Discomfort as a sign of authentic engagement and progress in company gender equality work

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Maja Herstad Karlstad University, Sweden

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Gender equality work in organisations has been criticised for weak results and an unclear political agenda. Studies on such work that put emotions at the centre are rare. The aim of this article is to examine the relationship between feelings of discomfort and practical gender equality work in companies, in projects which are facilitated by external gender experts in collaboration with company employees. Interviews and project documents from four companies involved in a regional gender equality project in Sweden form the empirical basis. Findings show that there was an aspiration to feel discomfort about inequality, among both gender experts and company employees, which was also embedded in recurring practice aiming for feeling and interpreting inequality. The discomfort among interviewees can be understood as signalling both authentic engagement and progress, but may also clash with specific organisational emotion norms and lead to problems associated with individualising responsibility. The article shows the import of discomfort and related emotions in gender equality work, and can be used for critical reflections on and realignment of ideas that inform these efforts.

Abstract

Gender equality work in organisations has been criticised for weak results and an unclear political agenda. Studies on such work that put emotions at the centre are rare. The aim of this article is to examine the relationship between feelings of discomfort and practical gender equality work in companies, in projects which are facilitated by external gender experts in collaboration with company employees. Interviews and project documents from four companies involved in a regional gender equality project in Sweden form the empirical basis. Findings show that there was an aspiration to feel discomfort about inequality, among both gender experts and company employees, which was also embedded in recurring practice aiming for feeling and interpreting inequality. The discomfort among interviewees can be understood as signalling both authentic engagement and progress, but may also clash with specific organisational emotion norms and lead to problems associated with individualising responsibility. The article shows the import of discomfort and related emotions in gender equality work, and can be used for critical reflections on and realignment of ideas that inform these efforts.

Introduction

‘I work with creativity /…/ I can’t work with the word “but”. It’s dangerous /…/ creativity dies.’ (Pelle, employee, communications company)

This article aims to examine the relationship between feelings of discomfort and practical gender equality work1 in companies. Analysing participant narratives and project documents from a gender equality project in a region of Sweden, facilitated by external expertise, the article more specifically asks: what meanings are attributed to discomfort? How is discomfort linked to recurring practice, and what consequences can discomfort have in different company contexts? This article contributes empirically to an analysis of emotions in relation to recurring practice in gender equality work, and thus is valuable for practitioners as well as scholars in the field. Theoretically, it contributes to analysing the construction of meaning and the ‘doing’ of gender equality in different contexts (Alnebratt and Rönnblom, 2016).

Gender equality work and emotions

The quantity of research on emotions and gender has increased since the 1970s but has often been conducted as separate research projects without strong interconnections (Schrock and Knop, 2014). This is despite, for example, Arlie Hochschild’s theory on emotion work that outlined gendered emotions and norms in relation to specific professions (Hochshild, 1983). Gender research in general has been described as emotionally charged. Generalised examples include when people who identify as men feel accused, women are stigmatised, and people outside the gender binary are alienated (Wahl et al, 2018: 44). Difficulties can arise when gender theories and empirical patterns on a group level meet individual employees in particular organisations, as part of gender equality efforts. Critical studies on gender equality work in organisations have noted that these efforts can become ‘projectified’ and focus on administrative routines instead of political content (Walby, 2005; Olivius and Rönnblom, 2017), and expected results have often been deemed limited or mixed (van den Brink and Benschop, 2012; Callerstig and Lindholm 2013; Eriksson-Zetterquist and Renemark, 2016; Arora-Jonsson and Sijapati, 2018; Engeli and Mazur, 2018).

Even if studies on gender equality, and the related fields of gender mainstreaming and diversity in organisations, often do not centre explicitly on emotions, there are studies that take emotions into account. For example, in relation to built-in inertia and a resulting disappointment in these efforts (Sjöberg Forssberg, 2016), where a stagnant process with repetitive language can result in ‘equity fatigue’ among employees (Ahmed 2007; 2012). Previous research has often discussed emotions more as an outcome of interventions, and less as a tool used to implement them, and has noted guilt and associated negative emotions among privileged participants in these programmes (Brewis, 2017). On a similar note, emotional reactions to gender equality work that questions habits and power relations (such as fear of losing your position: Amundsdotter, 2009) have often been discussed within a discourse of resistance (see, for example, Lombardo and Mergaert, 2013; Amundsdotter et al, 2015; Sjöberg Forssberg, 2016). Studies have also incorporated the emotions of gender scholars and expert staff involved, and emotions embedded in the work itself (Ahmed et al, 2006; Sjöstedt Landén and Olofsdotter 2017). Sara Ahmed, for example, notes how racialised and gendered emotion work also form part of diversity work, ‘as specific bodies become attached to specific feelings’ (Ahmed et al, 2006: 59) and argues that ‘diversity can be used as a technology of happiness’ that can generate pride and conceal racism (Ahmed, 2012: 151, 153). Despite, or perhaps due to, this backlog of ‘bad feelings’, a lack of strong emotions has been noted in texts that influence current equality work in Sweden (see Henriksson, 2017, on norm critique2).

