Unpopular(?) opinion: There’s too much focus on women

Author: Robert Franken

I believe that we’re focussing way too much on women.

Unpopular opinion?

It might sound a bit provocative, so let me explain.

For a significant time now, our focus has been on promoting women into leadership positions and on overcoming gender gaps in our companies and in our societies.

And although those are the right things to do, we are missing something important here. We haven’t answered a simple question: Who is responsible for our status quo? Who has set the rules for our actions? What is the norm for our behavior?

The underlying framework of such a status quo is a system; a system in which we all try to perform, to accomplish, to survive, to be successful, to make a career. There are quite a few names for this system, but I prefer calling it “patriarchy”. But if you’d just like to call it “a system” – no problem at all!

Men are and have been the focal point of this system and men profit from this system, no matter if they are supporters of patriarchy or just beneficiaries of the system’s outcomes and opportunities.

If you are born a man, you can’t help but being rewarded by the system of patriarchy. It has been designed for the likes of us, for the likes of me, since I do identify as a cis gender heterosexual older white male.

Women can also profit from a patriarchal system, depending on their degree of adaptation to the system. And like we all do, women have to adapt to the system in order to be able to work and to live within it. Or simply in order to function in this system, to cope with it, to get along.

But adapting to the system is taking its toll. Since the system is designed mostly for men (and by men), the task of adaptation is a much bigger one. And it is a task that requires energy, dedication and sacrifice. Dealing with an almost unbearably huge mental load is one of the most drastic systemic outcomes for women.

As human beings, we are reacting to a systemic framework in comparatively smart ways. Our behavior adapts to what the system signals to us what would be a smart behavior. A behavior, which would be welcomed and rewarded by the systemic norms. Systems reward smart behaviors according to the system’s rules.

So back to my initial remark, that we are focussing too much on women.

We have also quite recently, I believe, embarked on a journey to empower women. And I don’t think we should do that, either! And yes, I will try to explain this, too.

Women are empowered. They have been empowering themselves for ages. Because they had to. Living in systems which don’t fulfill your particular needs in the first place needs a lot of empowerment and even more self-empowerment.

Women are not broken, the system is broken. And the system is upheld by patriarchal parameters. But instead of fixing the system, we are fixing women. To make them fit into the system. At this point, I sincerely hope that this sounds as absurd to you as it does to me.

Keeping in mind what I said about systemic preconditions, we should stop fixing women and instead fix the system. And since the system has been designed for and is upheld by mostly men, I think men should be the primary focus of systemic change towards a more gender equal society.

And thus, we need to empower men.

This may sound odd, if not reactionary. Empowering men? In a system, which already provides huge boosts for male egos? Where men are the norm and marginalized social groups are struggling?

Yes. I believe it is necessary. Not despite these systemic outcomes, but precisely because of them. I believe that men are the key to changing our systems and to create a path towards gender equal and fair and inclusive organizations and societies.

Men are struggling. Masculinity can be a very fragile thing. Men live under the fear of losing privilege and power. They very often believe that they need women to deliver stability and care. Some men only function because there are women in their lives who provide them with an emotional foundation.

And deep within, most men are aware of their emotional dependency on women. But they can’t admit it. Instead, they lash out, attack, blame and behave in a way which can only be described as a display of toxic masculinity.

Don’t get me wrong, please: The men I am writing about aren’t toxic, the underlying concepts of masculinity are. And thus, we need an evolution of male socialization and of male behavior.

In an organizational context, we need to show men where their true power lies. Not within homosocially reproducing monocultures, but in self-empowerment. Not within exclusive in-groups but in diverse and inclusive cultures and networks.

Men do have a choice, but it’s a demanding one: Either, they become a part of the solution, or they are automatically a part of the problem.

But before some men revolt or take to the barricades: I don’t blame individual men, when I am advocating for change. What I do is I am addressing a systemic malfunction. Men have to adapt to systems, too. And they have been compromised by the systems, often without knowing.

I would like men to embark on a learning journey about themselves and their roles. And about the systems they live and work in.

To me, the key to change is a process of reflection of men. We need to become aware of our privilege, especially if we don’t feel it. If we feel accused and neglected and blamed by all those attempts to heal a sexist, misogynist, exclusive, classist monocultural system, then we have a lot of work to do.

We are key players in the process. We need to become allies in changing the system. We need to live up to our responsibilities and play a role as change agents. We need to identify how and where our behavior is harming people who are different from us.

“People who are different from us” is quite an accurate definition of the concept of diversity, which goes way beyond the binary and narrow debate of male vs. female. We’re all so much more than just men and women.

We need to understand people’s access to our systems. How does the world look like for a person who is non-white, trans, homosexual, poor, disabled, illiterate, introvert or else? How does our world feel for others?

