What men can do to promote gender equality

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 the exclusion of women from participation in economic and political life, but it can equally well be understood in terms of the inclusion of men and 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 as decision makers and community leaders, 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. How many of you know at least one man who treats the women in his life with respect? Put up your hand if you do.

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 act in support of the elimination of 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.

Relational interests

First, men and boys live in social relationships with women and girls – their wives and partners, sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts and nieces, friends and colleagues, neighbours, and so on;

The quality of every man’s life depends to a large extent on the quality of those relationships. Living in a system of gender inequality which limits or damages the lives of the women and girls concerned, inevitably degrades the lives of the men and boys too. (Connell 2003: 11)

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.

Personal well-being

Second, 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.

For me, questioning some traditional norms of masculinity has had real, personal benefits. I’ve developed much more intimate, enjoyable relationships with women, I’ve got better at communication and negotiation, I feel far less need to prove myself in front of other men, I’m not afraid of being seen as gay, I’m more comfortable in myself, and so on.

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 which maximise labour resources, from improvements in women’s health and well-being, and so on.

Principle

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.

The wider context

It’s encouraging to note that there is growing support for gender equality. Both women’s and men’s attitudes towards gender equality have improved over the past 30 years, although men’s have changed more slowly and as a result the gap between women’s and men’s attitudes has widened.

Younger men tend to have better attitudes to gender equality than older men. Still, there is no denying that young men are less supportive of gender equality than young women. In a recent Australian survey of 5,000 young people aged 12-20, only 12 per cent of young women agreed that “Men should take control in relationships and be head of the household”, but 37 per cent of young men agreed. There has been more progress on some issues such as women’s participation in paid work than on others such as interpersonal violence or domestic inequalities.

There are other signs of a weakening of traditional constructions of masculinity. For example, some heterosexual men have adopted a feminised, ‘metrosexual’ preoccupation with personal grooming, or question the division between heterosexual and homosexual, or speak out against sexism and macho behaviour.

Yet at the same time, many heterosexual men’s social and sexual relations with women are characterised by gender inequalities and male privilege.

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 meeting room or the factory floor. Critically assess our own attitudes and behaviours. Try hard to understand how our own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, and work toward changing them. Strive to be anti-sexist – without claiming to be ‘non-sexist’ or free of sexist habits and thoughts.
  • Challenge and interrupt sexist and otherwise inappropriate 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 non-sexist, to be free of sexism. 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. This gap between our political aspirations and our personal practices perhaps 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. I’ll give some examples of existing mobilisations among men, before saying more about what is needed.

Pro-feminist men’s groups in Australia have included Men Opposing Patriarchy, Men Against Gender Injustice Collective, and most prominently, Men Against Sexual Assault. Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) began in Melbourne in 1989, and in the next few years spread to most other major cities around Australia. MASA conducted anti-violence work with boys in schools, held national days of action, and ran community education campaigns such as the White Ribbon Campaign. Unfortunately, most MASA groups folded in the mid-1990s, as their volunteer members burnt out or moved on.

However, in the last few years, there’s been a renewal of male involvement, particularly through the White Ribbon Campaign. The White Ribbon Campaign is the largest effort by men across the world, working in partnership with women, to end men’s violence against women. White ribbons are worn by men who are encouraging all men to speak out against violence towards women, and by women who are supporting men.

In Australia, the White Ribbon Campaign is organised in part by UNIFEM, a women’s organisation, but it is conducted in partnership with men and men’s organisations. Last year we distributed over 200,00 ribbons, and this year we’re planning to extend this.

Community mobilisation and education campaigns such as the White Ribbon Campaign are one aspect of a wide range of collective strategies which men can take up to help to promote gender equality.

There are other, local strategies which men can adopt.

One is grassroots groups and action. Organize a group of men, in school or university, at your workplace, or among a circle of friends, to work against sexism and violence against women. The group can sponsor feminist speakers; produce and distribute literature; protest sexism in the media; organize forums on pornography, sexual harassment, and female-male relationships; invite training; and hold fundraising events for women’s refuges and other women’s organizations. Be an ally to feminist women and women’s organisations.

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;

  • Create opportunities for men to mobilise their communities through events, networks, and campaigns.
  • Nurture men as gender activists (while ensuring that men do not take over women’s struggles and do remain accountable).
  • Work with influential groups, ‘gatekeepers’, and so on.

Addressing pervasive problems of gender inequality also requires institutional strength, networking, and collaboration.

At the broadest level, involving men and boys in work towards gender equality involves ‘gender mainstreaming’, the integration of gender issues into the policy and programming of governments, businesses, and so on. I’ve written elsewhere of issues to do with men and gender mainstreaming, but here I’ll just make a few points.

One of the first steps in gender mainstreaming is to recognise that in fact the mainstream is already gendered: that government policy and practice already encourage certain sorts of male gender identities and practices while discouraging others. For example, government economic and welfare policies shape men’s roles as fathers and caregivers, through their impact on public and domestic divisions of labour and couples’ decision-making about work and parenting.

Support from men in the top levels of government is crucial, both for gender equality measures and for the women involved in these processes.

Private sector businesses, trade unions, and other civil society organisations all have their own gender regimes which influence the social positions of women and men. Again, all can play a role in fostering gender equality both internally and in their influence on wider society. And again, the role of men who hold organisational power is vital in change.

In short, we must incorporate men and boys more systematically into gender equality policies and processes.