Aside from the vast literature on gender equality and gender mainstreaming work in organisations, emotions in general appear somewhat under-theorised in both research and practice. This is despite the overall value of recognising feeling subjects in studies on social processes (Bericat, 2016), and a history of feminist research that questions dichotomies of emotion/reason and mind/body (Jagger, 1996). Studying discomfort and emotions linked to common practices in gender equality work can provide clues to participants’ viewpoints and orientations in the social world (Hochschild, 1990), and employees’ tendencies to orient themselves towards or to distance themselves from gender equality work. Some of the mentioned challenges in gender equality work, such as negative reactions linked to positionality, disillusionment resulting from repetitiveness, weak results and watered-down political content, can of course be identified as feelings of discomfort. However, the empirical material in the studied gender equality project foremost prompted a more in-depth investigation into discomfort around inequality.

Article outline

The article starts by situating the studied project, outlining the method and establishing a theoretical framework which introduces the concept of ‘aspirational emotional performance’ and uses components of ‘affective dissonance’ (Hemmings, 2012) to analyse and discuss feelings of discomfort regarding inequality in gender equality work. The findings are divided into three themes. First, discomfort is presented as an aspirational emotional performance in gender equality work with particular meanings. Second, the article analyses employees’ narratives, which I argue can be interpreted as examples of how discomfort is seen as a valued project experience and result embedded in practice. Third, the article analyses how certain participants want a different aspirational emotional performance in gender equality work. Finally, the potentials and problems of discomfort around inequality in gender equality work are discussed.

Situating the gender equality project: data and methods

Sweden is portrayed as one of the most gender equal countries in the world (see, for example, the international rankings in quantitative gender equality indexes: European Institute for Gender Equality, n.d.(a); World Economic Forum, 2020). The country stood out in the Nordic region due to the adoption of feminist issues by political parties (Martinsson et al, 2017). Sweden’s high ratings in gender equality indexes internationally and the magnitude of gender equality efforts in Swedish work organisations3 make the material presented in this article an interesting case for developing both the theory and the practice of gender equality work in organisations. Critical attention to gender equality work in this context can also contribute to nuancing this success story (see, for example, Martinsson et al, 2017).

On a national level, both private and public employers in Sweden face legal requirements to conduct and document active measures to prevent discrimination following the Swedish discrimination act (Diskrimineringslag, 2008: 567). Public sector organisations also face governmental instructions for gender mainstreaming, involving a gender equality perspective in everyday work and in regular decision making (Government Offices of Sweden, 2021). However, since gender equality is a concept that can be imbued with different meanings (Lombardo et al, 2009), political and practical implications can vary.

The studied gender equality project lasted 2017–20 and involved mainly small- and middle-sized companies in a region in Sweden. The companies self-selected to participate and the project was led by a university, with project staff linked to the academic discipline of gender studies. Like many other similar projects, gender experts and feminist academics were central to the implementation (Walby, 2005; Bacchi and Eveline, 2010; Olivius and Rönnblom, 2017). The project hence relied on company managers, employees and external gender experts to work together. Common practice for gender mainstreaming and active measures to prevent discrimination was incorporated in the project (see, for example, European Institute for Gender Equality, n.d.(b); The Equality Ombudsman, 2022). This entailed a process of mapping, analysing, taking measures and evaluating gender equality in the companies, while aiming for integrating efforts to increase diversity and prevent discrimination based on legal grounds. The bulk of project activities involved mapping and analysing gender equality and diversity together with the employees in the different companies. This entailed, for example, company surveys, interviews as well as workshops with awareness-raising exercises and analysis of ideals and practices together with employees (building on, for example, a theory about gendered processes in organisations [Acker, 1992]). A company analysis was developed as a base for forming a company problem statement in relation to gender equality and diversity, and to develop measures for change.