Our approach to understanding these facts must be an empathic one, not just a rational one. We need to educate ourselves and learn about our biases and about concepts such as intersectionality.

Diversity is very demanding, very exhausting. But we must all go to work and create inclusive and fair systems that are based on equality. Our KPIs shouldn’t be awards or manifestos or metrics from the pipeline only – but a feeling of belonging of those who haven’t yet had equal access.

Anti-Sexist Dance?

Author: Philipp Eigner

Is there such a thing as feminist Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba?

Contact, proximity, tension and flow, dynamics, harmony, rhythm and aesthetics. Dancing is an incredibly fulfilling occupation. For me, it’s the first activity that really captivated me and made me constantly reach for more. More knowledge, more ease, more precise movements and clearer interaction. It delights me and makes me euphoric. Before, during and after. We don’t have to travel far to dance. We hardly need any special equipment. We do not even need special weather. Dancing always works. All this, for me, makes social dancing a captivating activity for every day of the week. I have never felt more fulfilled than when I am dancing.

This is how I feel about it.

However, dance can be interpreted differently. I have personal insight into the dances Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba. Dance is also fertile soil for macho fantasies, sexual assault and outdated gender role concepts. As a man who is gradually learning to think feministically, I often ask myself whether — as a member of the dance community — I am acting against my feminist convictions, carrying on sexism, or perpetuating stereotypes and unequal treatment.

Picture of a dancing couple in sunset

Is there such a thing as feminist dancing of Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba, or is sexism an essential pillar of these dances? Throughout this text, I understand sexism as unequal treatment and judgement based on assumed gender differences.

What’s the problem?

Can something that triggers as many positive feelings as social dancing be problematic at all? I believe YES. On the one hand, it’s indeed possible that both dancing partners enjoy the moment of dancing without any reservations. On the other hand, this enjoyment takes place in a heavily burdened bigger picture. In a mindset that indisputably nourishes from fixed role concepts and attributions.

The basic principle of dances like Salsa is the distribution of roles into leaders and followers. In these dances, this distribution is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the system of such dances would not work. The way figures are created by action and reaction is based on this distribution. Just as statics and dynamics, which have to apply to make the characteristic moves possible. Spinning, i.e. fast turns of the follower in the rhythm of the music, is not imaginable without clear guidance. Neither are lifting techniques that require a stable foundation to not appear uncontrolled. Without the leader-follower relationship, the dance would result in chaotic misunderstandings.

Some dances do not rely on the distribution of roles or are performed alone. But these will never provide the Salsa/Bachata/Kizomba feeling. This feeling that’s unique for each of the dances.

Now, this doesn’t mean the follower has to be female and vice versa. For the dances to work, it’s sufficient that the roles exist at all. Nevertheless, experience shows that the roles in the overwhelming majority are filled by men and women following the common stereotypes. The assigned functions of leader and follower are often carried out by men and women due to the traditional social narrative of the “natural” qualities of the respective gender. What does this mean?

The necessary functions of the leader in Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba, regardless of who takes on the role, are the following: He*She is the proactive, initiative part. The provider of ideas. Shapes the basic structure. Defines what is danced. Gives the framework. Forms the roots of the couple.

This coincides with many clichés projected onto men in the social mainstream: The man acts and defines; is the subject; is strong and rough.

The functions of the follower, however, are these: He*She is the reacting part. Can decide how the given framework is filled. Is the eye-catcher. Presents him*herself and is presented. Stands for the blossoms of the couple.

This in turn coincides with clichés usually projected onto women: The woman reacts; is the object; is beautiful and presentable.

Thus it’s obvious that a sexist role concept is portrayed and reinforced here. In my opinion, this is no coincidence. I am convinced that a sexist basic idea was always in mind, if not essential, when these dances evolved in the second half of the 20th century. Otherwise, I couldn’t explain how certain seductive gestures and the over-emphasis of bottom and chest entered the aesthetics of those dances. It’s striking who seduces whom, who represents whose adornment. Explicit sexism was more accepted in the old days. But even today the tales of boss and secretary, of rock star and groupie, of football player and football player’s wife are still present in people’s minds. The essential forms of expression of Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba fit into this hierarchical understanding.

Many of us have a queasy feeling about this. In 2020 we are questioning dated social patterns in all aspects of our lives. This also applies to dance.

What can we do to further develop the beauty of our dances and simultaneously throw the sexist ballast overboard?

As they will be frequently mentioned in the next few lines, I would like to once again point out the difference between the concepts sexual and sexist.

