Accelerating Gender Equality – Do we need Male Champions of Change?

NOTE: Dr Michael Flood took part in the Sydney Ideas Debate, hosted by the University of Sydney, on the topic “Accelerating Gender Equality – Do we need Male Champions of Change?”. This is the long version of Michael’s talk.

CITATION: Flood, M. (2016). Accelerating Gender Equality – Do we need Male Champions of Change? Presentation, Sydney Ideas Debate, University of Sydney, November 2 2016.

To achieve gender equality, we’ll have to engage men.

To accelerate progress towards gender equality, absolutely we need to involve men.

There’s a powerful rationale for involving men in work towards gender equality. First, just like women, men are gendered. Men’s lives are shaped, as much as women’s, by gender. Second, gender inequalities are sustained in large part by men – by men’s attitudes, behaviours, identities, and relations. Gender inequalities are sustained by how many men think, how many men behave, how men relate to women, and how they relate to other men. Third, and because of this, to change gender inequalities, we have to involve men.

In gender politics, there’s a new emphasis on ‘engaging men’. There’s been a ‘turn to men’ in recent years: a real increase in public attention to men’s roles in building gender equality, an increase in programming focused on men, popular discourses of male feminism, and so on.

This ‘turn to men’ is a feminist achievement, and a good thing. It locates the responsibility for gender injustice squarely with the group who benefit from it – with men. Although it’s also problematic too.

So the question is not ‘whether’ to engage men, but ‘how’.

If engaging men is going to accelerate gender equality, then some conditions have to be met.

This work must be feminist.

First, this work must be feminist – and I mean, strongly, robustly feminist.

Much of the feminism that MCC offers is small-l liberal, individualistic, corporate feminism. It’s ‘lean-in’ feminism, where the primary goal is to get more women – largely, economically privileged women – into the same positions of power as privileged men.

It’s not socialist feminism, raising questions about the unfair economic structures which intersect with gender inequalities. It’s not radical feminism, raising questions about men’s control of women’s bodies, about sexuality and pornography and prostitution and men’s violence against women. And it’s not intersectional feminism, addressing the powerful intersections between gender inequalities and other forms of social injustice to do with race, sexuality, and class.

Yes, we do need efforts in workplaces, including corporations and universities, to shift gender inequalities in access to power. But if that’s all that gender equality means, that’s a very limited vision indeed.

So this work must be feminist. And that also means, grounded in alliances with feminist advocates and networks.

We must challenge men. We must address male privilege, not only female disadvantage.

Second, this work must challenge men. It must address male privilege.

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

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. Did you know, in the US, among the people who run companies, there are more men named John then there are any women of any name?

Male privilege is personal. Male privilege is everyday. Many men, probably most men, do sexism in our everyday lives, in a myriad of ways. Myself included. And 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 a man sends in his CV or has a job interview, he is seen as more competent, because he is 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.

Looking at universities, there is a mountain of evidence that there is routine, pervasive, patriarchal bias. Work by men, or by people assumed to be men, is seen as superior to work by women or people assumed to be women.

Male and female academic staff routinely evaluate female students as less competent, qualified, and hirable, and offer them less funding and mentorship, than male students. Male students rank other male students as more intelligent than better-performing female students. Conference abstracts with male names are given higher ratings. Students give more favouable evaluations to male teachers. Male authors dominate the curriculum. Letters of recommendation for male candidates are more positive. Candidates for academic positions are seen to be more competent, qualified, and hirable if they have a male name. In sum, female staff and students confront bias at almost every step of their training and career. And these patterns of patriarchal bias have a cumulative impact, shaping women’s and men’s publishing, grant-getting, employment, promotion, and achievement.

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.

Work with men should address privilege. But some of the work to engage men in gender equality spends too much time spent appeasing and reassuring men and not enough challenging systems and cultures of oppression. I think of campaigns like the UN campaign HeForShe. It has only a limited vision of men’s roles in relation to gender equality. It risks protectionism: men should get involved to protect their women. It positions men as kindly helping women. And it individualises sexism, absolving men from collective responsibility for wider inequalities.

We shouldn’t fawn over male celebrities who offer even the simplest expressions of support for gender equality. Yes, that support is great, but is it supported by action? We shouldn’t hand out cookies to men just for acting like decent human beings. We shouldn’t that feminism can mean anything, and that anyone with any set of beliefs or actions can be a feminism. Because if feminism means everything, then it means nothing.

We must involve men in personal and social change.

Third, we must involve men in processes of personal and social change. As we engage men in building gender equality, the first thing we must ask of them is to put their own houses in order. To critically examine their own lives and relationships, to tackle their own complicity in wider systems and cultures of sexism.

Does the Male Champions of Change program ask men to do this personal work, to reflect critically on their own gender relations, their own doing of gender?

Second, we have to mobilise men. I’m not sure that we need male champions. But we definitely need male activists. Male advocates. Male trouble-makers.

Much of the ‘men’ work asks far too little of men. Wear a ribbon. Click on an online pledge. Mentor a woman in your workplace. That’s not much of a to-do list. What about, speak up about sexual harassment and violence? Lobby for paid parental leave? Push for women’s reproductive rights? Smash the patriarchy?

A Male Champions of Change approach risks giving men “a new way to pay lip service to justice without actually challenging them to destroy the system they created and sustain” (Dodd 2015).

‘Champion’ here should not be a noun, something one is, but a verb, something one does. We need action.

I mentioned privilege before, and privilege also shapes men’s involvement in building gender equality. A series of studies show that while men are less likely than women to recognise and confront sexism, when they do so, they receive more positive reactions from others, experience fewer negative consequences, and their actions are taken more seriously. In the workplace, while female and non-white executives who promote diversity are punished for this (in their bosses’ ratings of their performance and competence), white men are not.

Male leaders may be more able to act as advocates for gender equality than female leaders – because there is no apparent clash between their gender and their leadership, because they’re accepted in masculine institutions, and thus because they’ve got more agency and security. But, that also gives male advocates particular responsibilities. To recognise their own privilege. But also to make room for women’s advocacy and leadership.

We must affirm diverse ways of being a man.

We must affirm diverse ways of being a man. The Male Champions of Change are ‘real’ men. They are successful, powerful men. That’s fine. But we also need to bring in working-class and poor men. Men who don’t wear a suit every day. Men whose first language isn’t English. Men who pray five times a day facing Mecca. Stay-at-home dads and house-husbands. Gay men, queer men, and transmen. Soft men, girly men, and big girls’ blouses.

If we focus only on ‘real’ men, we’re too obedient to traditional gender codes, the policing of manhood, and rigid gender binaries. Our efforts also should affirm men who do not fit dominant codes of masculinity. We must explicitly challenge sexist constructions of manhood, and ‘turn up the volume’ on the actual diversity in men’s lives.

We must engage men in systems change.

Finally, we have to engage men in working for systems change. In tackling the material, structural, and cultural factors that underpin gender inequality.

A Male Champions of Change approach risks being the male counterpart to lean-in feminism, that individualistic form of liberal feminism which focuses on teaching women how to avoid sexism on an individual level rather than attempting to eliminate it systemically. It risks offering support only to individual women, rather than collective advocacy and struggle.

We have to mobilise men to tackle systemic gender inequalities. If there are male champions, whether in suits or without, they (we) should be striving for change in the systems and structures of gender inequality.


For a wealth of resources on men's roles in building gender equality, see here.