Is gender equality good for men?

This talk: is meant to be an accessible, engaging, and practical discussion of men and gender equality. I ask some simple, but vital, questions:  What role do men have in progress towards gender equality? Is gender equality good for men? Is gender equality bad for men?

There has been a ‘turn to men’ in gender politics, an increasing emphasis on the roles that men can play in building gender equality. I’m going to explore what this means. But before I do that, I should briefly tell you who I am.

Three ‘hats’: academic, activist, educator

First, I am an academic, a researcher. I have been trained in Sociology and Gender Studies, and I do research focused on men, gender, and sexuality. In my research on such areas as interpersonal violence, heterosexualities, fathering, and pornography, I have developed proposals for policy and social change and contributed to national policy debates.

However, this academic work is one of three ‘hats’ I wear. My second ‘hat’ is that I am an activist, an advocate, a trouble-maker. I have had a long involvement in activism and advocacy related to gender, sexuality, and social justice. In particular, I am involved in groups, networks, and campaigns focused on the positive role men can play in preventing men’s violence against women. And I am pleased and excited that one of the things I am doing in Malta is working with the Maltese network Men Against Violence.

My third hat is that I am an educator. I have held a series of positions as a community educator, providing education and training to school children, to nurses and doctors, social workers, teachers, and others. As well as giving media and public commentary.

So I move across these different fields of practice, different communities, and different ways of being. I’ve been in a valuable position of being a conduit between them, a translator between them.

In saying all this, I do not want to pretend that I have this all sorted out. I don’t want to pretend that I am brilliant at all these things. I very much have the sense that there is more work to do. But isn’t that part of the joy and challenge of life itself?

Okay, let’s come back to men and gender.

Men and gender

Across the globe, there is growing interest in the question of boys’ and men’s roles in fostering gender equality. And men’s involvement in work towards gender equality is increasingly visible.

But hang on, isn’t “gender” about women? What do men have to do with gender?

Well, there are three crucial insights which are behind this attention to men and gender.

(1) Men are gendered.

First, just like women, men are gendered. Men’s lives are shaped, as much as women’s are, by gender constructions and gender relations. While the word ‘gender’ often is code for women, there is growing recognition that men too are gendered beings who participate in gender relations.

What does “gender” refer to? Here’s a simple definition. Gender means: the meanings we give to being male and female, and the social organisation of men’s and women’s lives.

So “gender” includes;

  • How people are divided into categories of “male” and “female”;
  • The meanings and values are attached to these categories;
  • The behaviours, practices and identities which members of each category are supposed to adopt;
  • The images and representations of women and men;
  • How the lives of members of these categories are organised, in terms of power, work, sexuality, space, and so on.

When we tell boys to ‘be strong’, to ‘stop crying like a little girl’, we are teaching them about gender. When we tell boys always to be tough, and brave, while we allow girls to be afraid, or weak, we are teaching them about gender. When young men who have lots of sex are given status and praise, while young women who have lots of sex are shamed and punished, we are teaching young men and women about gender. In a thousand different ways, through families, through schools, through the media, through religion, through government policy, people’s lives are shaped by their gender.

So the first, crucial insight is that men’s lives are gendered. That gender means ‘men’ as much as it means ‘women’.

(2) Many men sustain gender inequality

I said that, around the world, there is growing interest in the role that men can play in building gender equality. This is based on two further, crucial insights: first, that many men play a role in maintaining gender inequality. And second, that men have a vital role to play in building a world of gender equality. In other words, that first, men are part of the problem, and second, men are part of the solution.

Can I check: is it alright if I use the ‘F word’? Will anyone be upset if I use the F word? Okay.

I’m going to mention feminism. I’ve said that men are part of the problem and part of the solution. Another way to put this is like this: Feminism needs men. (And later, I’ll say that, men need feminism.)

 [To change gender inequalities, we have to involve men. Feminism needs men.]

I come from Australia. And Australia is a gender-unequal society. You can see a widespread pattern of gender inequality, if you look at our patterns of political power, of economic decision-making, of cultural representation, of men’s and women’s everyday lives and relations. That’s true in Australia. And it’s true in Malta too.

