Last week I was proud to be one of the signatories on a joint letter to the Equalities And Human Rights Commission (EHRC) calling for the commission to address men’s issues in its 2016-2019 strategic plan, writes Glen Poole.
It’s a simple letter flagging up issues like male suicide; men’s health; boys’ education; violence against men and boys; the challenges fathers face and negative portrayals of men, boys and fathers.
There are 38 signatories including academics, charity leaders and journalists and while we all have different views—different gender politics—we all agree that these issues deserve more focus and attention.
So I want to be clear from the start of this exploration of men and gender equality in the UK, that the views expressed in this article are mine and mine alone and outline why I think the EHRC will continue to fail to address the many issues that men and boys face in the UK.
In this piece I’ll be covering:
- My own gender politics
- Some data demonstrating that more people support gender equality than support feminism
- Some recent history on coalitions and networks supporting men and boys in the UK
- My thoughts on the EHRC approach to gender equality
And for the context, the EHRC was set up by government and is an independent body. Only two of its 12 senior positions are occupied by men and in relations to men and boys it has a duty to:
- Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation of men and boys
- Advance equality of opportunity between ‘men and boys’ and ‘women and girls’
- Foster good relations between ‘men and boys’ and ‘women and girls’
The personal is political
In my view, the trouble with that EHRC has with men and boys is that all comes down to gender politics, so let me get my personal gender politics out on the table first.
I’m a non-feminist. I’ve been a card-carrying non-feminist since about 2010. I used to be a card-carrying feminist until about 15 years ago. I steadily moved away from a feminist worldview around the turn of the century after experiencing the discrimination faced by separated dads and observing feminism’s response as too often being sexist, anti-equality and deeply lacking in compassion and empathy for the suffering of separated men (and the men, women and children in their lives also affected by the separation).
I didn’t self-identify as a “non-feminist” until it became apparent that the constant attempts of others to label me as “feminist” or “anti-feminist” warranted a response. And so I “came out” as a loud, proud “non-feminist” man.
I’m not the first pro-feminist man to take the journey away from feminism. In the US, the author Warren Farrell left the feminist National Organization For Women (NOW) about forty years ago for the similar reasons as he revealed in 1997:
“Everything went well until the mid-seventies when NOW came out against the presumption of joint custody [of children following divorces]. I couldn’t believe the people I thought were pioneers in equality were saying that women should have the first option to have children or not to have children—that children should not have equal rights to their dad.”
Warren’s experience forty years ago reflects what an untold number of men and women believe:
- That feminism, in practice, does not mean equality for all
- That being non-feminist does NOT make you anti-equality (or anti-woman)
Some will disagree and some would want me to add that being feminist or pro-feminist doesn’t make you anti-equality or anti-men either. Such is the nature of gender politics—just like party politics and religion—we all tend to think that our view is the right view and everyone else is wrong.
So here’s my version of what the right view of gender politics is:
“THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG VIEW!”
That’s my radical view. It’s why I personally describe myself as a non-feminist, it allows me to stand in a space where I don’t have to take sides based on a label but am free to meet each issue, each individual and each viewpoint for the perspective of not what’s right or what’s wrong, but from a perspective of whether something works or not.
I recently criticised plans to give every 16-year-old boy in Sweden a book called “We Should All Be Feminists”, for example, not because I think its bad and wrong or because I’m anti-feminist, but because the idea that when it comes to gender politics we “should” all have the same worldview is simply fundamentalist—it doesn’t work!
Some anti-feminists have responded to this article by saying that I should declare myself an anti-feminist, but that’s just more of the same fundamentalist thinking. If you respond to me critiquing someone saying “we should all be feminists” by saying “you should be anti-feminist”, then you’ve missed the entire point of my argument—which doesn’t work!
By the same token, some feminists have responded by accusing me of ‘playing with labels’, telling me that non-feminsm isn’t really a thing and that I should declare myself a pro-feminist—which again misses the point of the argument—and doesn’t work!
All human beings have a gender political viewpoint, whether we are conscious of it or not—and if we want to raise people’s consciousness when it comes to gender politics then we need more than two boxes in which to place ourselves. If we want to ensure that the gender politics of powerful institutions like the EHRC; the Government Equalities Office; the European Institute of Gender Equality and UN Women (to name but a few) are representative of a broad range of gender political viewpoints—then we need more than two labels to help us navigate that challenge.
Why are gender political labels important?
