People often wonder why men support equal opportunity initiatives—issues related to affirmative action, unfair treatment, and wage gaps for women, racial minorities and other marginalized groups. After all, men enjoy a structural advantage and a privileged position where they are selected for hiring and promotion more frequently and earn more relative to women. In fact, white men are more likely to be supportive of equal opportunities even though such policies are against their own self-interests. The explanation for this may surprise you.

Men may be motivated to support equal opportunity initiatives because of feeling deprived for others. According to Runciman, feelings of relative deprivation may develop when individuals feel they have been unfairly treated when compared to others. Feelings of being deprived on behalf of others may also develop when an individual perceives other (marginalized) groups have been unfairly treated. This also explains why individuals support humanitarian aid to post-war Iraqis.

Men may also support equal opportunities because of social justice and altruism. Men can develop empathy on social issues such as homelessness and child labour, and therefore view gender inequality as another social justice concern. Altruism can, of course, be both egoistic and impure. Men can promote gender equality to boost their own egos, or to pursue their own self-interests. This brings me to my third point, impure altruism or self-interest.

Men may also hold multiple identities, alongside their gender. Some of these identities are visible (e.g., race or ethnicity) and some are not (e.g., religion, disability, sexual orientation). Some of these identities are stigmatized. An individual with an invisible stigma may choose to engage in identity management (e.g., quitting, silence, social support, confrontation) at work.  Intersectionality theory suggests that combinations of stigmatized identities have additive discriminatory effects on individuals. Thus, men who identify with other stigmatized or marginalized identities (e.g., gay men) may be motivated by self-interest and support equal opportunities for others, without outing themselves.

When men speak up for women (or other stigmatized groups) they may be deemed by other men as “feminists,” and thus risk losing their privilege and the potential for ridicule from their male peer group. This may also explain in part, why white women remain silent, are reluctant to give up their (white) privilege and revert to meritocracy and individualism when confronting issues of advancement for women in general, and women of colour in particular. As a result, many men engage in tempered radicalism and associate themselves with their own privileged group, while gently rocking the boat from the outside.

Eddy Ng is F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University. He recently wrote about why he engages in research on inequality with Emerald Group Publishing, global publisher linking research and practice to the benefit of society. Follow Ed on Twitter @profng

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