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Engaging men in the gender agenda

3 October, 2016
Fleur Bothwick

I often attend events convened to discuss the issues that women face in the workplace, but when I look round the room, the audience is usually made up of women. Great speakers, compelling dialogue, but preaching to the converted. We appear to have forgotten that gender equality is not just about women, its about men and women.

I remember attending the launch of the Women’s Business Council research where Helene Morrissey, the then CEO of Newton Asset Management and founder of the 30% club raised the question – this all sounds great, but where are the men to hear the messaging and join the debate? The question was spot on - we will never fully empower women until the men are fully engaged in this agenda.  My experience in this field really resonated with research that McKinsey published in 2013. They found on the whole, men are totally committed to equality, they just don’t see or understand what the issues are.

I hosted an event with an American sociologist, Dr Michael Kimmel, to address just this issue. I asked my female guests to bring a male colleague/friend with then - the audience was about 40% male. One guest even brought her son saying that the sooner we engage the men on this topic, the better. Michael is one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity and has written a number of books including Angry White Men. He has such a refreshing approach to the topic of gender and best of all; he does it with great humour. In fact, a lot of the humour is directed at the men in the audience and would probably not land so well if it was delivered by a woman.

He talks about privilege being invisible to those who have it. One defining occasion for him was a dinner where he was talking to a group of women. One white woman stated that all women were similar and shared in the same sisterhood. She said that when she woke up in the morning she looked in the mirror and she saw a woman. Another woman in the group (who happened to be black), disagreed and said that when she looked in the mirror she first saw a black woman. Race was invisible to the white woman.  The white woman had the luxury to not have to think about her race every moment of the day. 

Michael then realised that when he looked in the mirror, he saw a human being – a middle class, straight, white man. He saw no race or gender so he gave it no thought. At that moment he realised that class, race, gender etc. were about him as well and only privilege had kept them invisible from him for so long. To achieve gender equality he concluded that he needed to make gender visible to men as well as women.

Unfortunately I don’t have a silver bullet to solve the challenge of achieving true gender equality, but I do think that Michael’s thinking certainly gets us on the right track. As he says, for too long men have benefitted from the longest most impactful affirmative action programme called the ‘history of the world’. 

It’s time perhaps for some of us, both men and women, to re-write some of those history books, together.