Noticing our use of male power and privilege in the everyday

I’m not a big TV watcher, but an ad I saw the other day caught my eye. You may have seen it – it shows an infant at a tray table throwing food into the air. The infant’s father is supervising, and rather than creatively encouraging the infant to eat his food, he coaches him to throw the next bit of food overarm like a bowler playing cricket. At this point the infant’s mother comes into the room, and looks at them with a surprised and disappointed face.

I was struck by how such a seemingly harmless and funny ad can reinforce gender role stereotypes. The mother’s brief appearance is done in a way that frames her as the responsible parent who needs to apply the rules of the house. The father is presented as the fun-loving, playful parent who implicitly likes to bend the rules. He takes centre stage in the ad and no doubt draws lots of affectionate laughter from viewers, while she is relatively invisible and reduced to her function as a parent.
For me this ad shows how subtle and insidious gender role stereotypes can be. It also reminds me of how much we, as men, take advantage of these stereotypes in our everyday lives – in order to get what we want, or to get out of doing what we don’t want to do, feel or talk about.
There is an important parallel here with the work done in men’s behaviour change programs. Generally when men start to let go of some of their defensiveness and take some responsibility for their behaviour, they still have a very narrow view of their use of violence and control. Some participants, through time, gain a wider understanding of how they use male power, coercion and control in a range of different ways. Facilitators try hard in these programs to create an environment that encourages participants to see how their behaviours hurt others and sabotage what they want for themselves.
This journey of change does not only apply to men in men’s behaviour change programs – it is relevant for all men including those of us volunteering or working in the family violence sector. As we hear the stories of women and children affected by male family violence, and work with men who show some desire to change, we can also learn about our own patriarchal behaviour. We potentially come to see that just like the men who we work with, we too choose to use male power and privilege to obtain (what we perceive to be) desirable outcomes for ourselves or to avoid certain things or conversations.
Societal structures and social norms that reinforce and excuse male power and privilege are at the roots of male violence against women and children. Unless we do more to notice and uproot embedded patriarchy within our society, organisations, communities and our own lives, we cannot hope to work seriously towards the end of this violence. Moreover, men cannot continue to leave it for women to notice and communicate our patriarchal practices to us (though creating a safer environment for women and children to do so is essential).
Each edition of NTV Notes will now contain a piece focusing on what men can do in the everyday to notice and uproot male power and privilege. After the first three or four pieces, I will invite contributions from MRS telephone counsellors, program facilitators and other men working in the family violence field to share their reflections about what they have been noticing and working towards changing in their own lives.
Over the past few years I have learnt that male family violence prevention includes the need for all men to change their behaviour in the everyday. It includes the need for men to think ahead about logistical tasks that need to be done at home rather than waiting to be asked. It includes taking more responsibility to help others feel welcome and at ease in social settings. It means cleaning the fridge. It means not automatically asking the first question at the start of question time at a conference. It means taking the initiative to organise child care for women (and men) who come to meetings with young children. It means continuing to notice the needs of others even when we are in the midst of strong emotion. It means using the shame and guilt we feel when we notice how we use our male power and privilege to help us to change, rather than as an excuse to focus more sympathy or attention on to ourselves. And it means speaking up when we see other men use their male power and privilege within their everyday settings.
I was aware of very little of this a few years ago. While I’m now noticing more about my behaviour, I still have much further to go in changing it. To move forward, as men we need not only awareness and openness, but also conversations with others so that we can support each other to notice more and to change.
Our hope with this column in NTV Notes is to bring out into the open the patriarchal practices that men need to uproot - and to support each other to do so in ways that do not place the burden of change on women, but which are fully open for women to provide feedback and comment upon. As such, comments from women and men regarding this column are very welcome – please email rodney[at] or phone 9428 3536. Thank you.
Rodney Vlais, Community Education Service Coordinator, No To Violence