In 2013, a YouGov survey asked Americans about their gender political viewpoints. This is what they found:
- 20% said they were feminist (including 23% of women and 16% of men)
- 9% said they were anti-feminist (including 13% of men and 5% of women)
- 63% said they were neither feminist nor anti-feminist (64% of men and 62%).
What that tells us is that being “not-a-feminist-but-not-anti-feminist-either”—or a non-feminist if you prefer, is not only the main gender political viewpoint amongst the general public, it’s also the most gender-equal viewpoint too, with around two thirds of men and women holding that view.
There are more than twice as many non-feminists than there are feminists and anti-feminists put together, but our views are too often drowned out in gender political debates and not present where they really count in the institutions set up to deal directly with gender equality issues.
The figures in the UK are very similar with a narrower (and differently worded) poll revealing that:
- 19% said they were feminist (including 27% of women and 10% of men)
- 66% said they were not feminist (including 77% of men and 57% of women)
- 15% said they were not sure (13% of men and 16% of women).
In the US survey, respondents were also asked if they believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals”. It’s an imperfect question because it depends what you think the people surveying actually mean by, for example political equality. Do they mean equal right to vote or quotas so that 50% of MPs are women or something else? But despite its limitations the answers are illuminating:
- 82% of people said they did think that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals”
- 9% of people said they didn’t think that.
So when while only 20% of people are feminists a whopping 82% of people think “men and women should be equals”. The UK poll had the same finding with 80% of men and 81% of women agreeing that when it comes to rights and treatment and status, “men and women should be equal in every way”.
This explains why the whole “if you’re against feminism you’re against gender equality argument” has no legs whatsoever—because the majority of people who are FOR gender equality are NOT feminists—they could be better described as non-feminists. And yes “non-feminism” is not a homogenous belief system, there are many different non-feminisms, but that’s why we need to name this group and start to define some of the major strands of gender political that could be described as non-feminist.
There are many different definitions of gender equality
One of the reasons for the disparity (between those supporting feminism and those supporting gender equality) is that there is not a single definition of what gender equality means. There are many different “gender equalities” and so two people can be both FOR gender equality and have diametrically opposed views of what gender equality means.
For one person gender equality can mean banning female circumcision/genital mutilation but allowing male circumcision/genital mutilation, for example. For another person gender equality can men banning both. For another person it can mean banning one but taking action to reduce the harm of the other.
So, which view is right and which view is wrong? Which view works?
I have my own view. Your answer will depend on your own personal gender politics, or maybe just your current state of knowledge about the issue, but all views are valid and deserve to be heard and taken into account. And if we exclude certain views from the public discourse about gender equality then we are in danger of creating fundamentalism, both in terms of allowing those with most power to enforce their own views to the exclusion of others—and in terms of the most marginalised and excluded voices becoming more fundamental and exclusionary in the way they respond.
Coalitions and networks for men and boys in the UK
In the world of gender politics, the people with most power are feminists and pro-feminists. This includes the EHRC which was formed through the merger of several different equalities bodies, including the feminist Equal Opportunities Commission in 2007.
In article at Telegraph Men, Neil Lyndon states that our joint letter represents “the first time, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission will be called upon to recognise formally that men and boys can be in positions of systemic disadvantage and inequality in British life”. This is not entirely accurate.
The fact is that since its inception in 2007 the EHRC has been engaged in men’s issues, most notably providing financial support to the now defunct Coalition on Men and Boys to produce a report on men, masculinities and public policy.
The Coalition aimed “to put issues of concern to men and boys firmly on the public policy agenda” but was staunchly pro-feminist, terrified of upsetting the women’s lobby and had no framework in place for bringing non-feminist individuals, organisations and issues into the Coalition.
I don’t know the full story of how the Coalition came into being and why it fell apart, but one insider tells me that in retrospect “they spent too much time looking over their shoulder, making sure they weren’t upsetting the Fawcett Society”. So calling on the EHRC to engage in men’s issues is nothing new, but there are lessons to be learnt from the past and the biggest lesson of all is this— we have to address the gender politics of advocating for men and boys.
The other coalition for men and boys
In 2010 I produced a three-year strategy for addressing issues facing men and boys in my city, Brighton & Hove. It achieved a great deal as well as falling far short of its ambitions by trying to achieve too much, too quickly with too little resource, infrastructure and support. Yet the process of researching, developing and attempting to implement this strategy taught me a great deal about what works and what doesn’t work when trying to address men’s issues:
The strategy had local, national and international objectives, the most successful of which was the national ambition to:
“Develop a networking strategy to empower men and men’s groups to engage with each other and key local and national decision makers [and] host a National Conference For Men And Boys and help expand participation in International Men’s Day.”
