Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why involve men in work on gender equality?

I am a feminist who has spent 20 years writing about gender, both in the UK and the Global South. I have no doubt that women suffer just because they are women.  But I have also become convinced that if we are ever to move forward in terms of gender equality, we need to involve men too.

Surely this ought to be a no-brainer. Gender is about men and women and the relationships between them. So why is it so problematic?

First, because the focus on men does not always come from a gender equality perspective, but from the idea that it is men who are now the victims. For example, Atlantic Monthly ran an article noting that men are becoming redundant with an ‘unprecedented role reversal now under way’. And in 2010 Newsweek ran a cover story on ‘reinventing masculinity’, analysing assertions that women are taking over the world – or at least the US.

This is dangerous nonsense. Of course there are individual men who face rape or violence from women, but they are in a tiny minority. Overwhelmingly, it is still predominantly women who face abuse, violence and discrimination from men. Things may look better in the rich world, but for example, in the US, a woman is battered by her intimate partner every 15 seconds in the UK, women working full time still earn on average 15.5% less an hour than men.  Globally, women hold only 19% of positions in national parliaments.

Second, there is suspicion from feminists, and from some women and women’s groups about working with men. (Not to mention the scepticism from some women and men about the value of gender work at all in our ‘post-feminist’ era). They question men’s motives. And they feel that the debate is hijacking the focus and the resources from work with women.  They are right.

But it is precisely because patriarchy is the problem that we need to put some of our attention on men and boys.  We need to shine a light on the reasons – social, political, economic and individual - why so many women and girls still face abuse and discrimination in almost every area of their lives. Then we need to involve men as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. This should be in addition to, not instead of, what is already being spent on women and women’s projects.

In order to do this, men themselves need to see that equality is a matter of justice. They need to recognize that it benefits their mothers, wives, girlfriends, and daughters. And they need to realise that it is in their own interests to change. Because the current gender order, although it may benefit men in many ways,  has its downside for men too. For example, a
national survey of adolescent males aged 15 to 19 in the US found that those who adhered to traditional views of manhood were more likely to report substance use, violence and delinquency and unsafe sexual practices. Young men are also more likely than any other group to die in traffic accidents, or through murder or suicide– in Britain, for example, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 35.

This is not just about individuals, it is also about the huge structural issues that govern society, about economics, politics, globalization… We are still not clear enough about what we mean by involving men. Which men, to do what? Is it men in power who can influence law and policy? Is it men in their homes? Is it male community leaders? All of these? And what do they have the power to change?

What we do know is that men and women need to work together until it becomes socially unacceptable to beat up a woman or discriminate against someone just because they are female. We have come a long way, (thanks mainly to women’s efforts) but in the end men are still in charge - and it is men who now need to change.

Nikki van der Gaag is an independent consultant who specialises in gender and communications

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