Sexual is what in the widest sense draws its energy from interpersonal attraction and reproductive drive. I here include love and amorousness in a somewhat simplistic way. The sexual drive is as fundamentally anchored in the human being as the need to eat or sleep. Although it’s overlaid by culture, it remains present. Still today it’s manifested, e.g. in the attractive or repulsive effect of body odour, in the perception of beauty and the desire for closeness. I enjoy observing the work of these energies and find nothing wrong with them. It’s sexist, on the other hand, to limit people’s freedom of expression based on assumed gender differences, to expect supposedly gender-specific forms of expression from dancers, but also to associate these forms of expression with sexual availability. Furthermore, it’s sexist to carry on social power constellations on the dance floor and to use dance as an excuse for sexual harassment.

Consequently, sexual is a neutral term, whereas sexist is a description of behaviour that’s condemned in our century.

In my opinion, social dancing could be made less sexist on these three levels: Basic agreementsimple changes in behaviour and role concepts.

Basic agreement

First of all, I believe there should be a basic agreement to consider dancing as a sport. A form of social interaction giving people a good feeling, regardless of their position. Dance should create a space for appreciation and respect. For me, this means that I dance at least one dance with everyone treating me with respect and inviting me to dance. Part of this respect is to be cultivated, friendly and not completely drunk. Furthermore not to rip me out of a conversation. At the same time, the sportive way of dancing I am talking about here should be practised without sexual intention. It’s true that feelings arising from sexuality play an essential role in the completeness of a dance, as we will see later. Nevertheless, dance events should be non-violent places where closeness and interaction depend on the consent of each person.

Dancers who use the dance floor for abuse and harassment, who grab, grope and don’t want to distinguish the hip from the bottom, are beyond any discussion I would like to have here.

Simple changes in behaviour

It’s easy to leave out obviously sexist details from the dance if they don’t add any value. This includes suggestive gestures and names of certain figures. Here I am talking, for instance, about moves of Salsa Rueda de Casino, which clearly represent penetration or slaps on the bottom. In the European context of social dancing, they portray nothing else than male domination and assault. As a white German, it’s not up to me to judge the original meaning of the moves originating from the Cuban Guaguancó. Still, I will not use them in my dance.

A second behaviour, which can easily be identified and dismissed as sexist, is the traditional dance invitation: the follower waiting for the leader’s request. This custom from the last millennium has no value for dancing, except stamping the follower as passive once again. In my circle of friends, the one-sided dance invitation already has become history. This makes it easier to treat each other as subjects. As subjects who put themselves into a certain role for a limited period of time and can leave it whenever they want. Invitations can also be refused at any time if the person being invited is not in the mood for it. The person asking must respect this choice.

Role concept

Ifind it more difficult to change the role concept in dance. By role concept I mean here: Who takes on which of the roles described above and consciously or unconsciously fulfils the whole package of expectations associated with that role? The core components of dance are affected by the role concept and the actual individuals playing the roles. At the very top of that article, I have named these core components: tensionflowrhythmdynamicsproximityharmonycontact and aesthetics. Some of them are clustered around the attraction of two people. Tension to dynamics are imaginable without interpersonal attraction. For me, this means from concrete experience: As a heterosexual cis man, it’s quite easy for me to experience these components with any other person of any gender positioning. That means also with people I am not sexually oriented towards (e.g. other heterosexual cis men).

However, to put life into the components proximityharmonycontact and aesthetics, I need interpersonal attraction. Or at least the rejection must not be too strong. How attraction or rejection work is unique to each person and includes gender identity and sexual orientation. Everyone has met a variety of people whom they are not attracted to.

Wait a minute! Why am I writing about sexual attraction here, although this text is actually about overcoming sexism (a cultural phenomenon) and not sexuality (something supposedly natural)? I feel our sexuality hinders us from overcoming sexist behaviour.

It’s the sexual attraction that, in my opinion, makes it possible to let oneself fall entirely into the dance. I think every dancer knows the short falling in love occurring when a dance is perfect. This falling in love, that makes the dancing partners briefly melt together. This is the case even though I have excluded sexual intentions earlier and defined the dance as sportive. That sounds paradoxical! But it makes sense if we acknowledge that it is a conscious decision to exclude sexual intentions. A social agreement and a product of cultural education.

At this point, there is often irritation of outsiders who are not familiar with the dancing agreement. People who see Bachata Sensual or Kizomba for the first time are often convinced they witness a kind of obscene sex with clothes on. It’s true: What is performed has sexual expressions. But as far as I can tell, there is usually no tangible thought of sex between the partners. The dancing agreement allows us to reproduce the supposedly sexual expressions with many different people, even strangers. The best time to observe the dancing agreement at work is in the seconds after the end of the song. Often there is a short hug and then the dancers quickly re-establish their intimate sphere. Thereafter both rapidly go their way. This phenomenon can be observed on social dance floors and also in videos of professional dance couples.