The impact of this particular work is still felt and still evolving today (the joint letter to the EHRC being one example). As one of the signatories, the journalist Ally Fogg recently said in a recent Reddit interview:
“There is something in the UK which I refer to as the men’s sector – a reasonably large number of charities and non-profit orgs (plus a few individual activists, writers, bloggers etc) that work with primarily or exclusively men and boys.
“What I find really interesting is that lots of these orgs now know each other and support each other. In this I have to pay enormous tribute to my friend Glen Poole. What Glen’s work has done really well, IMO, is to highlight how closely connected all the issues are, so you can get a dozen charities working with men in fields of mental health and suicide, alcoholism and drugs, youth exclusion, violence victimisation and perpetration, mentoring, abuse recovery etc etc etc – all those issues that are flagged up as different “men’s issues” – put those people in the same room and THEY ARE ALL SAYING EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS!”
I don’t share this to blow my own trumpet, though is great to get a public slap on the back every now and then, but I share this to highlight what works and what doesn’t work.
What type of men’s alliances make a difference?
The men’s sector in the UK has evolved and matured since 2010 (though it’s still a poor relation of the women’s sector and a fraction of its size) and it survives and thrives through the hard work and commitment of the many individuals and organisations connected to its complex web.
It’s not an easy sector to engage with. I’ve lost some friends and allies in the past five years; have uncomfortable interactions with many more but have built many more great friendships and resourceful working relationships along the way. More importantly, I have seen new projects supporting men and boys emerge and evolve and go from strength and strength and seen new relationships and alliances being built across the sector.
This is what I’ve learnt about men’s networks/coalitions/movements in the process. There are basically three types of alliance worth being aware of (and they sometimes overlap):
- There are alliances built around a common gender political viewpoint
- There are alliances built around a common goal or concern
- There are formal or informal alliances
And if you don’t define which type of alliance you are part of, it will limit your ability to make any long-term difference. The Coalition for Men and Boys, for example was a formal coalition, it did identify some common areas of concern, but was terrified of being associated with people who’s gender political worldview strayed from the pro-feminist mindset.
The alliances that I have been involved with building in the UK since 2010 still manifest through initiatives such as International Men’s Day and insideMAN’s #100Voices4Men project—and through these alliances I have also been invited to take part in initiatives like Year Of The Male; the joint letter to the CPS and the Male Psychology Conference.
The men’s issues networks I am part of are mostly informal (with some formal initiatives), built on the common interest we could call “men’s issues” and inclusive of a broad range of gender political viewpoints, but often with their own unique gender political bias.
For example, International Men’s Day is platform which is inclusive of all and welcomes anyone who wants to mark the day, whereas insideMAN has a narrower bias towards non-feminist perspectives highlighting “the problems men and boys have” (though we include feminist viewpoints and articles on “the problems men cause” from time to time).
How do you know what your gender politics are?
Anyone who wants to influence institutions like the EHRC needs an understanding of gender politics that takes us beyond the binary viewpoint of ‘women’s rights/feminism’ versus ‘men’s rights/anti-feminism’.
There are lots of different ways of categorising people’s genders politics some of which are used by researchers employed to advise governments on men’s issues. I have several ways of categorising different groups my self, but by the far the simplest is this.
To find out what someone’s gender politics are, ask them three questions:
- What are the main gender issues you personally are concerned with?
- What do you think are the main causes of those issues?
- What do you think are the main solutions to those issues?
Even if you don’t ask these specific questions, if you listen to anyone talking about gender issues for long enough, with an open and curious mind, the answers will begin to reveal themselves.
The strength (and weakness) of the informal ‘men’s movement’ I belong to in the UK is that it is built around a common concern for the issues men and boys have, but not a common view of what causes those issues or what the solutions are. Though I guess we’d agree that if the country was putting more time, money and resource into addressing those issues then that would move us towards solutions.
My own view is that the issues men face are a product of the way gender has evolves throughout time (shaped by biology, psychology, systems and cultures) and the solutions are ultimately to be found in mainstreaming men’s issues and integrating gender politics, at every level of culture and society.
Mainstreaming and integrating men’s issues
By mainstreaming I mean making men’s issues a mainstream concern in all areas of our culture and society (politics, media, culture, religion, public sector, private sector, third sector and so on).