Purposive sampling informed the selection, to encompass different study participants who planned, facilitated or participated in the practical implementation of gender equality work in the companies. A total of 15 semi-structured interviews (Brinkmann and Kvale, 2015) conducted in 2020–21 were analysed for this article. The study participants included:

  1. Managers (6) and employees (4), encompassing four companies in transport, communication services, food or metal manufacturing4.
  2. Gender experts (5), employed by or affiliated with the university that led the gender equality project. These experts were hence external to the companies and facilitated the activities referred to in this article.
  3. Out of these 15 participants, 7 identified as men and 8 as women. The gender distribution was similar among managers, employees and gender experts.

The main point of the broad selection was not to focus the analysis on specific emotions linked to a particular gender or position (which of course is relevant too). Instead, the range of participants present in recurring situations was expected to provide valuable perspectives on emotions and the implementation of gender equality work, and to potentially make data commonalities more generalisable.

The project was in the process of phasing out activities with the companies when the COVID-19 pandemic at times restricted the possibility of face-to-face meetings. All interviews were held after the pandemic started, and the majority (12/15) of the interviews were conducted in a digital meeting space. To analyse narratively embedded emotions and how they feature in their respective narrative, the interviews were partly conducted to create open process narratives of the gender equality project (Becker, 1998: 62–3). This method builds on the assumption that ‘emotions are embedded in narratives and are in fact socially learned through narratives’ (Kleres, 2010: 185). Project documents, such as workshop materials and reports, and transcribed participant observations of some project activities complemented the interviews. Analysing emotions in the data involved inductively constructing emotion categories based on thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). This was done in part by coding explicit emotions. However, since interview questions often yielded narratives of ‘what happened’ and less explicitly accounts of emotions (see also Kleres, 2015: 96), the analysis also involved coding for narratively embedded emotions (Kleres, 2010).

It is important to note the likelihood that the retrospective narratives were biased towards remembering more intense emotions. The COVID-19 pandemic was present in some narratives; for example, linked to how activities at work were put on hold, and the difficulty of distinguishing change linked to the project in the profoundly altered context of the pandemic. A certain melancholy and enforced hopefulness coloured some narratives that sometimes included a longing to see colleagues face to face. Despite this bias, it is reasonable to assume that the experiences that emerged in the participants’ stories of specific situations during the project can be useful for informing gender equality work in other organisations.

Theoretical framework

As an overall theoretical concept for interpretation and analysis, I introduce the concept of ‘aspirational emotional performances’. The concept denotes the conveyance of emotions that are considered valuable and desirable in a specific social context due to their symbolic functions. The term ‘aspirational’, as different from ‘normative’, indicates a possibly varied performance, with less rigid and enforcing connotations, and with an ambition to change something. For example, a workshop on environmental sustainability might involve mixed emotional performances, such as guilt, frustration and enthusiasm, albeit with different meanings. When instead writing of established emotional rules in a given organisational context, the concept of feeling rules is used to denote these. It is a concept that is often used for shared norms that emotions are judged against (for example, see Hochschild, 1983), and indicates what we should feel in a specific setting. Feeling rules can be observed, for example, when there are clashes between cultures, or when we try to decrease the gap between what we should feel and what we want to feel (Hochschild, 1979; 1983). In the studied project, organisational feeling rules become more conspicuous when, for example, participants react against aspirational emotional performances based on what they feel would be a more normal or adequate response.

Efforts have been made to theoretically ground the concept of discomfort deriving from the data. Different theoretical concepts can be connected to valuing feelings of discomfort as a way to understanding inequality and sparking change; see, for example, cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957); emotional dissonance (Hochschild, 1983); pedagogy of discomfort (Boler, 1999; Zembylas and McGlynn, 2012); and the related ‘learning through crisis’ in critical pedagogies, (Kumashiro, 2015). Certain elements of the feminist concept affective dissonance (Hemmings, 2012) provided the main analytical building blocks for interpreting and analysing expressions of discomfort in the studied gender equality project. Components of affective dissonance that were particularly close to the empirical findings, involved relating discomfort to the process of both feeling and determining inequality (or unfairness), and seeing discomfort as a requirement for potential change. Affective dissonance also served as a point of reference for comparing and reflecting on the subjects involved, their distance from experiences of inequality and the political potentiality of feelings of discomfort embedded in the gender equality project. The concept itself was originally developed to theorise affective states that make feminist reflexivity and action more feasible (Hemmings, 2012, drawing on Probyn, 1993), to capture the dissonance between more authentically coded internal experiences, a personal sense of being, and more external (im)possibilities of a livable life (Hemmings, 2012). Hemmings illustrates a potential movement, where ‘experience of discomfort’ in affective dissonance can function as a trigger for ‘feeling the desire for transformation’ (Hemmings, 2012: 158). Affective dissonance hence holds out the promise of a normative judgement of unfairness based on affect, and a potential feminist politics of transformation based on ‘rage, frustration and the desire for connection’ (Hemmings, 2012: 148). On a similar note Ahmed values queer discomfort in relation to heteronormativity and change, not experiencing sinking into ‘a space that has already taken its shape’ (Ahmed, 2014: 148), where ‘[t]he gap between the script and the body […] may involve discomfort and hence may “rework” the script’ (Ahmed, 2012: 152). The possible political ‘awakening’ of affective dissonance also bears resemblance to the concept of ‘sudden seeing’ (Patai, 1983), where reversing or challenging common gendered ways of talking or thinking can open for a revelation, moving participants from ‘passive perception to active participation, from theory to practice’ (see Patai, 1983: 179, 181, who builds on the concept of defamiliarisation; see also Shklovsky, 1965).