For me, attraction is an important component in fulfilling dance. I guess it’s quite relevant for many dancers with whom they dance. At the same time, the aesthetics the dancing couple wants to feel and express are determined by social conditioning, which cannot simply be thrown overboard. We have seen these aesthetics over and over again in films, YouTube videos and advertising: Sunset. Beach. Tenderness. Face to face. Cheek to cheek. These are just some of the common associations with couple dance. So beautiful, so limiting.

This leads to the following problem: To avoid confirming role clichés, it would be worth striving to dance with one another without regard to gender. That way, all roles would be adopted by all genders. Attribution would be dismissed. At the same time, it would be easier to break with the familiar aesthetic expectations because of the unusual image. New impressions that do not depend on perceived gender could arise: sportyplayfulcircularlinearclearcoolexplosiveenergeticsoft or flowy. However, my sexuality (in a wide sense) hinders this gender-independent performance. Regardless of taking the role of leader or follower, I feel most comfortable dancing with a woman I find attractive (or at least not repellent). And so I return to my Hollywood-Sunset-Comfort-Zone. This way, the most fundamental chance to shake up clichés is wasted.

So I try to at least break with the clichés within my frequent man-woman dances. I like to play the follower-role in dancing with a woman. I can then fulfil all components of the dance… except for the typical aesthetics. For example, I do not want to perform certain gestures which woman traditionally do when they play the follower-role (stroking through the hair or overdoing hip movements, etc.). And when I perform them, it’s meant self-ironic. Hence, the aesthetics of our dance with reversed roles becomes different from the classical one and feels incomplete.

Why do I not want to perform these gestures? Because I feel ashamed? Because I am afraid of people’s judgement? Because I have a problem with what these gestures say? Because I equate attributed femininity with weakness deep in my subconscious and I do not want to appear weak myself?

Then why do I find it OK for women to use these gestures? Am I less feminist than I would like to be? Do I unconsciously demand that women use such gestures and therefore interpret a dance with a reversed role assignment as incomplete per se?

Probably a little bit of everything is right! I still carry expectations inside me which I need to drop. On the other hand, we obviously lack a comprehensible offer of dance aesthetics that can be used regardless of gender. Aesthetics that don’t transport any traditional clichés (such as weakness and sexual availability), yet still feel beautiful and complete.


The development of new aesthetics beyond familiar attributions could be the first step we can start with today. Starting points could be the adjectives I mentioned above (sporty, playful, circular, linear, clear, cool, explosive, energetic, soft, flowy). Possible topic of a workshop: What can dancers do to make the dance look “playful”? Possible topic of a series of courses: How do we create a feeling of “explosiveness” for us and our environment? … There are forms of expression waiting for us which we can’t imagine today within the Salsa, Bachata or Kizomba community. All this requires a long process. Dances are in constant change anyway, but the direction of that change can possibly be influenced by some special focus on anti-sexism.

The aim should be to uncouple dance with its beautiful aspects from power structures and outdated role concepts. At the same time, we should not deny the importance of interpersonal attraction. That e.g. means not to expect a progressive dancer to dance with each and every person. Expression always is highly subjective. One thing is particularly important: everyone must be allowed to stay who they are. From personal conversations I know that many women, even those with a thoroughly feminist attitude, enjoy letting themselves fall into the follower-role. Knowing full well that they do so intentionally, being able to escape this role whenever they want.

We must not mistakenly invent counter-norms. For me, acting feminist means creating a climate in which everyone can be him*herself without being devalued. Every dancer is allowed to express what he*she wants to stand for at that moment. Without aesthetic constraints, without limits. For themselves.

The author was born and raised in East Germany. He is currently based in Bremen/Germany. Philipp says he’s a passionate feminist, dancer and engineer. He’s constantly trying to figure out how privileged people can be part of the solution to discrimination issues.

This article has originally been published here (in German) and here (in English).

Keynote on #GenerationEquality

Good evening. Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words.

The fact, that I am doing this keynote – a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, comparatively old, cis-male from Germany – can be both: a provocation and a sign of hope. And maybe it is indeed both.

Male feminist engagement is a paradox in itself. We need to be aware of that. And I need this, my awareness, to be followed by a sense of responsibility: I am responsible for the choices I am making.

One of the things I always want to achieve through activism is to criticize the very privilege of mine, which I have been trying to describe by listing my non-diverse setup. My role raises a lot of questions. And quite frankly:  I do not have an answer to a lot of those questions.

Should I participate, should I speak up and share a perspective that has probably been shared too many times already?

Or should I step away and make room and just listen and learn?

And no matter which decision I am making: There are always well-founded arguments against and legitimate criticism of my decisions.

