Responding to backlash and resistance

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VicHealth, (En)countering resistance 2018 - Cover

Gender equality initiatives often face resistance and backlash. Michael Flood, Molly Dragiewicz, and Bob Pease co-authored a report on resistance and backlash, commissioned by VicHealth in 2017. This evidence review is available here. VicHealth then turned the 40-page report into an eight-page briefing, available here.

The executive summary of Flood et al.'s report is copied below. Also see VicHealth's discussion of this work here.

Citations:

Flood, M., Dragiewicz, M., & Pease, B. (2018). Evidence Review – Backlash to Gender Equality. Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth).

VicHealth. (2018). (En)countering resistance: Strategies to respond to resistance to gender equality initiatives. Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth).

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Executive Summary

Gender equality initiatives often face resistance and backlash. This report begins by examining such resistance, describing its character and origins and the typical forms it takes. The report surveys existing efforts to prepare for and respond to backlash. It concludes with recommendations for how most effectively to respond to, and indeed prevent, resistance to gender equality initiatives.

Defining backlash and resistance

The terms ‘backlash’ and ‘resistance’ are used interchangeably in this report to refer to any form of resistance towards progressive social change. With regard to gender, backlash is one of the many practices and processes which maintain or reinforce gender inequalities.

The origin and nature of backlash and resistance

Resistance is a common, perhaps inevitable, response to progressive social change. While efforts to build gender equality, remedy other social injustices and promote health have long met with opposition, the forms this takes are diverse, contextual and historically specific.

Resistance and backlash may be practised both by individuals and collectively, by formal organisations and informal groupings. They may involve formal or informal strategies. Resistance is most likely to come from the people who are advantaged by the status quo. In the case of efforts to build gender equality, resistance is more common from men than women.

Resistance takes common and identifiable forms:

  • Denial: Denial of the problem or the legitimacy of the case for change
  • Disavowal: Refusal to recognise responsibility
  • Inaction: Refusal to implement a change initiative
  • Appeasement: Efforts to placate or pacify those advocating for change in order to limit its impact
  • Appropriation: Simulating change while covertly undermining it
  • Cooption: Using the language of progressive frameworks and goals (‘equality’, ‘rights’, ‘justice’, and so on) as a way of resisting change
  • Repression: Reversing or dismantling a change initiative

Denial is one of the most common forms of resistance. Individuals and groups seeking to push back against progressive social change often:

  • Deny that the problem exists; minimise its extent, significance, or impact; or rename and redefine it out of existence
  • Blame the problem on those who are the victims of it
  • Deny the credibility of the message
  • Attack the credibility of the messengers of change
  • Reverse the problem, adopting a victim position, claiming reverse discrimination, and so on.

Resistance to gender equality initiatives has its origins in the defence of privilege. It is a predictable expression of masculine socialisation, and expresses both men’s and women’s adherence to sexist social norms. Backlash to gender equality programs and messages often takes the form of the denial of inequality or privilege, and counter-claims of male disadvantage. Resistance is also enabled by diluted and simplistic understandings of gender (e.g. of men and women as equally limited by ‘gender roles’), the notion that we live in a ‘post-feminist’ world in which gender equality already has been achieved, and neoliberal emphases on individual rights and market solutions rather than social inequalities and collective solutions.

Existing efforts to prepare for and respond to resistance

Three kinds of strategy are relevant in responding to and preventing backlash and resistance to gender and other social justice initiatives:

  • Organisational / institutional strategies: How to involve individuals, institutions, and organisational policies, processes, and structures in the initiative
  • Framing strategies: How to articulate, communicate, or frame the initiative
  • Teaching and learning strategies: How to teach about the initiative and engage people in coming to understand and support it

Recommendations for policy and programming

The report recommends the adoption of the following strategies:

Organisational strategies

Organisational support is critical in reducing and preventing resistance to gender equality policies and programming. Resistance is more likely when there is little institutional support. The report recommends the following:

  • Secure support from key stakeholders in positions of power
  • Address efforts specifically to those individuals and groups who are most likely to be resistant
  • Form strategic partnerships and allies

Framing strategies

Framing strategies – effective ways of articulating or communicating programs and initiatives aimed at change – are vital in reducing and preventing resistance. The report recommends the following:

  • Frame gender equality within a robust feminist framework as a matter of fairness and social justice.
  • Articulate the rationale and benefits:
    • Develop clear, compelling narratives for the problem and the solution
    • Draw on shared principles and goals, both organisational and personal
    • Encourage expectations of positive outcomes from gender equality efforts.
  • Anticipate and answer common resistant reactions.
  • Emphasise that men will benefit.
  • Address claims about male disadvantage.

Teaching and learning strategies

Teaching and learning strategies can lessen the likelihood of resistance. The teaching processes used, the environment of the learning, the content and the educators all make a difference.

A general task in educating about gender equality is to provide people with a balance of challenge and support: challenging privilege, and supporting personal and collective readiness to make change. Teaching and learning strategies should also:

  • Create safe, respectful, and supportive environments for learning
  • Be participatory, interactive and of sufficient length to allow change to occur
  • Draw on a variety of teaching approaches known to be effective in building social justice and challenging privilege, such as personal stories, role-plays, empathy induction and appeals to moral and ethical values
  • Be provided by educators who are skilled, compassionate, and respectful.

Conclusion

There is a considerable literature on understanding resistance to gender equality policies and programming and other progressive initiatives, but far less literature on how to respond to and prevent backlash and resistance. A VicHealth resource derived from this report, (En)countering resistance, identifies a range of practical strategies for engaging organisations, framing gender equality initiatives and educating about gender. The authors intend that this report, and the resources based on it, can assist with limiting the extent or intensity of backlash and in some instances prevent it from occurring at all.