In the article, affect and emotion are used interchangeably and both include bodily sensations and cultural interpretations of sensations (see Wetherell, 2012, who uses the concept of ‘embodied meaning making’ to encompass both). The conceptual understanding in the article hence moves away from a common analytical (and often gendered and hierarchical) division that emphasises the unreflective and body sensations in affect (see Åhäll, 2018), and cultural interpretation in emotions (Thoits, 1989; Hemmings, 2005).

Findings and analysis

Productive discomfort

This section argues that discomfort around inequality becomes as a key aspirational emotional performance in gender equality work, particularly linked to feeling and interpreting inequality. It is valued for answering the question of why change is needed and becomes a sign of seriousness, authenticity and progress.

The experience of unease and discomfort follows some study participants’ narratives, mainly gender experts, as an important experience to strive and hope for in the gender equality project.

‘… but to feel this… just an ounce of what people who get… who get excluded or discriminated or harassed /…/ it should give some form of unease to feel that “there are actually people who experience this” /…/ and that you get some small nausea from it. Also something that sticks I think /…/. It becomes a bit like a leech [laughter] /…/ I think that is … a success.’ (Greta, external gender expert)

Some gender experts emphasised bodily sensations of discomfort among project participants as a way to instil a sense of what inequality feels like. Descriptions include sensations of nausea, unease, hurt or confusion that are difficult to shake off. There is a certain claim that authentically felt sensations help participants to get closer to the experience of actual discrimination. The experts closely linked discomfort to participants’ understanding of why change in the direction of gender equality was needed in the organisation and as part of a closer interpretation of inequality. The experience is regarded as a motivational factor that makes actions for change in the organisations more likely, seeing it as a sign of progress. Similar views were expressed among some employees and managers in participating companies.

Discomfort around inequality is not only attached to experiencing and interpreting something as unequal, but is also discussed in more general terms, as a more inherent component of change in gender equality work. In this context, change work for gender equality is assumed to include an intrinsic component of discomfort, as well as confusion, and these are seen as prerequisites for and signs of change. The discomfort also facilitates a transition from the current situation, since participating organisations and individuals are expected to change their behaviour to avoid the discomfort around inequality. Some gender experts in the project also made recurrent reference to the model of ‘four rooms of change’ (Jansen, 2005), which highlight confusion and conflict as a step that can lead to inspiration and change. This theory bears resemblance to the discomfort of affective dissonance as a way to perceive inequality.

‘you can’t be scared of /…/ uncomfortable situations to arise in that change. I mean, I don’t think change is possible without… without the creation of creaking, friction, that it hurts, that people sometimes feel… sad, upset… uhm… feel…. Feel a certain despair maybe, no longer knowing what applies/…/ a pretty natural expression of change being underway.’ (Emil, external gender expert)

The narratives appear to start from an assumption that the main target group for feeling discomfort and negatively coded emotions are individuals who have not felt this before. They feel discomfort as linked to inequality more indirectly, not necessarily finding resonance in personal experiences of discrimination. However, the dissonance leads to an ‘aha moment’ (similar to the concept of ‘sudden seeing’ [Patai, 1983]). This results in a differently perceived subject in gender equality work in organisations in comparison with how affective dissonance is sometimes applied in feminist research, where the latter centres on gendered subjects’ own and more direct experience of inequality (Hemmings 2012; Lakämper, 2017; Jurva and Lahti, 2019), while the former focuses more on subjects who fall within company and societal norms.