Malta too shows a pattern of gender inequality. Most countries do. For example, if we look at economic decision-making and power in Malta. Women are only 4% of the members of boards of the largest companies. That’s about the same as it is in Australia, and both Malta and Australia are worse than the EU average, of 16%.

There are stark gender inequalities in political power in Malta too. Women are only 9% of members of parliament, compared to an EU average of 25%.

We won’t make much progress towards gender equality without men’s support. Not because women are weak and can’t do it on their own. Not because poor men have been left out and are now the victims.

No, because men are part of the problem. Gender inequality, fundamentally, is a men’s problem. It’s the problem of every man in this room, every man you know, and every man in the country.

Gender inequalities are sustained in part by men – by men’s attitudes, behaviours, identities, and relations.

If we look at how gender inequalities work, how sexism and inequality are maintained day after day, it’s clear that they are kept alive, sustained, reproduced day after day, in part by men. By how many men think, by how many men behave, by how men relate to women and how they relate to other men.

Gender inequality involves a systematic pattern of female disadvantage and male privilege.

Often we understand gender inequality in terms of female disadvantage. But the flipside of this is male advantage. Male privilege.

Think for a moment about gender inequality in political and economic life. Who runs the government? Who makes the decisions in the companies’ boardrooms?

It’s easy to understand gender inequality in terms of women’s exclusion from economic and political life. But it can equally well be understood in terms of men’s monopoly of economic and political life, men’s dominance. For example, when you hear that women represent only 4 per cent of the board members of companies in Malta, you may think: Well, if only 4% of the people in the room are women, who are the rest? They’re men. Men are 96 per cent of the board members of companies in Malta. (That compares to an EU average of 84%.) And men are 91% of members of parliament, compared to an EU average of 75%.

I heard a statistic last year which makes these patterns particularly clear. In the US, among the people who run companies, there are more men named John then there are any women of any name. (And of course, it’s not just any men. It’s white, heterosexual, privileged men.)

So, gender inequality often is understood in terms of female disadvantage, but it can equally well be understood in terms of male privilege.

Male privilege is personal: most men have perpetrated privilege in our lives.

Now, this all may seen a bit abstract, a bit distant. But in fact, male privilege is personal. Male privilege is everyday. Many men, probably most men, do sexism in our everyday lives, in a myriad of ways.

I’m a nice guy, right? I’m one of the good guys, aren’t I? I’ve not engaged in the bluntest forms of men’s power over women – forcing a woman into sex or assaulting her. But in countless ways, like most men, I’ve perpetuated sexism and maintained gender inequalities. In meetings, for example, I’ve left women to do the washing up and tidying. I’ve whined and whinged when a girlfriend didn’t want sex. I’ve assumed that a woman, and not me, would take responsibility for contraception. I’ve looked at pornography which shows women in callous or hostile ways. I have said nothing when male friends offer sexist or derogatory comments about women.

Men benefit from male privilege, whether we want to or not. From the unearned advantages of an unequal system

Even when we’re not actively being sexist, men benefit from male privilege. Men benefit. When a man opens his mouth, his views often are given more weight than a woman’s views. When I send in my CV or resume or have a job interview, I am seen as more competent, because I am male, than a woman with the same skills and experience. When a man turns on the TV or reads the news, he sees people of his sex widely represented, their achievements celebrated.

But, this privilege is naturalised and normalised. It’s invisible. So members of privileged groups think that our achievements are the result of our efforts and skills, not the unearned advantages of an unequal system.

Gender inequality, fundamentally, is a men’s problem. Sure, women help maintain gender inequality too. Women too may believe in traditional gender roles. But the bigger problem is men’s.

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Maybe this all sounds a bit confronting. A bit disheartening. A bit depressing. It’s not meant to be. Because there is good news too.

I’ve said that feminism needs men. It needs men to change. It needs men to make change.

And here’s the good news. Men have a vital role to play in building gender equality. And men already are playing a role in building gender equality.

Men are part of the solution.

(3) Men have a vital role in building gender equality.

Many men already live in gender-just ways.

First, many men already live in gender-just ways: they respect and care for the women and girls in their lives, and they reject sexist norms of manhood.

