Why the workplace needs more feminist men

Can men be feminists? Ask Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who regularly describes himself as one. Or the editors of Esquire magazine, who dedicated an entire special issue of the magazine to the subject of men’s role in gender equality. Or the United Nations, which runs a #HeforShe campaign via Twitter, again trying to get men involved in gender equality.

So the answer is clearly yes: men can be feminists. But that isn’t the same as saying that there is also clarity about how to encourage this.

Yet undeniably, that encouragement will be vital if men are to play the part that they must in breaking down gender inequality—especially in the corporate world, with its glass ceilings, persistent pay differentials, and two-speed career tracks.

Flawed logic

As the Esquire special issue highlighted, most attempts to encourage men to see gender equality as important tend to follow predictable lines of argument:

  • Gender inequality matters because it discriminates against men’s female ‘significant others’—their mother, sisters, wife, daughters or nieces.
  • Gender equality doesn’t involve men giving anything up: they can still hold the door open, pay for dinner, drink beer, and watch football.
  • By embracing gender equality, men are transcending self interest in order to advance humanity.

The problem is that none of these arguments holds wholly true.

For instance, there’s an implication that men can’t or won’t see a point in gender equality if they don’t have significant women in their lives. Likewise, it has to be at least likely that a more gender-inclusive world will involve men changing their practices in at least some respects. And while advancing humanity is all very well and good, if a man’s career is on the line, then he might find that his motivation dwindles.

So here are three other ways to engage men in promoting gender equality.

Gender inequality: an unequal level of privilege

First, men need to realise that the current gender arrangement privileges them.

The example of cycling illustrates this: with a headwind, you struggle to get ahead—but with a tailwind, you don’t.

The same applies with gender equality. It is women who experience a headwind, through gender inequality, and it is men who have a tailwind—but rarely notice it, because this is simply how the world is for them.

And understanding this privilege is central to working towards eliminating it. It’s not that men should feel guilty about it, but rather that they need to understand that at present, women and men are differently positioned within the current gender system.

Gender inequality: men suffer, too

Second, while the current gender system is stacked in favour of men, men also suffer from gender inequality.

Men face demands in terms of what it means to be a man, which often come at a high personal price. Men have to appear tough and fully committed to work and are encouraged not to show emotions. This is highly restrictive.

So the argument here is that men’s behaviour is regulated by restrictive gender norms just as much as women’s—but men are rarely aware of these gender norms, or are aware of them to a lesser extent.

Breaking free from those norms, though, in a more gender-equal workplace world, would allow men to develop greater flexibility in their own roles and practices.

Gender equality: role models required

Third, many men face a practical hurdle in playing a personal part in working towards gender equality.

In other words, they might see the personal, business, and social case for gender equality, and would like to support gender equality efforts—but just don’t know how they can do that.

Put another way, it’s not a lack of motivation that holds back their gender equality efforts, but rather a lack of understanding of how they can make a real difference.

What to do? Men need some concrete examples of how they can make a difference, rather than fairly abstract arguments about why they should care about gender inequality.

Work smarter, not harder

The bottom line? Engaging men in tackling gender inequality is central for organisations, but those organisations will have to be smarter to develop a deeper commitment from men towards gender equality. The old arguments just won’t work.

Put another way, not only can men become feminists, but men should be feminists.

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