Another way that discomfort is described as contributing to gender equality work, is how it broadens the rationale for gender equality work in organisations, and how it steers away from a narrow focus on business competitiveness and profitability (on the business case for gender equality, see Walby, 2005; Johansson and Ringblom, 2017). Discomfort, I argue, can function as a sign of a more physical and unpleasant discrimination that can appear more authentic in contexts where gender equality initiatives are framed mainly in terms of positive win-win situations. The work can then widen the participants’ scopes so that they are focused not only on profit, quality and diversity, but also more urgent issues regarding justice. Expressions of discomfort around inequality can then be interpreted as a moral compass for gender equality work in organisations.

‘you can’t work with this like … well, the business value of gender equality without first [tapping a finger on the table] kind of grounding yourself in the feeling in your stomach.’ (Greta, external gender expert)

The experience of discomfort around inequality can be seen as an aspirational emotional performance in the project. However, discomfort was also something that some gender experts distanced themselves from. For example, some questioned its value in gender equality work and how discomfort was celebrated as part of progress. It is important to emphasise that assertions about the value of discomfort around inequality were often combined with caveats about not feeling overwhelmed by discomfort, especially if those feelings triggered hopelessness or guilt. In this context, interviewees would note how fun and the joy of discovery are also necessary for people to want to contribute to action.

Sparking curiosity, pride and guilt

The article now moves on to actual situations of discomfort around inequality in the project. Emotions in one exercise to stage inequality included both enthusiasm and guilt. The project also involved internal and continuous manifestations of discomfort as valued results, read by participants as wake-up calls that made them notice inequality.

Recurring practices in gender equality work, such as the process of gender analysis that examines manifestations of inequality, I argue, form situations where discomfort around inequality becomes an aspirational emotional performance. One of the introductory exercises that was intended to put a spotlight on norms, privilege and discrimination was one most frequently referred to by participants: the ‘privilege walk’.5 This exercise involved ascribing participants fictive characters and giving them information on, for example, each character’s gender, class, race and profession. The participants were then asked to stand in a line and take one step forward for each statement that the facilitator read out and that the participants thought resonated with their character in Swedish society. Finally, participants were invited to a joint reflection on their experience of the exercise and on privilege and discrimination. During these reflections, the participants still stood at their different positions in the room. Participants’ narratives highlight an eye-opening experience, with many depicting feelings of discomfort and a welcome surprise linked to curiosity, but also guilt.

‘what a gender-unequal society we have. /…/ you think you are so… damn smart and that you are so open-minded and – But it was a kick in my crotch too, that “wow, this is actually the way it is”. /…/ am far from as … equal as I want to believe that I am /…/ Since I ... apparently got surprised by this exercise’. (Linus, manager, transport company)

‘the atmosphere in the group becomes, uhm, positive, surprised /…/ everyone probably reacts to themselves and their own thoughts /…/ that’s the way to get rid of it, you joke about it instead then. But it’s often directly linked to being ashamed of how wrong you reason. /…/ these pre-conceived notions or thoughts that are there. /…/ Yes, well, it’s an awakening.’ (Hans, manager, food company)

‘you got to… put someone else’s identity on and picture it with your prejudice and everything it means, and that you were to step forward and you saw the room change. It was really interesting.’ (Susanna, employee, communications company)

Discomfort can be argued to be built into the exercise, linked to manifesting and analysing differences of privilege and discrimination using one’s own imagination and body, in a space where colleagues and external gender experts observe. Laughter was interpreted by some participants as providing relief from shame and unease, indicating self-consciousness when judging yourself and your own thinking. The discomfort is also closely connected to a sense of authenticity in some participants’ narratives, linking their surprise at unequal patterns in the room to novel and more authentic understanding of an unequal society. Some men also expressed guilt and shame when reflecting on their lack of awareness beforehand in relation to patterns of privilege and discrimination, interpreting their surprise as a sign of personal inadequate insight into gender equality. Women interviewees appeared to view the exercise as important and exciting in terms of visualising societal patterns of inequality, but did not express the same manifestations of guilt. The finding of guilt among some participants who see themselves as privileged corresponds with similar conclusions in studies on equal opportunities training (Brown and Lawton, 1991).

Affective dissonance links discomfort to inequality. In comparison, the participants in this study appeared to focus more on their own lack of awareness, and less on societal patterns of inequality. Where affective dissonance is supposed to spark curiosity (Åhäll, 2018) or anger (Hemmings, 2012), participants reported surprise, curiosity, enthusiasm, embarrassment and guilt. Reflections at the end of the ‘privilege walk’ seemed more about distant fascination with unequal patterns in society, as well as with a more individualistic scrutiny of the participants’ own flaws. This cannot compare to the potentiality of emotions such as anger, frustration or rage that are seen as windows of opportunity for politicisation and resistance (Hemmings, 2012).

