Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Gender Inequality: Eliminating Barriers for Women and Girls Requires Building Better Boys and Men.
The Pulitzer Prize winning couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are famous for popularizing the proverb that women “hold up half the sky.” They named their gender inequality non-profit, Half the Sky Movement, after this phrase. The expression is a nod to the role women and girls play in supporting society through bonding together families, linking generations, and eradicating poverty. That recognition is welcome. I worked at CARE at a time when this perspective was gaining traction throughout the development industry, and what I learned during those years was an education for me. As a cisgender, white male from privilege, I came to see the value of this approach and embraced it wholeheartedly.
The only caveat in my support is this: I believe focusing on girls and women is a starting point, not an end goal in itself. Yes, we must acknowledge the potential being squandered and the barriers blocking women from access to their full rights. It’s one of the moral imperatives of our time to remove those barriers and empower women.
But that begs the question:
What of men?
This is NOT going to be an apologist’s screed that decries discrimination against men. That is such a specious argument it’s absurd. Nor will I ever deny the existence of toxic masculinity. It’s real and it’s harmful to women and men. Speaking as a man, I must admit that the times I have allowed toxic forms of masculinity to direct my thinking and behaviour have only ended badly for me and others.
Given that, here is my concern: I’ve often wondered/worried that by placing exclusive focus on empowering women, removing barriers to their education and liberation, and presenting different models of femininity, we’re ignoring the other half of the problem. That other half of the problem is men. If we are not reconsidering our models of masculinity and sending a message for change to boys and men as we simultaneously work to promote women, we risk perpetuating an old injustice - an injustice that asks women to make all these changes to themselves and society, while not asking anything (or enough) of men and boys.
Essentially, we’re asking women to do all the work.
This is a difficult tension to hold, since women and girls need our disproportionate attention, advancement, and consideration after millennia of oppression. But what happens when we equip women to take “their seat at the table,” only to find men still standing in their way? After all, men make up the other half of society, and since many chauvinist ones have an interest in maintaining the status quo, I’d say we need a plan to engage them. Men, enlightened and non, need a constructive role to play. We’ve seen the effects when they are left out of cultural progress. It shows up in deepening resentment, toxicity, and isolation. These ills foster violence, whether behind closed doors in the form of domestic violence and sexual assault, or publicly in the form of religious extremists, separatist groups, or the incel movement.
To articulate my query further I’d ask this: what is the new version of masculinity we are proposing alongside this more emancipated and equitable version of femininity?
Again, this is NOT an attempt to steer long overdue attention away from women. It is rather an acknowledgement that to practice and preach gender inequality without considering how we re-invent masculinity, is to undermine ourselves.
My own opinion is this: the long-term goal is that neither gender has a monopoly on virtues, attributes, or opportunities. What makes us good men and good women are the same things—the things that make us good humans. The principles of virtue are not gender specific. Period.
Yet, when doing this work in cultures where traditional roles of gender are deeply ingrained, such freedom in defining male and female is a long way off. So, we have to start with baby steps, walking before we can run. In my experience, in patriarchal societies, we need to seek evolved roles of boys and men that feel “safe” and “palatable.” We move the needle by degrees, not giant sweeps.
As a man, I feel an obligation to facilitate this preaching of “new” masculinity as a critical support to empowering women and lifting barriers to their oppression. It’s “keeping my side of the street clean, ”or“ checking my own,” if you will. To that end, here are some developments I find encouraging and models I have found that make useful starting points for building better men.
Acknowledgement of the pathological effects of toxic masculinity, its impact on men and boys, and modalities for treating it has been an important milestone in this work. The American Psychological Association’s recognition of this was a major breakthrough. When men are 10 times more likely (than women) to murder others, 9 times more likely to be incarcerated, and commit 99 percent of sexual assaults, we are looking at a wholesale failure of masculinity. No amount of female empowerment alone will correct that, only sober reflection, holding men accountable, and providing alternatives.
We must expand our concepts of what it means to be male. We can tell men not to be a certain way, but we need positive alterative roles for them to take up in its place. Carving out identities for boys and men that include care, nurturing, sensitivity, a range of emotional expression (more than just anger), and open communication are part of this. While feminism has done valuable work at chipping away at the notion that strength, assertiveness, and courage are exclusive to men, we must also break down the walls that keep men from embracing traditionally “feminine” behaviours without social penalty. Emotional wholeness, nurturing, sensitivity, and communication are not only feminine behaviours anyway, they are human and healthy behaviours. Throwing out the old programming without presenting something new leaves men feeling lost, aimless, and persecuted, which can create a need for “heroism,” that can contributed to, among other things, truly toxic political results.
We must publicly affirm this evolved alternative sense of masculinity and celebrate those who champion it and live it well. Joe Ehrmann, a retired NFL football player, founder of the Inside Out Initiative, has been a powerful advocate for a concept of masculinity that teaches boys and young men that their worth does not lie in sexual conquest, athletic prowess, or material gain, but rather their capacity to love and be loved.
We must embrace our roles as protectors of others, as Jack Hoban presents in his book The Ethical Warrior. His work, which has influenced trainings for the military and police the world over, continues the work of his mentor Robert L. Humphrey. Humphrey promoted the Dual Life Value. As a system of ethics, the Dual Life Value is equally open to men and women, but due to its success in traditionally male professions, such as the military and law enforcement, it presents low barriers to entry for men who grew up with concepts of manhood influenced heavily by stoicism and machismo. Dual Life practices are a great “Trojan Horse” to introduce these concepts and ultimately their universal nature for men and women. After all, in his workshops, Jack Hoban often uses the example of a “Mama Bear” protecting her cubs as the fiercest, strongest, and most formidable protector any solider or police officer could aspire to—the highest values for soldiers and police officers, presented through the lens of motherhood. Furthermore, Hoban is slowly uncovering evidence that Marines indoctrinated in this training have lower rates of PTSD after combat missions. This finding offers proof that his approach, and its integration of traditionally male and female virtues, preserves health and humanity.
I find any of these examples on their own encouraging to my heart. Combined, they can be great tools to facilitate real change and a better way forward for men and boys. It’s work that must be done. We owe it to the women and girls whom we love and who have loved us.
Globetrotter and writer Ted Neill has worked on five continents as an educator, health professional, and journalist. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Recovery Today, and he has published a number of novels exploring issues related to science, religion, class, and social justice. He is the 2013 winner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Torch of Peace Award. His 2017 novel, The Selah Branch, attempts to confront issues of racism and the divided political environment of the US today and the 1950s. His debut novel, City on a Hill, examines the fault lines of religious conflict in the Middle East. His post apocalyptic novel, Reaper Moon, takes place against the backdrop of a global virus pandemic and how the aftermath unfolds along familiar social divides of race and politics. His most recent young adult novel is, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs & Other Terrifying Things I Saw at the Gates of Hell Cotillion, doesn’t need a blurb, the title says it all. He is also author of two award winning memoirs, Two Years of Wonder, which chronicles his time living and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS and Finding St. Lo, a combined account of his grandfather Robert Fowler’s WWII experience as well as a decorated medic in his unit, Gordon Cross. Follow Ted on Facebook and Instagram @therealauthortedneill