We frequently perceive “gender equality” as something that is of concern to women. Women are not only expected to be the main contributors carrying the cause forward, but are also portrayed as the sole gainers by a more equal society.
There are rarely more than a handful of men at events with a feminist spin. Popular literature discussing gender equality are almost exclusively aimed at women. People are, in fact, startled when a man proclaims that he is feminist.
A focus on women is appealing as it does not position women as victims, but encourages female agency instead. A variety of popular authors capitalize on this sentiment when they advise women not to be “nice”, to “lean in”, or to develop a “confidence code”. Whilst sometimes inspiring, these books seem to deny that women do not act in a vacuum, but in an environment that is rife with obstacles in the career paths of women. The approach seems to wrongly communicate that women could reach equality if only they tried hard enough. This places the blame for gender inequality on women themselves. It also unfairly assigns the sole responsibility for change to women, neglecting that they currently constitute the least powerful entity for change, both politically and economically.
To illustrate, recommending women not to be nice neglects the fact that assertive women are often perceived as “bossy” and experience social and occupational repercussions. Further, advising women to “lean in” despite childbirth, for instance, ignores that companies oftentimes economically incentivize women to be the primary caregivers by unequal parental leave policies. And, encouraging women to become more confident dismisses the notion that women are acting in a systematically biased system which makes a lack in confidence appear somewhat reasonable.
These “change the woman” approaches certainly mean well, but might be dead-ends as long as fundamentally sexist structures and biases still stand in the way of gender equality. Whilst a great number of strong women feminists have indubitably propelled gender equality in the past, and whilst women would indeed greatly benefit from more gender equality, I suggest that a limited focus on women might not only be misguided, but even counterproductive to the cause. No matter how fantastic women are, and how dearly they embrace the above mentioned advice, it will be difficult to eliminate sexist structures and biases if only the female half of the population is dedicated to it. The following three points show why men’s dedication to the cause is imperative if we want to achieve equality.
First, sad as it is, men still hold the vast majority of power and decision-making positions in academia, in business, and in politics. Taken together, these three bodies shape our society and determine the beliefs and regulations we live by. We can expect progress only when those who enact laws and policies support the cause for equality fully.
Second, a successful career is to a large extent dependent on the amount of time a person can afford to spend on the job. We expect, encourage, and incentivise women, unlike men, to take time off from work to take care of their children. Furthermore, women are frequently still the ones who invest disproportionate amounts of time on household chores. Unsurprisingly, this directly translates into less capacities for women to take on paid work and hence leads to inequality. Women can only dedicate an equal share of their time to their careers when men resume an equal share of child care and household chores. Women can only have it all, when men have it all, too.
And third, support from members of the dominant group has been found to advance a cause.1; 2 Strangely, women are perceived as more subjective than men when discussing gender equality. If a man argues in favour of the cause people perceive him as objective and rational, as he seemingly does not gain much from gender equality. The American Sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how when he taught a class on gender with a female colleague, students approached him with questions, “to receive an objective opinion”. Whilst this mechanism is of course sexist and misguided in itself, it might function as a bridge whilst striving for true gender equality.
Having considered these points in depth throughout the course of the last year, it seems almost naïve that the main targets of literature on gender equality are women. We undoubtedly need men to achieve gender equality. But do men need gender equality? Do they really not gain anything from it?
1 Cihangir, S., Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2014). Men as Allies against Sexism: The Positive Effects of a Suggestion of Sexism by Male (vs. Female) Sources. SAGE Open, April-June 2014, 1-12.
2 Drury, B. J., & Kaiser, C. R. (2014). Allies against sexism: The role of men in confronting sexism. The Journal of Social Issues, 70, 637–652.