The human race is like a bird with two wings, if one is broken the bird can’t fly: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality

Reflections on the key themes of the International Conference on Masculinities: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality

Rosemary Morgan
12 March 2015

Picture of Conference ProgramIn the opening reception for the International Conference on Masculinities: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality, Gloria Steinem, author and activist, said “the human race is like a bird with two wings, if one is broken the bird can’t fly”. She made reference to the fact that we live in a world where half of the population is devalued, often lacking equality in basic rights, pay, education, employment opportunities, nutrition, and access to health care. This is the reality for many women and girls throughout the world. The main theme of the conference was to explore how men and boys can be engaged to help mend that wing to work towards realizing gender equality. I discuss this theme below, along with others discussed at the conference.

“Gender equality empowers the lives of all”, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuke, Executive Director, UN Women

Before attending the conference I had never (knowingly) been in a room with so many men who were passionate about achieving gender equality and actively doing something about it. These men did not believe that by giving rights and power to those who might not otherwise have them, would somehow detract from their own rights and power. They did not agree that, for example, giving women more employment opportunities would take away their own employment opportunities, or that increasing women’s pay would reduce their own paychecks. Research supports their rejection of a zero sum game mentality and shows that both men and women are happier when housework is distributed equally within a household, or that more gender-equal corporations are financially better off, as presented by Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook and Founder, Lean In, Inc.) in the opening reception of the conference. The recognition that gender equality empowers the lives of both men and women was a constant theme throughout the conference, including strategies about how best to get this message across. For example, Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, stressed the need for positive approaches which see men as allies, as opposed to perpetrators of violence and oppression.

“If we are going to empower women and girls, we need to engage men and boys”Michael Kimmel, Executive Director, Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Stony Brook University

In global health and development, gender is often seen in reference to women and women only, as if it is only up to women to improve their lives by climbing their way out of their unequal and disadvantaged position in society. As a result, many global health and development projects attempting to empower women are often directed solely at women, ignoring the unequal power relations, gender dynamics, and gender norms that shape both women’s and men’s experiences. A key message of this conference was that men and boys must be engaged in recognizing, changing, and transforming unequal power relations, gender dynamics, and gender norms, if transformative change is to actually occur. While programs and projects directed solely towards women are important and sometimes necessary, and can lead to women’s empowerment, if we are going to truly empower women and girls and achieve transformative gender equality, men and boys, as Michael Kimmel from the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University states above, must be engaged within the process.

“Negative masculinities contribute to men’s ill health”, Sarah Hawkes, University College London

During the conference, Sarah Hawkes from University College London asked the question: Is gender making us sick?. She explored whether gender norms, roles, and behaviours contribute to ill health in both men and women. Research shows, for example, that of the top ten global causes of ill health, all are more burdensome in men than in women, with road injury being three times higher among men. As Sarah Hawkes explained, as a result of negative masculinities, men are more likely to take more risks, get sicker, and die younger. Similarly, in his presentation, Tim Shand, also from University College London, showed how due to gender norms and roles, men in Malawi were less likely to get tested for HIV/AIDS and be on anti-retroviral theory when HIV positive. Despite this, Michal Avni, Senior Gender Advisor at USAID, argued in her presentation, that global health has fallen short on recognizing the vulnerable health needs of men caused by negative masculinities that perpetuate risk taking behaviour. She argued that nowhere has this been more apparent as in relation to family planning, and men and boys throughout the world continue to lack accurate sexual and reproductive health knowledge, impacting both women’s and men’s overall sexual and reproductive health. Within global health a shift is therefore needed to ensure that men’s unique health needs are not forgotten while we strive to achieve gender equality.

“Working towards gender equality does not liberate men from prejudices and biases in the world at large”, Jimmie Briggs, American Freelance Journalist, Human Rights Activist

A conference on masculinities and engaging men and boys for gender equality would not be necessary if we did not live in a patriarchal world. However, this does not negate the fact that men, like women, hold multiple identities which shape their everyday lived experiences. Men’s identities are shaped by the intersection of their gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation; all of which combine to create a complex web of power and privilege. Men, as Jonathan Grove from Pacific Lutheran University reminded us in his presentation “The Problem with Privilege”, can be both the oppressor and oppressed at the same time. Jimmie Briggs, an American Freelance Journalist, for example, recounted how his own multiple identities as a women’s rights activist and “a large African American man”, put him in the position of both being privileged and underprivileged depending on the circumstance he found himself in. As we strive toward achieving gender equality it is therefore important that we recognize the multiple identities that individual’s hold which intersect to create differing levels of power and privilege. This point was also emphasized by Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, however, he cautioned that while it is important to recognize and acknowledge the complexities of men's identities, we must not let it become a distraction from gender justice work or an excuse for not addressing gender oppression.

“Men are part of struggle, allies in the struggle, not the centre of the struggle”, Gary Barker, MenEngage

While it is important to recognize that men, like women, are influenced by negative gender norms and roles, and that power and privilege does not fall equally upon the entire male gender, women continue to be at a disadvantage in comparison to men. And while, as Tal Peretz co-author on the book Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence against Women stated, it is important for men to recognize the harm that is caused by normative masculinities, this harm pales in comparison to the harm that women have experienced from normative masculinities and femininities. Women, for example, continue to be vulnerable due to such things as domestic and sexual violence, unsafe abortion, maternal complications, and HIV/AIDS. As a result, as Gary Barker from MenEngage states in the quote above, men must recognize that while they are part of the struggle for gender equality, they are not the centre of the struggle.

“Men and boys should care about gender equality to be healthy, to be fully human”, Jane Fonda, Actor and Activist

For those of us working in global health these themes are particularly relevant. Gender is often neglected in global health research and programs, such as those related sexual and reproductive health and maternal and child health, which often only focus on women. And within health systems research this is even more apparent. As a result, not only are men’s own health needs neglected, but the power dynamics and associated gender norms and roles which shape women’s and men’s health behaviours, access to health care, or experience working within the health system itself, are also neglected. Gender is a relational concept; it explores the relationships between men and women, as well as people of other genders. In addition, it explores how gender intersects with other axes of inequality, such as race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, to understand how power and privilege shape people’s everyday lived experiences and opportunities. If global health research and programs are to contribute towards achieving gender equality, they must actively seek to change unequal gender relations, norms and roles, which will be difficult if men and boys are not engaged in the process.

For a conference that focused on men and masculinities, the decision to end the conference on International Women’s Day was poignant, especially given its overall theme emphasizing the fact that if we are going to achieve gender equality men and boys must be involved in the conversation. As the above quote by Gloria Steinem suggests, the human race is currently spinning in circles, with one wing hanging limp at its side, and we will continue to spin in circles until that wing is mended. In a message to those working to achieve gender equality Michael Kimmel ended the conference with a sort of call to arms, or rallying cry if you will. He said that it is easy to be pessimistic when you’re doing this kind of work, striving to achieve gender equality. The posture of both academics and activists, however, has to be one of optimism. We need to think that change is possible while recognizing how far we still have to go. The journey will be long, and while those of us working to achieve gender equality will not live to see the end of the story, at least we’ll know we contributed to it.

The conference was hosted by the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, partnering with the American Men’s Studies Association, MenEngage, and Man Up.

Rosemary Morgan is a research fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs): Building Stronger Health Systems. You can reach her on twitter at @RosemaryJMorgan.

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