ASK: How many of you know at least one man…? Now, I hope it’s not all the same man.

Some men already play a role in fostering gender equality. Individual men in trade unions and government organisations have been important advocates for women’s rights. Internationally, small numbers of men are engaged in public efforts in support of gender equality. Here in Malta, I think for example of the NGO Men Against Violence, and the Male Champions of Change appointed by the President’s Foundation.

There has been enormous growth in work with men around the world. This has been fuelled by a hopeful insight, an optimistic belief: that men have a positive role to play in fostering gender equality.

Men have a stake in gender equality. Men will gain from gender equality.

I asked at the start of this talk: Is gender equality good for men?

Men need feminism

I’ve said that feminism needs men. But here’s another key point. Men need feminism.

Feminism frees men from narrow, restrictive gender roles.

Men need feminism because, without it, we will be stuck in a box. Stuck in an “Act Like a Man” box. Stuck in narrow gender roles which are suffocating, unhealthy, and dangerous for us and for others. Like a coffin, really.

Written on the side of the “Act Like a Man” box are the messages that: boys don’t cry, men are the lords of their households, violence is acceptable for solving problems, gay is bad, and women are second-class citizens. These messages limit men and hurt women.

Feminism frees men from this. Feminism argues that gender roles and relations are the product of society, not biology. Feminism is anti-sexist, not anti-male. And feminism calls for gender equality, gender justice, and gender diversity.

Feminism is good for men: good for men’s health, men’s working and family lives, men’s friendships, and men’s relationships and sex lives.

Feminism is good for men.

Feminism is good for men’s health. Men who conform to traditional manhood, who think men should be ten feet tall and bulletproof, pay heavy costs. Men pay heavy costs for traditional masculinity: in injuries, poor health, and early death.

Feminism is good for men’s working and family lives. It gives men choices. Feminism frees men from the automatic expectation that they will be the breadwinner, missing out on parenting and family.

Feminism is good for men’s friendships. It makes more room for friendships with other men, and women, which are intimate and supportive.

Feminism is good for men’s relationships and sex lives. Feminist women have better sex than non-feminist women – because they’re more assertive, more in touch with their own pleasure and their bodies, and better at expressing their sexual limits and desires. The male partners of feminist women – and they tend to be feminist too – have better sex as well. Because they’re good at establishing consent (each other’s willingness to have sex), they’re good at intimacy, and they respect and care for women.

Men should support gender equality because, (a) it’s the right thing to do, and (b) men will benefit from change.

Why men should promote gender equality

You may ask, ‘Why should men promote gender equality? Why should men change?’ There are two broad answers. First, men ought to change. Men receive unfair or unjust privileges, and men have an ethical obligation to address that privilege, to make things fair.

Second, it is in men’s interests to change. Men ourselves will benefit from supporting feminism and advancing towards gender equality. There are four clusters of reasons why boys and men may support change towards gender equality and will benefit from it.

Men will gain from progress towards gender equality.

Personal well-being

First, what kind of life do you want for yourself, as a man?

First, men’s own well-being is limited by narrow constructions of gender. Men tend to pay heavy costs — in the form of shallow relationships, poor health, and early death — for conformity with narrow definitions of masculinity.

Relational interests

Second, what kind of life do you want for your daughter, your sister, your wife or girlfriend, your female friends and colleagues? Do you want lives for them which are safe and free from violence, which are fair, which give them choices and opportunities?

Second, when women and girls benefit, so do men and boys. Men and boys live in social relationships with women and girls – our wives and partners, sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts, friends and colleagues, neighbours, and so on. And the quality of every man’s life depends to a large extent on the quality of those relationships. For example, I’ve seen men support efforts towards gender equality because of their concerns about and hopes for their daughters and their love for the women in their lives.

Collective interests

Third, what kind of community and country do you want to live in?

Gender equality is good for our communities. Gender progress benefits the communities in which men live. Men can recognise that our communities benefit from flexibility in divisions of labour, from improvements in women’s health and well-being, and so on.

