Opinion

Are White Men An Endangered Species?

We need to talk about privilege, says columnist, Lucy Vine

God, men can be such basic bitches, can’t they? This week, Tesco chairman, John Allan – one of nine white men who sit on the executive board – said that men have become an ‘endangered species’ at the top of British business. And literally everyone LOLed.

I think really, he was trying to be, y’know ‘fun’! As men in ties so often try and fail to be. He was speaking to aspiring business folk at the Retail Week Live conference the day after International Women’s Day, so he surely wouldn’t be so stupidly blinkered to say it with a totally straight face. For context, this is his speech to ‘encourage’ entrepreneurs:

‘If you are female and from an ethnic background, and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period. For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.’

But there are two problems when you’re trying to be funny about something like this:

  1. Boardroom appointments of women are still a joke. And at last count, they were going down. In fact – as an open letter this week reminded us – there are actually more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than women (14 Johns, to seven women called lots of different things).

  2. Much more of a concern: this fear and suspicion of women – of women ‘stealing’ men’s position in society – is increasingly the prevailing feeling among many older white men. And it is disturbing AF.

It reminds me of a Caitlin Moran feature I read again recently, where she cites a recent study of conversation in a mixed gender group. In it, when women talk 25% of the time (or less), the conversation was seen as ‘equally balanced’, but if women talk 25-50% of the time, they’re seen as ‘dominating the conversation’. Think about that for a second, because it’s miserable. As Caitlin put it, ‘[I] remembered all the times in social media, or in conversations, an angry man has said, “Women are WINNING now. Women are EVERYWHERE. It is MEN who are being silenced”, and it all made sense.’

It does all make sense. When you’re used to having everything handed to you automatically, and on your terms, of course equality will feel unfair.

There’s such an interesting conversation I keep having with myself (because no one will have it with me because maybe it’s not actually that interesting?) It’s about Social Identity Theory, which is the idea of how we see ourselves – what ‘group’ we feel we belong to in society – and how the world defines that. And the increase in something called Social Identity Threat – or ‘Gender Identity Threat’, which I prefer because of the acronym – which is when someone feels that their ‘group’ or gender is being valued negatively. Everywhere we look at the moment, we’re seeing men freaking out about their position in society. They’ve always been the only stars of the life movie. Women were their supporting cast, occasionally brought in to help move the plot along, but c’mon, ultimately still just supporting cast. But now we want equality, and some men feel under attack – like they’re an ‘endangered species’.

Piers Morgan, is a prime example of this. When Women’s Equality Party leader, Sophie Walker complained about the comments made by the Tesco boss, Morgan immediately went to his happy place on Twitter, shrieking about ‘rabid feminism’, as is his wont. As usual, he gets to tell everyone what is and isn’t ‘acceptable feminism’. He talks about it often – how we are allowed to be upset about the big issues – the gender pay gap and the appalling rates of violence against women – but the smaller stuff is all just ‘rabid feminists’ overreacting. And then he’ll bring up Theresa May as PM and rant about Madonna for no reason because I think he’s secretly in love with her? What he fails to understand (or, in my opinion, deliberately refuses to understand because it’s his brand now), is that all the so-called ‘little things’ are linked to the bigger things. They add to a culture that tells women they are less important, and tells men that they can treat us thusly.

It comes back to Gender Identity Theory again. It’s why women in the fifties did and said nothing about being hit by their husbands – because they ‘knew their place’. Their place was less. Their place in society was ‘just a woman’. We’re trying to re-learn these things, and teach our daughters that ‘their place’ is side-by-side with men. That they are worth just as much. But how do we do that when everywhere they turn, they see the default settings are still all male – and men like Morgan scoffing at those of us trying to change those things, because he feels oppressed by equality.

It comes back to that amazing quote about privilege I see from time to time. And there’s no doubt we could all use a reminder of it in our daily lives:

‘Privilege is when you think something is not a problem, because it’s not a problem to you personally.’

Follow Lucy @lecv

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