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Rowing in the same direction: Getting men on board with gender equality

by | Sep 24, 2018 | The Agenda

This summer, Mexico’s leftist President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Colombia’s new rightist President Iván Duque each announced that his cabinet will be gender balanced. This came a month after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez filled nearly two-thirds of cabinet positions with women.

These men setting new standards for promoting female political leaders are vital compliments to the breakthroughs women politicians themselves are achieving around the world. But if we are ever to reach true gender equality in politics, we need many more men to join the cause in ways large and small.

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez filled nearly two-thirds of cabinet positions with women. Image: Ministry of the President. Government of Spain

Not long ago, I was invited to speak on a panel about women in the political process. The session moderator expertly gave the floor to a diverse range of voices – public officials and private citizens, young and old, from a variety of countries, speaking in several languages. After two hours, I counted 24 people who had asked questions and shared experiences. Of those two dozen contributors to the discussion, mine was the only male voice. Even though the organisers invited many men, few showed up and none raised their hand to speak.

“How can we involve men?” It’s a simple enough question, if it didn’t refer to three billion people walking this planet

The question came up there and in many other forums on gender equality that I’ve attended recently: “How can we involve men?” It’s a simple enough question, if it didn’t refer to three billion people walking this planet.

Men’s perspectives on this topic are as varied as are their tastes in neck ties. They occupy all parts of the spectrum from medieval misogynists to full-fledged feminists. It is folly to expect them all to be comfortable attending – let alone speaking up at – discussions of gender parity. Involving them in the drive for equality demands a more nuanced approach.

Let’s think of men based on their receptiveness to feminism. Do they fear it as an approaching tsunami, about to wipe out life as they know it? Or do they actively encourage it as a rising tide promising to lift all boats, including their own? To know how to involve men, let’s consider them in five broad segments, from fem-phobic to fem-fostering.

The Opponents. An important minority of males view feminism as an oncoming flood. These land-lovers see demons in them seas and warn anyone venturing on to the water against the risk of drowning. For protection from the existential threat about to turn everything upside down, they seek refuge in the hills, out of public view. When the waters wash at their threshold, they react defensively, barricading the door, or worse. This is not irrational, but it is not constructive. These men quietly believe, and occasionally say, “Women are fundamentally ill-suited for leadership.” And that’s when they’re being polite.

These staunch opponents of recognising equality between men and women – think of former tennis bad boy Bobby Riggs – will not be convinced otherwise. But nor should they be totally ignored. Keep exposing them to the message that times change and we humans adapt. We have evolved in innumerable ways over the millennia. Once, we walked on four limbs. Today, not only do we run and swim, but we have even taught ourselves to fly. Isn’t that worth talking about?

The Skeptics. Very happy with life in the land of status quo, these men might be coaxed into an occasional cruise on the water. But don’t rush them. Start by exploring the tranquility of Parity Pond before venturing through Sisterhood Straits to the openness of Liberation Lake. These men are tolerant of different views, but have developed opinions about unintended consequences of gender equality. “It’s expensive for business,” is a common refrain. Another is, “Aren’t we already beyond these identity politics?”

So rather than rock the boat, invite them to read, to listen, and even share their own thoughts. It starts privately at family meals, in conversations with their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers, their daughters and sons. Then, when comfortable, they can take discreet steps, such as voting for qualified women candidates, or donating to organisations that support the empowerment of women and girls.

The Uncommitted. These men are open-minded and willing to dip their toe in the water, but usually only briefly. They have not yet decided to commit. But they are at a tipping point. You may hear them say, “Of course, women deserve opportunities equal to those benefiting men.” They may even concede that, “I agree women have historically faced greater hurdles than men, and this should change.” This signals they can be persuaded to move their support from passive to active. Perhaps they’re ready to ‘Like’ select social media posts that promote equality; or to ‘Follow’ certain organisations or people who frequently address the topic on social media. They might go so far as to spend a little time attending a meeting, conference or rally where gender is on the agenda.

The Supporters. Happy to dive in the waves on occasion, these men are comfortable investing time for the cause. Their life probably already represents a shift from traditional gender roles, at home, at work, or in their leisure time. They’re at ease commenting on social media or throwing around the hashtag #HeForShe. I’m seeing growing numbers of such men quietly attending meetings and rallies, but they don’t speak up, preferring to avoid the risk of ‘mansplaining’ equality to their female colleagues, friends and relatives. In fact, these men are ripe to be persuaded to add their voice to the growing chorus. Ask them to volunteer on a female candidate’s political campaign. It is from today’s supporters that tomorrow’s champions will emerge.

Their example will signal to other men that everyone has something to gain from equality

The Champions. These men are life guards at Feminista Beach, making water safety a vocation. They’re not just convinced, they’re trying to convince others, either through word or deed. They already walk the walk, actively promoting equality in their free time or professionally, being more conscious in hiring, or encouraging empowerment groups and participating where appropriate. Think of Justin Trudeau bringing the Women Deliver conference to Canada next year. Or Shinzō Abe, whose government will host the Women Political Leaders Summit 2019 in Japan. Identify these men and invite them to join in leading the discussion. Their example will signal to other men that everyone has something to gain from equality.

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Bobby Riggs circa 1947 Worlds Professional Champion Press Wire Photo Image

The proportion of men in each category varies tremendously by geography and generation. A society that is advanced in these terms, like Iceland, has few of the first category and relatively many in the fourth and fifth. Yet in a big, heterogeneous country like the US, you’ll still find many male retirees who thought Bobby Riggs was right. But you’ll also find a comparably large portion of Millennials who don’t recall a world which had no experience of a female Speaker of the House, Secretary of State or Supreme Court Justice.

There is not one boat suitable for all men’s oars in the push for equality. But once you’ve sized them up, you may be surprised by how even small prompts can get them rowing in the same direction.

 

This article was first published here, and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

 

 

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