If we move from specific exercises to participants’ broader reflections on the project, discomfort was also linked to a new ability to recognise patterns of inequality in their organisations. They increasingly scrutinised both the organisations and themselves.

‘Just simple things like: why did only five men go out to lunch now? /…/ You think about it more anyway, and become more critical towards yourself and everyone else too.’ (Johan, employee, food company)

‘never really felt discriminated in my work life /…/ that made me somehow able to feel a bit ashamed. /…/ I really learned to see things that passed me by before /…/ Like the significance of informal networks for example. /…/ it’s a bit painful sometimes. It is. And then you get irritated [laughter] about certain things you didn’t notice before. /…/. And then you can become [laughter] a bit happy.’ (Karin, manager, food company)

‘[the project] has really shaken the foundation for how you … see yourself in the world, or how the world sees you like a part of it. /…/ I have always been in /…/ male-dominated workplaces and always adjusted like crazy, because I never was a part of the norm. /…/ it’s not only the non-normative person who needs to change /…/ I think I am rather uncomfortable today.’ (Susanna, employee, communications company)

These narratives can be interpreted as a novel sensation of discomfort concerned with noticing inequality, in some cases initiating feminist curiosity and engagement in active participation by the employees themselves. Some of the participants express a movement from shame and guilt, for instance related to not noting inequality in the organisation before, to mixed feelings of pride, anger and frustration in noting unequal gendered patterns. The discomfort around inequality becomes a continuous aspiration, indicating progress and an apparently truer view of the organisation, which some participants considered a key project result. The interpretation of discomfort around inequality appeared to vary depending on participant’s own experiences. For some with less direct experience, the more internalised manifestations of discomfort became a wake-up call when inequality was recognised and led to an appreciated new ability to continue to see inequality, an ability some took pride in. For others, with more direct experience of not fitting in, the discomfort they related to inequality became more painful, but also made it possible to place blame not on themselves but elsewhere. Discomfort around inequality was hence relevant both in narratives of the project exercises, as well as in participants’ continued analysis of their organisations.

Overwhelming discomfort

The article now analyses situations where project participants expressed desire for a different aspirational emotional performance in gender equality work, particularly when discomfort around inequality clashed with the company’s feeling rules.

There were also situations and practices in participants’ narratives, where discomfort around inequality was interpreted as more illegitimate or excessive. Interviewees from the communications company outlined what they perceived as a movement from fun and curiosity at the beginning of the project, to discomfort and other emotions described as ‘emphasising the negative’. One workshop, which focused on the results of a company survey and observations of the company in question, became both the most memorable event for interviewees from that company, as well as the final larger project activity before the company left the project (and entered a restructuring process). The practice of staying in discomfort and interpreting or judging inequality sparked different emotions among the employees in the company. The narratives span from being surprised or shocked at the result, feeling shame and guilt for creating an environment where some felt less included, to feeling vulnerable and powerless in the workshop situation. Reactions also include feeling distrust towards the results and resentment for what was perceived as schadenfreude in highlighting gender equality problems in the company, without providing support and suggestions for how to tackle them.

‘Well, a feeling I get, and I get that pretty often in work like this. That it’s almost like this, you want to find something you can show, that: you have a problem with this /…/ Well, ok, but what do we do with that? [laughter] /…/ feels like “now this self-righteous bastard should hear that he is not that good”.’ (Ture, manager, communications company)

‘We failed our grade, that’s what it felt like. And it became … almost like a shocking experience. /…/ It was like lying in a Petri dish and someone watched, and then I find out the disease and then I was left with that feeling.’ (Pelle, employee, communications company)

All interviewees who were at the company’s last workshop, experienced asymmetrical relations; for example, participants were taken off guard and unprepared and that the gender experts used one-way communication when pointing to patterns of inequality. The employees experienced discomfort around inequality, but were not themselves actively participating in the identification or analysis of inequality. The workshop was also more directly linked to company norms, and not more distanced gender inequality issues.

I would argue that this case also highlights a more specific clash between the aspirational emotional performance of discomfort around inequality in the gender equality project and the feeling rules of the organisations, the shared norms that emotions are measured against, that influence what emotions are strived for (Hochschild, 1983: 59). In this case, the feeling rules of the company were formalised to some extent, and part of guiding their work in supporting innovation and communication. This creative process was also valued as feeling rules in their own organisation: to use fun and curiosity as building blocks for creativity and innovation, and to allow failure when exploring and to avoid criticising ideas (and avoid the word ‘but’, as Pelle stated in the opening quotation). The feeling rules were part of the company culture, describing the ideal worker as, for example, curious and creative (company survey) and depicting the organisation as flat and humble (interviews).