Of course, some men support gender equality not necessarily because it benefits them but because of their principles. Some men support gender equality because of their ethical, political, or spiritual commitments – their support for ideals of equality or liberation, their faith-based belief in ideals of compassion and justice, or their sympathy to progressive political values and movements.

So, is gender equality good for men? No doubt, it is. Okay then. Is gender equality also bad for men? I don’t think so. But there are some things men will lose, some things men will have to give up.

Men will gain. And there are some things men will lose.

First, let’s go back to those corporate boardrooms, where 95% of the people in the room are men. If we are to achieve gender equality, then some of those men are going to have to leave the room. Men will have to share economic power and political power with women.

So what will men lose? We will lose unfair privileges. We will lose unearned advantages. When I apply for a job, the people assessing me will not automatically assume that, because I am a man, I am automatically more competent than a woman applying for the same job. When I am in a relationship, I will no longer be able to assume that my sexual needs come before my girlfriend’s or my wife’s sexual needs. I will not be able to get away with doing far less of the household work, the domestic work, than my female partner. And so on.

But is this an unfair loss, a hardship? No. It is about what is fair, what is right.

So far I’ve established that men have a vital role to play in building gender equality. And in fact, this idea is now increasingly well established.

The ‘turn to men’

There has been a ‘turn to men’, an increasing emphasis on the roles that men can play in building gender equality.

Historical feminist emphases on men’s roles in ending patriarchy

I should say first, the notion that men have a role to play in ending gender inequalities is not a new one. It has a long history.

Hundreds of years ago, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when women were trying to get the right to vote and other civil rights, there were men who organised in support of their efforts. Beginning in the 1970s, in the second wave of feminism, there were anti-sexist men’s groups.

And feminists have long called for men to take part in their efforts to end gender inequalities. For example, bell hooks, the famous African American feminist, wrote in 1984 that men were ‘comrades in struggle’.

1990s: Increased programming and policy attention to men’s roles

However, beginning perhaps in the mid-1990s, there was a significant increase in attention to men’s roles in building gender equality. Signalled by various developments.

Increase in programming focused on men

Throughout the 1990s, there was a huge increase in programs and interventions focused on men, masculinities, and gender. Programming and policy focused on men, in such areas as sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health, men’s violence against women, fatherhood and parenting, and HIV/AIDS.

Series of international commitments regarding the need to work with men

Various countries have affirmed their support for work with men in a number of international commitments. Commitments to engage men in building gender equality have been made, for example, at the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), the General Assembly on HIV/AIDS (2001), the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (2004), and the Istanbul Convention (2011), ratified by Malta just last year.

Istanbul Convention (2011)

Recent example: Istanbul Convention (2011). A pan-European treaty intended to protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.

The Convention “calls on all members of society, in particular men and boys, to help reach its goal of creating a Europe free from all forms of violence against women and domestic violence” (from the explanatory note).

Malta ratified the Instanbul Convention and committed itself to full implementation, in September 2014.

[From the treaty itself: “Parties shall take the necessary measures to encourage all members of society, especially men and boys, to contribute actively to preventing” violence against women.]

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So there is now a whole range of programming and policy which is directed at men’s roles in building gender equality, and national and international commitments to work with men and boys.

Wider contexts: Profound shifts in gender, ‘men in crisis’, ‘the end of men’, etc.

This turn to men in gender politics is part of a range of social shifts over the past few decades in western capitalist countries. The landscapes of gender and sexuality, the ways in which gender and sexuality and other forms of social difference and hierarchy are organised, have changed in radical ways.

To mention some key shifts, very briefly, in relation to gender there have been both structural and ideological shifts towards public gender equality. Gender equality has become a mainstream democratic ideal in a short space of time, since the late 1960s, although gender equality is still not a reality.

In Malta for example, there is widespread support among women for gender equality in relationships. Strongest among younger women. And support for gender equality higher among more educated women. (Putting this another way, greater tolerance for male dominance in relationships and families among women with lower levels of education.)

92% of all women, and close to 98% of 18-29 year-old women, disagree that “It is important for a man to show his wife/partner who is the boss”.

89% of all women, and close to 96% of 18-29 year-old women, disagree that “It’s a wife’s obligation to have sex with her husband even if she doesn’t feel like it”.

