Who or what needs to be “fixed”: People or a system?

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Ever since I started my academic journey, I have struggled with many things despite being passionate about research and pursuing an academic career. In this post, I want to talk about how we ask research questions. 

One of my struggles is with the way research questions are being usually asked in mainstream social psychology. Let’s consider an example of a debate around masculinity and the alleged necessity to reconstruct it in a “healthier” way. The framing of “healthier” often implies that men need to be caring, compassionate, and connected, or use the strength and determination to protect and nurture rather than control. This idea of masculinity is supposed to solve the problem that, compared to women, men are underrepresented in professions related to upbringing and care. Nevertheless, putting the question of what is essentially masculine in it aside, such a framing makes men the problem and focuses on how men or the way they behave and the traits they have can be changed. Thus, they would fit in the current system and not lose their “sense of being male.” Similarly, “fixing” women and making them more agentic is supposed to solve the issue of them occupying fewer positions of power. But shouldn’t we instead focus on the ways the current system needs to be changed?

Despite the increases in diversity across organisations, employees still report that they do not feel included in the organisations. Having to explain oneself or justify one’s “deviance” can be highly unpleasant and leaves one feeling humiliated, helpless, or infuriated, especially in environments that endorse winners-take-it-all logic, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as physical stamina, emotional toughness, and ruthlessness. It produces organisational dysfunction, as employees become hyper-competitive to win. This kind of environment promotes a very specific masculine behaviour. Everybody has to try to play the “game” to survive (and make progress). But this “game” is rigged against diversity. If one does not “have what it takes,” one has to work harder to prove themselves while facing backlash along with miserable, counterproductive work environments that increase stress, burnout, and turnover. Unfortunately, ample research has been dedicated to how to fit one in this kind of system (e.g., do agentic women get more promotions?) instead of asking why this system produced so many negative psychological outcomes. 

Diversity cannot exist without inclusion. Therefore, I believe, as scholars, we urgently need to shift our focus from the convenient way of asking questions (e.g., how can one change to fit?) to the one that actually advances diversity and inclusion (e.g., how can the system be changed to be more inclusive?). As scientists, we are responsible for the change we are bringing to society and it starts at the very beginning –– by asking the right questions.

Further readings

  • Special issue at the Journal of Social Issues: Work as a Masculinity Contest. https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/15404560/2018/74/3 
  • Bruckmüller, S., Hegarty, P., & Abele, A. E. (2012). Framing gender differences: Linguistic normativity affects perceptions of power and gender stereotypes: Framing gender differences. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(2), 210–218. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.858
  • Fasoli, F., Hegarty, P., & Frost, D. M. (2021). Stigmatization of ‘gay‐sounding’ voices: The role of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay individuals’ essentialist beliefs. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(3), 826–850. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12442
  • Hegarty, P., & Pratto, F. (2001). The effects of social category norms and stereotypes on explanations for intergroup differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 723–735. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.80.5.723Miller, D. T., Taylor, B., & Buck, M. L. (1991). Gender Gaps: Who Needs to Be Explained? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.61.1.5

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