Gender inequality: Men are part of the problem, and part of the solution

I want to start with the very concept of gender, and gender inequalities, 101. I start with two key points

1) Gender shapes everyone’s lives

First, gender shapes everyone’s lives, women’s and men’s. Gender often is used as code for ‘women’. But in fact, men’s lives are shaped as much as women’s by gender. ‘Gender’ refers to the meanings and patterns of men’s and women’s lives. And we know from four decades of research that gender is socially constructed – that the patterns of men’s and women’s lives are shaped in powerful ways by society and culture.

Second, if we look at the patterns of men’s and women’s lives, we see a pattern of gender inequality. A systematic pattern of female disadvantage and male advantage.

2) Australia is a gender-unequal society.

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.

For example, if we look at economic decision-making and power.

  • Looking at the top levels of companies, women are only 5% of the members of boards of the largest companies.
  • There is a gender pay gap. Comparing the average weekly full-time earnings of men and women, the amount of pay they receive each fortnight, we find that women receive 13.4% less money than men. On average, men get $242.20 more a week.
    • The gender pay gap reflects the kinds of jobs women and men typically do and the lower value given to typically female jobs and industries, bias and discrimination in recruitment and pay decisions, and women’s unfair burden of unpaid care and domestic work.
  • Women are more likely to live in poverty than men, and spend more years living in poverty.
  • Women are more likely than men to report always or often feeling rushed or pressed for time

There are gender inequalities in political power in Australia too.

  • Men are 84% of Federal Government cabinet ministers, 80% of Federal Government ministers, and 70% of Federal parliamentarians (at 2019).
  • On the other hand, women are now 48.6% of senior leadership roles in the Australian Public Service (at 2019). And 37% of Commonwealth judges and magistrates.

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

People often talk about gender inequality in terms of female disadvantage. In terms of women’s disadvantage, discrimination against women, women’s exclusion from economic decision-making and political power. But the flipside of this is men’s advantage. Male privilege, informal affirmative action for men, and men’s monopoly of economic decision-making and political power.

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 5 per cent of the board members of companies, you may think: Well, if only 5% of the people in the room are women, who are the rest? They’re men. Men are 95 per cent of the board members of companies.

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.)

Now, this all may seem a bit abstract, a bit distant. But in fact, gender inequality also is personal.

These patterns of gender inequality, in part, are personal and everyday. They shape the life of every person in this room. As a man, when I open my mouth, my views often are given more weight than a woman’s views. When I send in my CV or have a job interview, I may be seen as more competent, because I am male, than a woman with the same skills and experience. I’m a father, and if I work long hours at work, it’s unlikely that anyone will think I’m being selfish and neglecting my children. If I’m a senior leader, there is no tension between my gender and my role. As a man, I’m assertive, but she’s bossy. I’m enthusiastic, but she’s emotional. I network, but she gossips. When I take tough decisions, I’m confident or firm, but her, she’s a bitch.

Gender inequalities are personal and interpersonal. But they are also organisational and structural. They are built into the structures, processes, and cultures of workplaces: their divisions of labour, their decision-making, their informal norms and expectations.

3) Feminism has made a positive difference

So far I’ve been talking about gender inequalities. But I want to make point that things could in fact be much worse. And that it is feminism and the women’s movements, more than anything, that have improved women’s lives. (They’ve improved men’s lives too, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

What is feminism? Feminism is a social movement, the women’s movements. Feminism is also a body of research or scholarship. And feminism is a set of beliefs and ideals, a set of perspectives on the world.

Feminism is defined by three key ideas:

  1. First, that women’s social conditions are unfair. That women and girls are subordinated, as women and girls, to men and boys.
  2. Second, that this situation is the result of social forces. Women’s subordination, or gender inequalities, is not inevitable, not the natural result of biology, but socially constructed, that is, the product of society. And thus open to change.
  3. Third, that this situation should be changed.

The women in this room, and women around the country and the world, owe feminism a profound debt. Things would be much worse without the waves of feminist advocacy we have seen in Australia and other countries. If you’re a woman, you can thank a feminist for the fact that you can:

  • Own property. Vote. Have a job. Keep the money you earn. Get a bank loan. Go to university. Use birth control or contraception. Get an abortion. Marry who you want. Run for office. Keep your job if you become pregnant. Be legally protected from sexual harassment. Participate in a professional sport. And so on.

So, there are all sorts of ways that feminism has been good for women. Feminism has achieved changes that all women benefit from, whether they themselves identify as feminists as not.

But there are also ways that having feminist attitudes or a feminist identity is good for those women in particular. From a whole series of studies, the evidence is that having feminist beliefs or a feminist identity is good for women.

  • Among women, having a feminist identity is *good* for their mental health, body image, the quality and stability of their heterosexual relationships, and their sex lives, as a series of studies show
  • Being a feminist means having a better sex life. Feminist women “are generally more sexually assertive, better able to negotiate pleasurable and safe sex, and experience more equality in their personal relationships”
  • Feminist women tend to feel better about their lives than non-feminist women. A study among 691 women in the USA found that women who held feminist and moderate values scored significantly higher on measures of overall wellbeing – particularly on measures of purpose in life, autonomy, and personal growth – than women with traditional values

Feminist beliefs and identities are a positive influence even for women in the most dire and brutal of circumstances.

  • Among women who have experienced abuse by a male partner, compared to women without feminist beliefs, women with feminist beliefs showed less self-blame and shame, had strong connections to and support from other women, and were more likely to embrace their personal agency and power
  • Among women who have experienced sexual harassment by a stranger, those women who identified as feminists were less likely to blame themselves for the harassment than women who did not identify as feminists
  • In response to sexual harassment, women who identified as feminists were more likely than other women to seek help and support, and to see confronting harassment as positive and the right thing to do.