Nevertheless, there are also persistent and systematic inequalities of gender, whether one looks at production and paid labour, political decision-making, intimate and familial relations, culture and representation, or other domains. There has been less progress when it comes to sexual equality, to the acceptance of sexual diversity, and recognition of rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people. Some changes in gender are asymmetrical, with females taking on ‘male’ activities rather than males taking on ‘female’ activities (in paid work, study, sports, leisure, clothing, and so on). There are some ways in which progressive shifts in gender have stalled, or even been pushed back.

In any case, both gender and sexual relations have shifted in profound ways. This means, of course, that men’s lives and relations have shifted as well. The last four decades have been marked by increasingly visible public debates regarding men and masculinities.

To take two prominent examples, the cover story in the US publication The Atlantic in 2010 declared “The End of Men”. That same year, the periodical Newsweek (again in the USA) ran a cover story titled, “Man Up? The Traditional Male is an Endangered Species. It’s Time to Rethink Masculinity.”

Coming back to this ‘turn to men’, there are other developments too.

Popular discourses of male feminism

In the first decades of this century, popular discourses of male feminism have intensified. There has been a proliferation of popular and activist discussions of whether men can be feminists, men’s roles in feminism, how men can be allies.

E.g.,

  • Social media memes e.g. of Ryan Gosling as feminist (“Hey girl”);
  • Attention to male celebrities’ pronouncements re. feminism;
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, emphasising that men and women alike can and should be feminists (March 2016).

High-profile, men-focused campaigns

Lastly, there have been high-profile, men-focused campaigns. Most recently, there is the UN campaign HeForShe, launched by Emma Watson at the UN in 2014.

HeForShe invites men to join with women, as male allies, asking men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls”. The HeForShe campaign has been taken up in various countries, including Malta.

Assessing the ‘turn to men’

So what do we think of this ‘turn to men’, this focus on the role which men can play in building gender equality?

There are some things which are really good about it.

Correctly locates responsibility for gender injustice with the group who benefit from it.

First, it makes lots of sense to include men in efforts to build gender equality. This locates the responsibility for gender injustice squarely with the group who benefit from it. It’s the same as arguing that white people need to be involved in efforts to end racism, that heterosexuals need to be involved in efforts to end discrimination against gays and lesbians, and so on.

Generates practical programs and policies.

So I’m delighted to report that this ‘turn to men’ is prompting policies and programs aimed at involving men in progress towards gender equality – in sharing the labour of domestic work and parenting, in taking responsibility for contraception and STI prevention, in fostering gender equity in workplaces and institutions, and so on.

Gives men practical steps for change.

I’ve been collecting articles in the mainstream press – in newspapers, on blogs, etc. – on men’s roles in building gender equality, male feminists, etc. There is an increasingly visible popular discourse about men’s roles in feminism. And it’s full of simple, practical steps men can take to help make a difference. I’m going to run through these in a moment. But first, I also want to note that some of this focus on men’s roles has some limitations.

Limitations of the turn to men, so far

Men may receive praise and status out of proportion to their efforts.

One limitation is that men may receive praise and status out of proportion to their efforts. In the US for example, male celebrities who offer even the simplest expressions of support for gender equality have been showered with praise, when women saying identical things are ignored. In a sense, this does indicate the success and influence of feminism, but it also validates the idea that feminist ideas only are legitimate when voiced by a man (Zeisler 2014).

Some campaigns don’t ask very much of men.

Another criticism is that some campaigns don’t ask very much of men.

One campaign which has been criticised here is HeForShe. This UN campaign aims to engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights, by encouraging them to take action against inequalities faced by women and girls. This all sounds great. We very much need campaigns which mobilise “men and boys globally to stand up and take action for the achievement of gender equality”.

However, in practice HeForShe has faced some criticisms. Some feminists have argued that HeForShe asks little of men. It focuses on asking men only to sign a pledge, rather than asking men to take a range of steps, personal and public steps, to make change.

