progress, regular ‘Pulse Checks’ have been initiated. These track the reporting of abuse and discrimination as well as responses to change and resistance to change, so leaders can identify how to respond to hold-outs.

Cornelius says responding to resistance is about taking people on a journey. ‘We need to first and foremost model the respectful approach, the capability building approach, and start from the standpoint that this is fundamentally about fairness. It’s about respect. And then step it out from there.’

Over the course of the last year, a ‘Stand Practice Leader Network’ was developed. Cornelius says, ‘It taps into a positive aspect of our culture. It’s about taking a stand. We stand for a respectful, inclusive and safe workplace. [With] respect to gender, that’s actually the most significant conversation that we need to have within the context of the coming inclusive workplace.’

‘We need to … start from the standpoint that this is fundamentally about fairness. It’s about respect. And then step it out from there.’

Luke Cornelius, Victoria Police

Cornelius told the VicHealth resistance forum that one of the key learnings was not to make assumptions. ‘Work out how to identify, surface and understand the reality of resistance and backlash,’ he said.

The work for Victoria Police is ongoing. Cornelius says the Pulse Checks and regular staff surveys revealed that the top five resistance factors in the organisation are as active and alive as they were three years ago.

‘The key piece for us is to recognise that we need to continue to surface and directly address and engage those resistance factors, and to challenge them, call them out and keep the conversation going.’


Victorian Trades Hall Council

Shared values are central to the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Stop Gendered Violence at Work campaign. As part of the campaign, the We Are Union Women team at Trades Hall conducts two training programs with union delegates, members, workers and managers across Victoria: Family Violence is a Workplace Issue and Stop Gendered Violence at Work.

Attached to the training initiatives is a campaign to bring the union movement along in encouraging gender equality in workplaces.

‘We believe that this will be the most powerful way to create change because you get the collective effort of the workers to see the purpose in doing that,’ says Pia Cerveri, Women's and Equality Lead at the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

Speaking at the VicHealth forum, Cerveri conceded that the campaign had experienced some resistance, but spoke about the transformative potential of framing the issue in terms of shared values.

‘We frame it in terms of the right to be safe at work. Unionists understand their rights and we frame it within an OHS framework and also within an industrial entitlements framework,’ she says. ‘Once we have these conversations with a lot of unionists, some of that resistance will actually dissipate because they very much understand that language around the safety rights of workers.’

‘We frame it in terms of the right to be safe at work. Unionists understand their rights.’

Pia Cerveri, Victorian Trades Hall 

Unionists tend to be outspoken and opinionated, says Cerveri, who notes that this is also the case in the training sessions. ‘We never struggle to get a conversation happening. We might bring it back to people to be respectful and remember what they are saying.’

This is why shared union values also frame the discussion during the training sessions. This framework helps managers and workers connect with the realities of gender equality and make the case for change. Cerveri notes that women make up the majority of Trades Hall membership, adding, ‘We cannot be united if we all think there’s differences in our union movement.’

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