Bringing Men into the Heart of the Gender Equality Revolution

February 17, 2019 Michael Kaufman

In my new book, The Time Has Come. Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution, I draw on feminist analyses, women’s organizing, and women’s voices to make the moral, economic, political and social case for men to embrace efforts to achieve gender justice in our workplaces, homes, schools and nations.


It would be good if such arguments were sufficient to turn the ship of patriarchy around, but a ship that has been sailing for eight or ten thousand years has an awful lot of momentum.


The problem is not simply that individual men have benefitted from a fifty-fifty roll of the genetic dice and enjoy forms of privilege that are often invisible to them (even if more than obvious to women.) And it’s not only that patriarchy is deeply embedded in our social, political, economic, religious and cultural institutions. It’s also that relations of patriarchal power get internalized right into our developing brains in our first formative years. We become gendered. As men, to one extent or another, we embody the demands, expectations, prerogatives and contradictions of our male-dominated society. This makes change awfully hard.


So, aside from those idealistic or economically-persuaded few, why would men embrace the gender equality revolution? One reason is that men supporting women’s rights are no longer “a few”—these men are no longer alone among their brothers. The impact of women’s organizing has been widespread and powerful. Countless men know of and want to end violence against women; are outraged that the women in their lives don’t have the same opportunities as men; support women’s right to education, physical autonomy, reproductive choices, and equal pay. They know gender justice is both a moral imperative and will have impressive economic and social outcomes.


There’s another powerful reason for men’s embrace of change. For years, the focus of my work has been on men’s contradictory experiences of power. Patriarchy is not only a system of men’s power over women, it is also a system of the power of some men over others. What’s more, the dominant ways we’ve defined manhood are impossible for any man to live up to—and thus we set boys and men up for failure. This failure is sometimes internalized (in the form of a fear of seeking medical or emotional help, drinking and drug problems, risk-taking behavior, suicide) or externalized in many different forms of violence, including abusive and bullying behavior. And sometimes this failure just simmers in the souls of men.


Bringing men into the heart of the gender equality revolution requires policies, programs and approaches that tap into all these things. This includes:


• Public education, company and government policies, and social action campaigns aimed at men and boys on the themes of gender equality and ending gender-based violence. Evidence tells us that to be successful, such efforts must take a positive approach. Scolding and hectoring won’t get us far. Challenging men through an affirmation of men’s capacities to bring about change is the way forward.


• Pushing for individual change, such as public education campaigns for men to do one-half of all care work and housekeeping. Not only is this the pathway to equal pay and the advancement of women, it means the next generation of boys will grow up with a strong sense of men’s capacities as nurturers. Nurturing requires empathy. Greater empathy reduces violence and builds connections.


• Individual change, though, is only viable on a mass scale if we have social policies that create an enabling environment. The most dramatic efforts right now concern parental leave, in particular use-it-or-lose-it “Daddy Days”, first pioneered in the Nordic countries. We have strong evidence that this can lead to a rapid and massive uptake of parental leave from men, and we have strong evidence that these few weeks create life-long patterns of caregiving and commitment to domestic work.


• Efforts addressing discrimination against particular groups of men based on their skin color, ethnicity, sexual/gender orientation, religion, and class. Failure to do so ignores the intersectional nature of men’s gendered experiences. Ignoring this also opens up the possibility of misdirected anger from men who feel left out or left behind—and this has profound social, political, and security implications.


• Attention to addressing boys’ and men’s vulnerabilities, including gender-informed health and sexuality education and services.


All that is just to say that the gender equality revolution is also a revolution for men. I appeal to all men to step up to women’s sides and make their voices heard.


This blog first appeared on Feb 15, 2019 at the global network of government public servants.