Holding feminist or pro-feminist beliefs also is good for men.

  • Men with feminist partners report greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction than men with non-feminist partners
  • A recent, representative Canadian survey found that profeminist men have more mutually pleasurable sex lives with women than non-feminist men.
  • Men who hold more egalitarian attitudes towards gender have significantly higher levels of marital happiness than men with more traditional attitudes

Just as a final point here, I should note: Feminism is anti-sexist, not anti-male. Feminism sees nothing fundamentally bad about being male (nor nothing fundamentally good about being female). Feminism centres on a critique of gender inequalities.

Feminism is built on a fundamental hope for men and men’s lives. Feminism takes as given that the problem is not being male, but the social systems that shape men’s and women’s lives. Feminism recognises the good in what many men do and are.

So far I have made three points:

  1. Gender shapes everyone’s lives
  2. Australia is a gender-unequal society.
  3. Feminism has made a positive difference

My fourth and fifth points are these: Men are part of the problem, and men are part of the solution.

4) Men are part of the problem.

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.

Male privilege is personal: most men have acted in sexist ways

Gender inequality also is personal. Many men, probably most men, have done 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. Looking back over my life, I can see times when…

  • In meetings, 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’ve underestimated women’s achievements and skills.

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.

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.

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.

But before exploring this, I should note: While men in general receive unfair privileges in our gender-unequal system, men also pay some heavy costs.

Men pay heavy costs for conformity to traditional masculinity.

Conforming to traditional masculinity exacts a real cost, both among men themselves and for the women and men around them. Men who conform to traditional definitions of manhood are more likely to suffer harm to themselves, and to do harm to others.

I’m drawing here on data from the Man Box survey, an Australian survey of men aged 18-30. But these kinds of findings also come from a wealth of other studies.

Men who endorse dominant norms of masculinity are more likely than other men to consider suicide, seek help from only a narrow range of sources, drink excessively, take risks at work, and drive dangerously.

Recent media discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’ have emphasised that patriarchal notions of manhood are dangerous not only for men themselves but for those around them. Traditional masculinity is based on dominance over women, a disdain for anything feminine, and entitlement.

The Man Box survey bears this out. Young men who agreed more strongly with the ideals of the ‘Man Box’ were six times as likely as other young men to perpetrate sexual harassment in the last month. They were more likely to perpetrate bullying: physical, verbal, and online. And they were far less likely to intervene in others’ violence.

Other research finds something similar: Men are more likely to rape women if they subscribe to gender-inequitable attitudes – they are hostile towards women, desire sexual dominance, accept rape myths, and feel entitled to women’s bodies.

So while one key problem with traditional masculinity is that it contributes to men’s poor health and shallow relationships, another is that it contributes to sexism, gender inequalities, and violence.

So far I have made four points.

  1. Gender shapes everyone’s lives
  2. Australia is a gender-unequal society.
  3. Feminism has made a positive difference
  4. Men are part of the problem. Traditional masculinity feeds into gender inequalities, and limits men’s own lives.

My final point is this: Men are part of the solution.

5) Men are part of the solution.

Men have a vital role in building gender equality.

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.

Some men already play a role in fostering gender equality. Individual men have been important advocates for women’s rights. And small numbers of men are engaged in public efforts in support of gender equality.

Men will benefit from progress towards gender equality

Men will benefit from greater gender equality.

Now look, the most important reason why men should support gender equality is that it is the right thing to do. The system isn’t fair, men often receive unfair privileges, and men have an ethical obligation to make things fair.

But it is also in men’s interests to change. Men ourselves will benefit from progress towards gender equality. Men will benefit personally, in our intimate and family relationships, and in our workplaces and communities.

Men benefit, in all kinds of ways, when the women and girls they care about have fairer, safer lives; when traditional, narrow norms of masculinity are loosened; when men have feminist partners and gender-equitable relationships, when they’re actively involved with their kids; and when there is greater gender equality in their communities and in the country. And, men benefit from workplaces with greater gender equality, workplaces with greater diversity, teamwork, and talent.

Men at every level can make a difference

Now if I had more time, I would map out what men, and women, can do in workplaces to build gender equality. I have compiled accessible guides of how we can make change, including a detailed report for the Diversity Council of Australia that I’m happy to distribute. But I want to comment briefly on the role of leaders.

To foster workplace change, the support of senior leaders, and they are often men, is vital. Senior men can be powerful agents of change towards gender equality.

  • At the same time, so-called ‘male champions’ aren’t enough by themselves, and organisational and structural strategies are vital too.
  • We have to make sure that the principle of gender equality isn’t just something that individual leaders can take or leave, but actually built into our very definitions of leadership, and into organisational values.
  • Senior male leaders are more likely to be credible agents of change if they show consistent, genuine support for gender equality initiatives; their support is visible and ongoing; and if they ‘walk the walk’.
  • Also, let’s not assume that the only men who can make a difference are the men at the top. Instead, we need to engage men at every level. Middle-managers, men on the shopfloor, and so on.

I have said that we still have a gender-unequal society in Australia. And part of the problem is the models of sexist masculinity that are still alive and well – in the playground, in workplaces, and indeed in Parliament.

There is plenty of work to do to build a more gender-equal culture. And 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 – have a vital role to play. Whether a man wears a hard hat and a high vis vest, or a suit and tie, whether he works in a cubicle or he’s got a corner office, he can make a difference. Men can join with women, to help build gender equality.


Citation: Flood, M. (2021). Gender inequality: Men are part of the problem, and part of the solution. Keynote address, Department of Transport and Main Roads (Queensland Government) Queensland Women’s Week Event, Brisbane, March 26, 2021.

For more on men's roles in building gender equality, see the XY collection here, and the XY collection on the actions and strategies men can adopt, here.