Men’s roles in building a feminist future

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.

Why should we involve men in this work?

There are three broad reasons to involve men in our work towards gender equality.

(1) Recognition of men as gendered, and increasing focus on gender relations

First, just like women, men are gendered. Men’s lives are shaped, as much as women’s, 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.

 (2) Recognition of men’s roles in maintaining gender inequality

Second, men must change if we are to achieve gender equality. Gender injustice is sustained in large part by men’s attitudes and men’s behaviours. Gender inequality often is understood in terms of female disadvantage, but it can equally well be understood in terms of male privilege. Sexual discrimination often is understood in terms of women’s exclusion of women from economic and political life, but it can equally well be understood in terms of men’s monopoly of economic and political life. For example, when we point out that women represent only 5 per cent of the board members of companies in Australia, it’s just as useful to say that men represent 95 per cent.

We know that many men participate in sexist practices and the maintenance of unjust gender relations, men often play a crucial role as ‘gatekeepers’ of the current gender order, and patterns of gender injustice are tied to social constructions of masculinity and male identity.

 (3) Recognition of men’s roles (and stake) in fostering gender equality

But work with men has been fuelled also by a third and more hopeful insight: that men have a positive role to play in fostering gender equality. There is growing recognition that gender inequality is an issue of concern to women and men alike and that men have a stake in ending gender inequality.

Many men are living already 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 are playing 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, in such fields as violence against women and HIV/AIDS.

Why men should promote gender equality

There are two broad answers to the question, ‘Why should men promote gender equality? Why should men change?’ First, men ought to change. Given the fact of men’s unjust privilege, there is an ethical obligation for men to undermine that privilege.

Second, it is in men’s interests to change. Men themselves 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.

Personal well-being

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, men and boys live in social relationships with women and girls – their 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, gender reform benefits the well-being of the communities in which men live. For example, men may recognise that they and their communities benefit from flexibility in divisions of labour, from improvements in women’s health and well-being, and so on.


Finally, boys and men may 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.

What men can do

So, what can men do to promote gender equality? I focus first on individual action, and then discuss collective action.

Individual men can;

  • 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 loo.
  • 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.
  • Take collective action.

There are some easy mistakes to make here.

One is claiming to be free of sexism, to be non-sexist. In this society, all men learn sexist thoughts and behaviours, all of us receive patriarchal privileges whether we want to or not, and all of us are complicit to some degree in sexism. Our task is not to be non-sexist, as this is impossible, but to be anti-sexist. Yes, we can rid ourselves of particular sexist assumptions and stop practising particular sexist behaviours, but in a sexist culture we can never be entirely free of sexism.

Another issue is talking the talk but not walking the walk. There is sometimes a gap between our political aspirations and our personal practices. Perhaps this is inevitable. Personal change is partial and uneven, and our personal lives are messy and complex. Still, men have a responsibility to shift our practice, not just our rhetoric.

Another mistake is out-feministing feminists. Some men use their knowledge of feminism to do power to women: claiming to be better feminists than women, playing off one feminist against another, or taking over feminist spaces.

Making the changes I’ve described, and avoiding these mistakes, is a project of personal transformation. And this work is much more possible if men take the further step of involving themselves in collective action.

Men will only begin to make a difference to systematic patterns of gender inequality if we join each other, taking collective action for gender justice. As that bumper sticker says, “Don’t Agonise, Organise!”

Men must mobilise, creating men’s groups and networks dedicated to building gender equality.

There are other, local strategies which men can adopt.

I’ve written elsewhere of how best to educate men about gender issues. But I want to stress that we must use engaging and innovative techniques to foster men’s support for and commitment to gender equality. These might include exercises in gender reversal or ‘walking in women’s shoes’, listening directly to women’s experiences, local stories and examples, personalising women’s suffering, making comparisons with other forms of inequality, drawing on culturally appropriate texts and stories in critiquing gender inequality such as religious texts, local myths and fables, and, on the other hand, using the language of human rights, fairness, justice, and so on.

Another strategy is grassroots groups and action: organising local groups of men, in school or university, at a workplace, or among a circle of friends, to work against sexism and violence against women.

Another strategy is peer education. There’s growing interest in recruiting and training men as peer educators, educating other men on issues of violence against women for example in rugby league and AFL.

Women and women’s organisations may want to find male allies and supporters. Some women’s groups engage with existing men’s groups. However, many of the men’s groups in the ‘men’s movement’ are non-feminist and some are viciously anti-feminist, and it can be politically pragmatic to ignore or sidestep such groups rather than directly engage with them. Mainstream men’s organisations – Rotary and Lions clubs, trade unions, sports clubs, and other male-dominated organisations and contexts – can be just as promising as sources of support.

Achieving progress towards gender equality requires that we go beyond working with men as isolated individuals and work towards broader forms of social and political change in the communities in which they live. We must organise and foster grassroots men’s groups and networks committed to advocacy for gender equality. At the broadest level, involving men and boys in work towards gender equality involves ‘gender mainstreaming’, the integration of gender issues and feminist agendas into the policy and programming of governments, businesses, and so on.

The bottom line is that we will not progress much towards gender equality without support, and change, among men themselves. I hope that you will join me in inviting men into this project.

CITATION: Flood, Michael. (2008). Men’s roles in building a feminist future. Presentation, Socialist Alternative Forum, Wollongong, 5 April 2008.