So thank you once again, dear Global Shapers, for giving me the opportunity to speak, knowing that this means, that so many people, who should be speaking, who should be heard and included are not getting this very opportunity – at least not today.

If I may, I would like to talk about the current situation in my home country, which by many people around the globe is seen as a positive example during the Corona crisis. Germany is being regarded as an economic powerhouse of global scale. But I do have some doubts whether these two assessments are fair and correct.

What we’re experiencing in times of the global Corona crisis, is nothing less than the escalation of gender gaps.

Speaking from Germany and about Germany, we have an average Gender Pay Gap of 20 %, a Gender Care Gap of 52.4 %, a Gender Pension Gap of around 50 % and many many more rather invisible gender gaps.

Corona is a magnifying glass for these issues. And this magnifying glass is clearly pointing out: Germany is not doing well. Actually, not at all.

I got a WhatsApp message last week from a friend of ours. She’s a married mother of two and is currently working part-time. What she’s doing is: She’s getting up at 4:30 in the morning, starting her job at 5 a.m. and working until 9 o’clock. By then, her family would be up and she would take over the kids and the household so that her husband can do his full-time job out of their home office.

This is just one story, there are literally thousands. This has to do with a German obsession with the ideal of a traditional core family as well as with our widespread image of women and mothers being kind of a natural default option for care work. This is very hard to tackle.

And there are, of course, stories that are far worse, and that are hardly being told at all. Stories from much less privileged people. From single mothers and parents, from people with disabilities who depend on the help of others, from marginalized groups and individuals, whose situation has even worsened through Covid-19. This list goes on and on.

Here in Germany, the massive consequences of systemic toxic masculinity, for instance, are still being largely ignored. Misogyny and sexual harassment are still being seen by many as imported phenomenons rather than as deeply rooted integral parts of a German socialization. Covid-19 has already taken its toll: The quantity and the quality of domestic abuse primarily against women and children has increased in more than dramatic fashion. 

Globally, the economic and physical disruptions caused by the disease could have vast consequences for the rights and health of women and girls. According to UN Women Germany, a new analysis by the United Nations Population Fund estimates

  • seven million unwanted pregnancies⠀
  • 31 million additional cases of Gender violence
  • two million cases of female genital mutilation and
  • an additional 13 million child marriages within the upcoming decade that could have been prevented.

All of this is devastating. And all of this stands in sharp contrast to so many articles and op-eds claiming that the Corona crisis is a huge opportunity für positive change.

Is it?

In Germany, it took the public debate more than six weeks into the crisis, before politicians even started talking about families and children and parents. They’re still not talking that much about women, which clearly indicates a systemic deficiency once more.

The reason why parents and mothers and women do not have a lobby is because they are not represented in the decision-making processes. They do care work instead of career work, instead of paid work. Because they have to. The debate is lacking their perspective. And we are blaming the women and mothers and parents for not contributing their perspective rather than blaming the people in charge: predominantly men who hardly have any care responsibilities and who have pursued their careers on the backs of a legion of caseworkers and caregivers who have been ignored for so long.

Speaking of systems: Virtually everybody is talking about system-relevant parts of our economies and societies. System-relevance seems to have become the new hard-skill. The discussion is a large-scale in-group/out-group lab trial. If you are system-relevant, you get praise from our balconies at 9 p.m. If you are not, well… you’re not.

As if those, who have been ignored by our systems for so long already, didn’t know that…

The problem is: What if the expression “system-relevant” is just a euphemism for “Yeah, let’s get them some applause and praise and spotlight so that we wouldn’t have to change anything about their working conditions, let alone their financial resources”? And what if the really system-relevant groups haven’t yet been addressed at all?

Maybe this is complaining on a comparatively high level, but what I will never understand is, that German politics in the context of diversity and gender equality is so obviously lacking a vision. Instead: Paid work and the economy are and remain our dogma.

Our workforces, on the other hand, have been reduced to their mere capability to…. well… to work, to function, to fulfill, to provide, to support, to engage, to accelerate, to optimize, to adapt… and yet, even in times of a pandemic, hardly anybody seems to be able or willing to acknowledge a simple truth: The way our systems speak about people and their system-relevance says much more about the systems than about the people.

“Stop fixing people, fix the system” has been my credo ever since I have started working as a freelance consultant for organizational cultures. And actually, this credo has another connotation most of the time. It reads “Stop fixing women, fix the system”. For it is still an organizational reflex to expect women to adapt to organizations. And this reflex is by no means an exclusively male reflex. Patriarchy has gone to great lengths to imprint its manipulative logic into our brains. We need huge efforts to make this visible and to create access to understanding and to deconstructing our systemic reflexes.

This is where all our activisms can come together. Because together, we can make significant system change possible.