In comparison to the organisational feeling rules, the tone at the workshop was described in interviews as analytical and cold. The workshop also stood out when compared with the previous more general project exercises on gendered norms. It focused on highlighting specific conclusions from a gender analysis of the company (including, for example, some employees’ experience of being made to feel invisible).

‘… the company travels toward change with another train (than the gender equality project, author’s note). /…/ one is maybe experienced more positively that the other /…/ …vulnerability, joy, trust are kind of the pillars (in the company), that you generate ideas, that people should dare to put things forward.’ (Susanna, employee, communications company)

Narratives about the workshop discussed here, juxtapose discomfort around inequality to the feeling rules the company usually observed when creating change. The perceived seriousness, problem-centredness and judgement in the gender equality project hence clashed with the company’s feeling rules encouraging curiosity and openness. Shame and resentment, I argue, were triggered by the following three features of the workshop: when inequality was linked to the organisation and employees (rather than to hypothetical cases), when discomfort around inequality was unexpected and participants were asked to ‘stay with the negative’, and when external experts were perceived to present interpretations of inequality unilaterally.

Concluding discussion: valued and unpredictable discomfort

The article now returns to discussing the initial questions: of the different meanings of discomfort in gender equality work, how discomfort is linked to recurring practice, and its consequences in different company contexts. This section also widens the discussion and relates discomfort as an aspirational emotional performance in the empirical material, to the concept affective dissonance (Hemmings, 2012).

The study argues that discomfort around inequality was integral to the gender equality project and of overall value as part of an aspirational emotional performance. Discomfort was described as a possible nausea, a sense of friction, or a feeling in the stomach linked to surprise in feeling, noticing and interpreting inequality. The point of discomfort was to recognise inequality through physical grounding and a sense of seriousness, providing an understanding of inequality perceived as more authentic and linked to oneself, the organisation or society. The discomfort was also seen to motivate and guide action, and to broaden the gender equality project from purely positive and business-oriented goals.

In dialogue with the theoretical concept of affective dissonance (Hemmings, 2012; Åhäll, 2018), possible emotions can vary, with anger and curiosity framed as positive outcomes linked to action and change. Participants express different feelings of discomfort around inequality, particularly in relation to feeling and interpreting inequality. Some were proud of seeing an apparently more authentic and unequal reality. However, the surprise of inequality could also be perceived as a receipt for individual inadequacy. Discomfort around inequality also forms an especially difficult barrier in gender equality work, when the specific feeling rules of an organisation put value on the potential for development and positivity. It appears important in gender equality projects to initially discuss what emotions form part of the project’s aspirational emotional performances (see also meta-reflections of cognitive dissonance to facilitate learning in diversity training [McFalls and Cobb-Roberts, 2001]).

The findings also show how discomfort around inequality was triggered in situations when external gender experts were perceived to frame inequality unilaterally. The participants shared narratives about emotions such as surprise, resentment, shame and guilt. It is possible that others would interpret the more negatively coded emotions as ‘resistance’ (Benschop and van den Brink, 2013; Amundsdotter et al, 2015), where different strategies are used to hinder gender equality work by, for example, questioning its legitimacy. However, I would argue the limitations of such interpretation, and point to these negative feelings as coloured by a sense of powerlessness among company participants. The concept of ‘sudden seeing’ (Patai, 1983) illustrates how changing common ways of doing gender has the potential to spark a revelatory experience, and to move participants from passive to active subjects. However, the project situations where discomfort around inequality became more overwhelming appear to lack a sense of active participation that could result in a more interactive framing of inequality.

Discomfort as an aspirational emotional performance appeared to be more or less institutionalised in the version of gender mainstreaming and anti-discriminatory practice that the project applied. In this way, discomfort around inequality can to some extent be regarded as built into gender equality work. When components of a theoretical idea such as affective dissonance move to another context and are used to analyse gender equality work, it is broadened in terms of which subjects can feel discomfort around inequality. The subjects of affective dissonance in feminist theory centre on a (gendered) subject who experiences friction when perceived experiences and societal expectations clash, and who potentially judges these clashes as unfair. Participants in the studied project, however, more commonly experienced inequality indirectly and often framed themselves as insiders to their companies’ and to societal norms. Discomfort around inequality as an aspirational emotional performance can hence sometimes function as a kind of surrogacy process in gender equality work. This entails a practice where personal experiences are replaced by more indirect experiences, through specific exercises facilitated by external gender experts.