Dangers / dilemmas in doing so…

Involving men in work towards gender equality can involve dangers. Involving men in gender policy and programming can mean;

  • Threatening funding and resources for programs and services directed at women (in a context where these are already under threat).
  • The dilution of feminist content and orientation of services and a weakening of the impetus for justice for women.
  • Men taking over.
  • Communicating a false sense of symmetry between women’s and men’s social positions – the false idea that women and men are equally disadvantaged.

Some key principles for male involvement

Male involvement should be guided by several key principles.

Pro-feminist (In content, frameworks, and processes)

Above all, any incorporation of men and men’s gendered issues should further feminist goals. The rationale of gender equality must be kept central. In other words, we must frame male involvement within a clear feminist political agenda.

To be pro-feminist is to be critical of those aspects of boys’ and men’s behaviour, constructions of masculinity, and gender relations which are harmful to girls and women. To be gender-just is to encourage men to develop respectful, trusting and egalitarian relations with women, and to promote positive, non-oppressive constructions of gender or selfhood.

Being pro-feminist also involves issues of process. This work must be done in partnership with, and even be accountable to, women and women’s groups. And we must protect ‘women’s space’, women-only, and women-focused programs. These are vital, e.g. to support those who are most disadvantaged by pervasive gender inequalities; to maintain women’s solidarity and leadership; and to foster women’s consciousness-raising and collective empowerment.

Be male-positive

A second broad principle of this work is that it be male-positive. To be male-positive is to be affirming of boys and men and optimistic about them; to believe that men can change; to support every man’s efforts at positive change. It is to build on the many positives already in current forms of manhood. In other words, the best practice shows a commitment to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives.

Don’t do this, and men quickly become hostile and defensive, and shut down and turn away.

Acknowledge diversities

Thirdly, any approach to boys’ and men’s issues must acknowledge both commonalities and diversities in the lives of boys and men. Manhood and gender are structured by class, race, sexuality, age and region. Boys and men share very unequally in the fruits of male privilege, and some forms of manhood are dominant while others are marginalised.

Think for example of a young working-class man on the dole, compared to a middle-aged white accountant, compared to a Sudanese asylum seeker man. Each may ‘do power’ to the women in his life in various ways, but each also has differing levels and forms of access to wider forms of male privilege.

More generally, all of us have multiple and interlocking identities and social locations, some associated with privilege and unfair advantage and some associated with subordination and disadvantage. Acknowledging our and others’ roles in systems of domination and subordination should be central to this work.

Conclusion

I am in two minds about the future of men’s involvement in promoting gender inequality. Sometimes I feel worried by the fact that there will always be less support for gender equality among men than among women. Men have less interest in work towards gender equality than women for obvious reasons: it may appear to threaten their interests (although I’ve also emphasised its real benefits), men have poorer attitudes to gender than women, they’re more hostile to feminism, and men are constrained from involvement by the powerful homophobic policing of masculinity, such that questioning gender inequality or traditional masculinity means you run the risk of being attacked as gay, a wuss or sissy, and so on. For these reasons, I sometimes think that the numbers of men who’ll actively support gender inequality will be small.

On the other hand, I’m optimistic. I’ve seen campaigns that have mobilised large numbers of men: the White Ribbon Campaign here in Australia, and other campaigns overseas on HIV/AIDS, sexual violence, and so on. I’ve heard ordinary men, men who’ve never read a feminist book or done a Women’s Studies course, speaking passionately and personally about their support for gender equality. And I’m inspired by a groundswell of interest, in community organisations and governments, in involving men in this work.

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. (2006). What men can do to promote gender equality. Speech to Forum, Women’s Rights Today: Identifying the problems, working for solutions (United Nations Youth Association, Victorian Division), Melbourne, 18 February.

(Note that this speech also is downloadable as a Word document, here.)

Men, Gender, and Gender Equality: Key resources and readings

READINGS ON MEN AND GENDER ISSUES

XYonline is a website on men and gender issues, at http://www.xyonline.net. It includes a substantial collection of accessible articles on men, gender, masculinity, and sexuality. This page gives a guide to XY’s materials: https://xyonline.net/content/men-building-gender-equality-guide-xys-content

See general articles on men and gender issues, here: http://www.xyonline.net/category/article-content/activism-politics 

See the articles on men’s work in helping to stop violence against women, here: http://www.xyonline.net/category/article-content/violence

Find resources (manuals, handbooks, training guides, etc.) here: http://www.xyonline.net/category/article-content/resources

Critiques of ‘fathers’ rights’ and ‘men’s rights’ claims about family law, violence, custody, etc., here: http://www.xyonline.net/category/article-content/violence

And here: http://www.xyonline.net/category/article-content/mens-fathers-rights

WEB SITES ON MEN AND GENDER

XYonline also includes a substantial collection of links to other websites on men and masculinities, here: http://www.xyonline.net/links

See e.g. the collection of links on involving men in building gender equality, here: http://www.xyonline.net/links#a1

And the links on men’s anti-violence work, here: http://www.xyonline.net/links#a2

THE MEN’S BIBLIOGRAPHY: ACADEMIC SCHOLARSHIP

A comprehensive bibliography of academic writing on men, masculinities, gender, and sexualities, listing over 39,000 works. It is free at: http://www.xyonline.net/bibliography

This includes for example;

The best reading on men and masculinities: http://www.xyonline.net/content/test-best-reading

Articles and books on men, gender and feminism, at: http://www.xyonline.net/content/28-men-feminism-and-gender-equality

Academic references on men’s anti-violence work: http://www.xyonline.net/content/t-men’s-anti-violence-education-and-activism