Sonja Bastin, a sociologist from Bremen, has recently given an interview in which she states:

“We have to understand that none of us could open a business, none of us would be politicians or could find a vaccine if it weren’t for people who do care work. No one should be allowed to take advantage of an adult worker or employee without paying compensation.”

Does that sound radical to you? Maybe yes. But is it a utopian or a dystopian thought? I believe we need to re-negotiate our utopias and take responsibility for our collective future as human-beings.

This is what activism can be about: bringing our utopias within striking distance. Creating safe spaces where we can discuss and negotiate our ideas of a collective present and future. Including diverse perspectives and different points-of-view across continents, industries, societies and social spheres. Like tonight.

This does not mean that we should ignore all the bad things that are happening. And this does not mean, either, that we cannot be critical about one another, that we shouldn’t challenge or speak out about our biases and blind spots and privileges.

This just means that there is still enough common ground for us all working together in very different contexts.

I would like to thank you all for being part of this. For seeking new ideas and platforms and technologies to bring change. For supporting each other and for becoming allies for all the different approaches towards gender equality. For tolerating educational gaps of activism and for trusting the good intentions of each and everyone who is participating tonight and beyond today.

I am very much looking forward to some exciting startup pitches by very smart entrepreneurs as well as to listening to the panel discussion and the exchange of diverse points of view a bit later.

Have a great evening and thank you.


This keynote was being presented (remotely) by Robert Franken during the NEXT B2B FORUM by Global Shapers Hub Frankfurt on May 26th 2020.

Men are the key to gender equality

Text by Robert Franken, originally published here.

Gender equality is a topic that Germans seem to find particularly difficult to deal with. On an international level, we are doing anything but well. According to the Gender Equality Index of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), with a value of 66.9 (100 means full equality), Germany lags behind the European average. The EU Gender Equality Report highlights the most important developments over the last twelve months as well as processes of change since 2010 and focuses on potential factors for the progress of equal opportunities for women and men in the EU.

The situation in Germany is pretty bad in the area of wage equality: The gender pay gap, i.e. the wage gap between the sexes, is stalling at 21 percent. Some people believe that this gross wage gap can be reduced to a net gap of less than five percent. However, they lose sight of the fact that wage discrimination is no less unfair simply because a large part of the responsible factors can be explained. The opposite is true: Those who know about the factors and who do nothing about them are explicitly discriminating.

Other gender gaps are no less dramatic. On average, women perform 52.4 percent more care work than men (gender care gap), earn just half of an average male lifetime income (gender lifetime earnings gap) and, finally, women are quite frequently confronted with poverty at old age as a result of the gender pension gap. It is truly a vicious circle of gender gaps, and it is high time to take countermeasures.

The economic sphere faces significant challenges. For a long time, politicians, in particular, appealed to companies to finally ensure that equal rights should also be introduced at management level. With the “Act on the Equal Participation of Women and Men in Management Positions“ (German: „Gesetz für die gleichberechtigte Teilhabe von Frauen und Männern an Führungspositionen (FüPoG)“, the federal government introduced a binding quota for supervisory boards of listed companies in 2015. In addition, the law also provided for an obligation to set target figures, according to which certain companies must set themselves target figures for increasing the proportion of women on their supervisory boards, boards of management and top management levels. However, the latter in particular subsequently proved to be hardly effective.

Many companies simply carry on as before. They more or less stoically take note of their glass ceilings and their leaky pipelines (i.e. hierarchies in which the number of women decreases in proportion to their career level). As if these phenomena were laws of nature, and not the result of structural injustices and systemic misconfigurations. If, against this background, listed companies continue to set themselves a „Zielquote null”, this seems only cynical against the background of the debates on equality. Politicians have already announced that they will react.

But it is not only because the political interventions and regulatory frameworks are too vague. Corporate leaders – and the vast majority of them are men – have also become accustomed to delegating and institutionalising the issues of diversity and gender equality. This means that they appoint equality and/or diversity officers, but generally do not take care of the details themselves.

But it is precisely these details that have the potential to provide the solution. As a man, I have to deal with my role and responsibility in the area of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), otherwise little or nothing will change. And this responsibility cannot be delegated, neither to departments nor to individuals. If the right attitude of those responsible is lacking, every individual measure is obsolete. And this attitude must be the top (management) priority.

There is still a lack of “agency” in this area. Those who have decision-making power in organizations must also take responsibility for the issues mentioned. Responsibility means that they must make these issues their own personal agenda.

Men have a key role to play in this context. Why? Because they can change the system: by reflecting on their attitude, by questioning their behavior, by making concrete decisions from positions of power. Men must eventually give up power so that power can be distributed more fairly. We need an honest examination of our internalized beliefs and behaviors, our socialization as men and our numerous blind spots and biases.