Another shift when components of affective dissonance are used to analyse gender equality work in organisations, is the direction of the interpretation or judgement of inequality. Affective dissonance in feminist theory ideally harbours potential for a feminist subject to become angry or frustrated with the external world that clashes with personal experience. Where this concept leads the subject to focus on external possibilities and expectations, the interpretation of inequality in the gender equality project falls more on the individual. It appears that discomfort, as an aspirational emotional performance in the gender equality project, has a dimension which resonates to some extent with a process of individualisation (Bauman, 2000). For example, when interviewees described feeling discomfort around inequality, as in the exercise ‘the privilege walk’, some emphasised their own inadequacy and guilt instead of attributing inequality to structures and other external factors. Generally speaking, interview excerpts where participants increasingly scrutinise themselves and the organisation, I argue, also signal that the individual participants feel a sense of increased capacity and responsibility. One result from the project that many interviewees valued highly, was an increased ability to recognise inequality, not least emotionally. This can be interpreted as centring on individual responsibility in continuously performing discomfort around inequality, more than directing the focus of gender equality efforts towards organisational responsibility and action (for a related discussion on men being equal in principle while lacking action, see Jalmert, 1983; Gottzén and Jonsson, 2012).

Seeing emotions as clues to orientations and meanings created in gender equality work, it is apparent that discomfort around inequality becomes a somewhat double-edged sword that influences whether efforts are perceived as successful or not. The various emotions that follow or are associated with discomfort around inequality makes it a complex and unpredictable aspirational emotional performance. Discomfort around inequality was regarded as problematic in some companies, as it was seen as too focused on negative aspects. However, it was also seen as integral to feeling and interpreting inequality, despite contributing to the fact that one company left the project. Discomfort around inequality hence has political potential, through its embeddedness in processes of interpreting inequality. This is illustrated by participants describing continued discomfort when scrutinising patterns of inequality in their organisations, even where their narratives centre on their individual performance and responsibility. When discomfort around inequality becomes embedded in practice and is perceived as an outcome of a project, the experience itself, seen as part and parcel of analysing inequality, is put centre-stage. This leads to a key conclusion: emotions can be regarded as results in their own right, closely tied to what they symbolise and do, which would in this case be authentic engagement and progress.

Notes

1

In the Swedish context, the term jämställdhet often encompasses both gender equality (resources and opportunities should be the same irrespective of gender) and gender equity (resources should be adapted to reach the same outcome irrespective of gender). In this article the term gender equality encompasses both. Gender equality work refers to formally organised actions that aim to contribute to gender equality in the organisation. This work can consist of actions that deal with the strategy of gender mainstreaming, which involves analysing gender-specific needs and consequences in relation to main areas of work, and taking these into consideration in decision making (see, for example, https://swedishgenderequalityagency.se/gender-equality-in-sweden/gender-mainstreaming).

2

Norm critique provides tools in gender and diversity work in organisations, which aim to make norms and structures visible in order to critique and change them (Includegender.org, 2016).

3

Fifty-four public authorities have received a government instruction on gender mainstreaming covering the period 2020–25. For the private sector there is less data available, but there has been an increase in gender consultants, combined with an increased interest in their services among private and public sector organisations (Olivius and Rönnblom, 2017).

4

The researcher participated as an expert facilitating the project process in two additional companies. These companies were excluded from data collection due to anticipated difficulties in interviewing participants; for example, that they could be reluctant to voice critique against interviewer-cum-expert.

5

This exercise is sometimes referred to as the ‘power walk’ or ‘one step ahead’. It is promoted by, among others, Includegender.org (2014) which is managed by the Swedish Gender Equality Agency, universities (University of Warwick, 2020), the United Nations (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018), and gender and diversity consultants (Addgender, 2021).

Funding

This work was supported by the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth under grant no. 2020 1335.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the study participants for being open to reflecting on the gender equality project, and the reviewers for their valuable feedback. Further, the input and support from Andreas Henriksson, Markus Arvidson, Ulf Mellström in the Department of Social and Psychological Studies and from Mathilde de Goër de Herve and Kristin Gustafsson at the Centre for Research on Sustainable Societal Transformation at Karlstad University, have been much appreciated.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hochschild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling, 3rd edn, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Hochschild, A.R. (1990) Ideology and emotion management: a perspective and path for future research, in T.D. Kemper (ed) Research Agendas in the Sociology of Emotions, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp 11742.

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Maja Herstad Karlstad University, Sweden

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