Some feminists have argued that HeForShe individualises sexism. It pretends that sexism is just a problem of individual behaviour, releasing men from collective responsibility for cultures and systems of oppression. And some have argued that HeForShe is based on a protectionist or paternalistic ethic, in which men should get involved to protect their women. That it positions men as kindly helping women, in an old-fashioned kind of chivalry.

The HeForShe campaign was launched in Malta by President Marie Louise Coleiro in October 2015. Ten high-profile men have been chosen as “Champions of Change” for the campaign, and I will be meeting them on Wednesday. So of course, I am keen to hear more about what HeForShe in Malta will involve and what these Male Champions of Change will be doing to help build gender equality.

There is too much effort to reassure men.

Finally, there has been some criticism that we spend too much time spent appeasing and reassuring men and not enough time challenging systems and cultures of oppression. I remember a feminist blogger last year writing that some campaigns focused on men’s roles bend over backwards to make sure that men don’t feel threatened. Some campaigns softly stroke their foreheads, focus on how it is hard for men too, and constantly reassure men that they’re not the problem (Gyte 2014; Belle Jar 2014).

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So, I am delighted that we are seeing a growing public conversation about the roles men can play in building gender equality, whether men can be feminists, and so on. But let’s make sure that we are involving men in real change, as part of real efforts to shift what are widespread and systemic gender inequalities.

I’m going to spend the last section of this talk getting practical. How can men build gender equality? What role should men play? What are the mistakes and traps to avoid?

What men can do

So if a man really wants to play a role in building gender equality, what can he do. What should we do?

[See my report, Men Speak Up.]

Men must start by ‘putting our own house in order’. By looking at our own lives and relations.

  • We have to start with ourselves. Address our own sexist and dominating behaviour: in the bedroom, the kitchen, in the workplace, and on the street.
  • Challenge and interrupt sexist remarks, jokes, and stories.
  • Share the domestic labour: do the washing up, vacuum, and clean the bathroom and toilet.
  • Listen to women and learn from women. Give time and respect to women’s accounts of their lives and to women’s voices.
  • Don’t fund sexism. Refuse to buy any magazine, rent any film, subscribe to any Web site, or buy any music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner.
  • Be a gender-just role model, a mentor, for the boys (and girls) in your life. Talk to and teach boys and young men about healthy relationships.
  • Make your vote count. Vote for candidates and parties committed to gender equality.
  • Educate yourself: Attend programs; take courses, watch films, and read articles and books about gender inequality and feminism.
  • Give your time or your money: volunteer for and donate to organizations working to end violence against women or for gender equality.

These forms of personal change are vital. But to really shift wider gender inequalities, men will also have to take up collective change.

Men must also take part in collective advocacy and activism, in partnership with women. To create the widespread social change necessary to shift gender inequalities, we will need concerted action by social movements and networks, community organisations and workplaces, other institutions, and governments.

When men do become advocates for gender equality, when men do call themselves feminists, there are some typical problems to avoid.

Men have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It is easy for a man to say that he supports gender equality, but he must also try to live it. We have a responsibility to shift our practice, not just our language. We should not expect women to educate us, but should do the work ourselves of finding out how gender inequality works and what can be done about it. We should not expect praise from women for refraining from sexism – we should not expect that women will give us a biscuit or a cookie every time we behave like a decent human being.

Conclusion

[We won’t see progress towards gender equality unless, and until, men change too.]

These are my final words.

In 2016, many girls and women grow up with confident expectations of gender equality. You expect to have the same rights and opportunities as the men around you. But you won’t see gender equality. You won’t have those same opportunities. Unless, and until, men change too.

Men – men who care for women, men who care for justice and equality, and men who care for the wellbeing of our communities and society – must act to end gender inequality.

And if we do, men will benefit. If we can make progress towards gender equality, then women will have better lives, and so will men.

So, I ask women: Expect more of men. No, demand more of men. Raise the bar for what it means to be a ‘nice guy’, a ‘good man’.

I ask men: Get your own house in order. Start living every day as if gender equality really mattered.

But as well as this, make noise and make trouble. Join the groups and movements dedicated to building gender equality and ending violence. Become an activist. Change the world.

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Citation: Flood, M. (2016). Is gender equality good for men? Public lecture, University of Malta, April 4.