It is simply human that we think and act on the basis of so many biases. It is human that we are subject to stereotypes and prejudices. It is human that we occasionally think and act sexist, racist or classicist. It would be inhumane, however, if we did not do everything in our power to improve. Unfortunately, simple anti-bias training or similar interventions do not help, and some of them are even counterproductive. Such measures must be embedded in the cultural transformation of our organizations. And that is hard work that many seem to shy away from.

Up to now, attention has been focused almost exclusively on women. They had been identified as having alleged deficits. Mentoring programs, behavioral and communication training and numerous other measures have aimed and still aim to train women to behave in a very specific way. In other words, to teach them how best to fit into the system. However, such an approach hinders the much-needed questioning of the system and also feeds two dangerous narratives: that women are supposedly not (yet) able to do it; and that women who have been selected for certain leadership positions but refused such promotion would simply not want it. Both are distorted perceptions that distract from structural problems.

Inclusion is about fair and equal participation. Fixing women, i.e. making women fit in, is the exact opposite: It creates every conceivable loophole for our systems and their protagonists so that everything can stay the same. But that would be fatal in view of the transformation tasks that lie ahead of businesses, politics and society. Diversity is a coping strategy in the context of VUCA, not a nice-to-have.

Hopefully, it will soon no longer be a matter of teaching women how to perform management tasks in predominantly male environments. Instead, we finally have the chance to focus on changing the system. And the system is built for men, designed by men and influenced by men. This brings with it great responsibility. Men have a choice: they can become part of the solution, or they automatically remain part of the problem.

For companies this means a major rethink. The times in which paid work was standing monolithically in the centre of an employee’s life are coming to an end. It used to be the individual responsibility of each and every one of us to create compatibility between work and life, to ensure that paid work and care work could function next to each other But this is increasingly becoming a challenge for employers, too – at least in higher-qualified professions and sectors. Companies must get used to including aspects beyond the context of paid work in their area of responsibility. In short, they must do more to live up to their social responsibility. And that also means helping to ensure that men do less paid work and more care work. 

All this is linked to overcoming male hyperinclusion. Men are so involved in being managers, CEOs, VPs or directors, that there are oftentimes no other responiobilities left fort them in life, in particular no care work responsibilities. When men realize that they should not only take a step back, but that this is accompanied by a great enrichment of their own life experience, then opportunities for female careers and the chance for a fairer distribution of care work open up at the same time. The latter is a core task of our time, not only from the perspective of a feminist economy.

For it’s true what Sabine Rennefanz recently formulated in her column for the Berliner Zeitung: “For a long time the Western-style welfare state only worked because women did work for free. They raised children, they cared for the elderly. But women are less and less willing to do this, with drastic consequences that everyone feels.” 

Women are more and more tired of dealing with their “mental load”, the never-ending to-do list in connection with care activities. It keeps them from making a career or simply from having time for other things than housework, childcare or paid work. Some call it life.

The economy benefits immensely from unpaid care work performed by women. In a recent study, the development aid organization Oxfam calculated that women and girls worldwide perform more than twelve billion hours of unpaid work every day. If the minimum wage were applied to this work, it would be worth over eleven trillion US dollars a year. 

We must finally turn our attention to men. The Swedish AllBright Foundation has been monitoring developments in Germany for a long time. Christian Berg, who runs the foundation in Germany together with Dr. Wiebke Ankersen, cites as a key factor for employers “encouraging men to take more parental leave, pick up children from daycare or stay home with sick children. If you don’t do this, you automatically promote men in the company at the expense of women.” These are already very concrete recommendations for action, which have the potential to shift organizational and ultimately social norms in the medium term.

The fact that norms are already changing can be observed not least in the investment decisions of the major players. Goldman Sachs, for example, which has not exactly been a role model of fairness and justice in the past, will no longer accompany IPOs of companies whose supervisory boards are “white and male”. A small step, but one from an influential niche. 

In case we get our systems moving and start to eliminate asymmetric gender relations, we should tie a huge knot in our handkerchiefs. We must not fall into the trap of simpy replacing men in influential positions with women. This must also involve a questioning of our economic systems as a whole. Without constructive and systemic criticism of capitalism, the call for gender equality remains a lip service. 

New rules for post-patriarchal systems and societies


Photo by Annie Spratt on unsplash.com

„The enemy of feminism isn’t men. It’s patriarchy, and patriarchy is not men. It is a system, and women can support the system of patriarchy just as men can support the fight for gender equality.“ (Justine Musk)

Most people are done with patriarchy. No, really. I mean it. They have analyzed and studied it. They have experienced its narrow limitations and its discriminatory nature. They came to the conclusion, that patriarchal systems are counterintuitive in times, where we’d rather embrace diversity than stick to predominantly male monocultures. We need a multitude of perspectives in order to cope with what we have framed in a cryptic acronym: „VUCA“. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity.

And yet, we haven’t abolished patriarchy once and for all. We still rely on it in times of radical change. This is absurd. We almost behave like alcoholics, well aware of the fatal implications of the drug.

But why?

Female authority as a key concept

Antje Schrupp, a German political scientist, feminist and author, wrote an excellent piece on female authority back in 2001, in which she describes how the patriarchal system remains in charge simply because a trusted new approach is yet to be established. Patriarchy’s logic, Schrupp explains, has left women with only two alternatives: They can either adapt to roles and behaviors typically framed as female, or, they can strive to become like men themselves. And, of course, this is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Sometimes, while trying to fully grasp the implications of patriarchal systems, I get the impression that there’s a fight going on on all sides: a fight for the interpretation sovereignty about what is to become an alternative system to patriarchy. And only after having read Antje Schrupp’s essay, I have understood that we are still lacking such a new order. The disorder, Schrupp has already been pointing at some twenty years ago, is still affecting large parts of our systems today.

This disorder leads to an increasing alienation: Women (and more and more men) feel like they don’t belong any more. Whether it is political parties, transnational organizations or companies: All of these institutions find it harder and harder to create attraction and, even harder, retention. And I have an inkling, that this may well have to do with the rules, by which they are still playing out campaigns or employer branding.

New rules, new narratives

The old narratives won’t resonate any longer. But what’s next then? Is this just a challenge for a new kind of storytelling? I believe, that it’s a discussion much more fundamental. It’s about a completely new set of rules.

There are still no widely accepted rules for social cooperation in a post-patriarchal society. And a lot of people (women* and men*) remain „within the logic of the patriarchy by constantly protesting against its rules or by interpreting their feeling of alienation by claiming that the patriarchy has indeed not ended yet.“

We are still struggling, both with the alienation by existing systems and with our inability to live and act by a fundamentally new set of rules. This might also explain, for example, why some men are fighting organizational promotion of women as being discriminatory against their own career advancements.

Men being stuck in traditional dramas

Instead of focusing on their impact while changing the existing system, these men are acting within the old paradigms of a system they almost certainly despise for its discriminatory setup. They simply can’t see any other way, they’re stuck in a mono perspective: get a job, make a career, establish a status and thus become attractive for a partner–then (and only then) you can have a family and a meaningful life.

It’s pretty obvious that this way of defining meaning in life has several inherent dangers. If you pursue such a one-way street in life, you’ll lack resilience every time something goes wrong. You’re only option will be to push through. The outcome can be devastating, when relationships, finances and health are at risk.

Our individual and collective actions are once again lagging behind our ways of thinking, which are already crossing boundaries from time to time. We have adopted new ways of thinking our societies, economies, businesses etc., but our actions still support the very foundations of the systems in charge, above all: the patriarchy.

Caring economy as an alternative framework

In order to overcome this paradox, we must change our reference point. No longer should we make the existing system the foundation of all our endeavors and ambitions, but a new system of sustainable relationships, where humans are no longer a disposable factor within certain economic cycles, but at the center of a caring economy. This may sound comparatively socialistic when we first hear it, but, in fact, it is most certainly the only way of creating a future foundation of social welfare economies.

Spheres of the Economy (from: “The UN Women Gender and Economics Training Manual”, p. 34)

If we take a look at the spheres of the economy  it becomes obvious, that there are two spheres which represent a monetized economy (finance and production), while the remaining two spheres (reproduction and nature) are part of a non-monetized (or: maintenance) economy. We are looking at nothing less than at the core of capitalism’s drama. The barrier between production and reproduction marks the single point of failure of our economic system: It is a system of exploitation. And a one-way street.

By breaking up the barriers between the two spheres which are so deeply interlinked and dependent on each other, we could initiate a holistic approach to answering fundamental questions: How do we want to live and work together in a future where paid work will become an increasingly volatile factor while care work will even more become the centerpiece of functioning societies?

„Female“ symbolic order

Women are the cornerstone of such a caring economy. In a talk from 2017, author, philosopher and learning therapist Dorothee Markert relates to the Italian feminist thinkers, who recommend substituting female power relationships by authority relationships. Markert, once again, points to Antje Schrupp, who argues in her publication „ABC des guten Lebens“ for these new kinds of relationships among women, which could create a new foundation of social cooperation and unleash „independency from a male-shaped symbolic order“.

The key question for me would be: How can I create impact and how can I support the development and establishing of a „female*“ symbolic order? I have no answers yet, only ideas. But I am curious and thus looking forward to seeing the debate unfold.

AuthorRobert Franken