By integrating I mean ensuring that a broad range of gender political viewpoints that are representative of the whole population are integrated into work on gender equality and men’s issues in particular.
Returning to the EHRC, this is why I think it will continue to fail to address the many issues that men and boys face in the UK:
- Because men’s issues haven’t been mainstreamed in the commission’s work on gender equality
- Because EHRC has no mechanism for integrating a range of gender political views into its work (or identifying AND addressing its own, unconscious gender political bias)
The willingness to name one’s own unconscious, gender political bias is a habit rarely seen in the world of gender politics (while “calling out” others for their perceived bias is commonplace). In practice, the vast majority of us are unaware of our own unconscious bias when it comes to gender politics, tending to believe that our gender political view is simply the truth and everyone else is just plain wrong.
It never ceases to amaze me, for example, how many well-educated and high profile individuals hold the belief that feminism is synonymous with gender equality. It isn’t and most of the public know it isn’t as the YouGov polls demonstrate.
There are many different feminisms and many different views about what gender equality is (just as there are many different religions and many different views about what God is), so the fallacy that “feminism=gender equality” is a myth that needs to be busted if we are ever going to mainstream and integrate men’s issues.
I am very open and unapologetic about my own gender political bias which can best be described as follows:
- I focus on men and boys issues, particularly the problems men have
- I focus on promoting men’s lived experiences and men’s voices
- I aim to do this in addition to (not in opposition to) the issues women and girls face
- Where there is conflict and work to help women and girls conflicts with work to support men and boys, I seek to highlight and help address that conflict
- I am non-feminist (and I’m interested in what feminists, anti-feminists and other non-feminists have to say)
As I wrote in 2010:
“True diversity recognises that people have different values and beliefs and that those differences need to be respected and promoted. All too often in the world of gender work, strategic partners refuse to work with people with different values and beliefs and so end up excluding others in the name of Equality and Diversity.”
Five years on I’d probably say “understood” rather than “promoted” but this observation is still as relevant as ever.
Can the EHRC make a difference for men?
For The EHRC to make progress on men’s issues over the lifetime of its new strategic plan (2016-2019) it will need to address the following:
- There are many different ways to define and measure gender equality which show us there are many areas of life where men and boys experience inequality—and they all need to be taken into account
- There are a diverse range of gender political viewpoints which shape how we view the inequalities that men and boys face
- The EHRC has its own gender political bias, which needs to be named, acknowledged and understood
- The EHRC will need to integrate a broad range of gender political viewpoints to understand the inequalities that men and boys face and not just rely on a pro-feminist approach with its tendency to exclude other gender political viewpoints
Right now, I am not overly confident that the EHRC will grasp the nettle and address these issues over the next three years. What I am confident about is that the informal networks of individuals and organisations concerned about men’s issues in the UK will continue to grow.
In 2011 around 100 individuals and organisations (including one member of the Coalition on Men and Boys) signed up to the following statement:
“There are now many areas where men and boys are showing up unequally such as health, fatherhood, education, criminal justice and community safety – and we believe that any effort to ensure equality for all in the UK needs to consider the specific needs of men and boys and how to address them. There is now a growing network of individuals and organisations in the UK which is concerned with addressing these issues. We all have our own specific areas of interest and many different ideas about how best we can improve men and boys’ access to and outcomes from public services. What unites us is a commitment to help every boy to reach his full potential as a man and to improve the way the world works for every man, woman, girl and boy in the UK in the process.”
That “growing network” includes people who are feminist/pro-feminist; non-feminist and anti-feminist. In my opinion, it is our inclusivity and diversity that is our strength because we can only create a fairer and more gender equal world by involving a diverse range of gender political perspectives.
If the YouGov poll is right, at least 80% of people support gender equality but only 10% of men and 27% of women say they are feminists. This means that:
- 81% of women support gender equality and two out of every three of them are NOT feminist
- 80% of men support gender equality and nine out of ten them are NOT feminist
So if we want to make a huge leap forward in tackling gender equality in the UK, it’s time for a gender political revolution that is designed to be inclusive of the concerns of non-feminists; feminists/pro-feminists and anti-feminists alike.
That’s my view, you may or may not share it, but at least when it comes to:
a) being a non-feminist
b) being concerned about gender equality
I know that on those two measures at least, I am in step with the vast majority of people in the UK. The question then, is can we persuade the EHRC and other equalities bodies to start taking men’s issues seriously and to become inclusive of a range of gender political viewpoints beyond the narrow confines of feminist/pro-feminist thinking (and its anti-feminist shadow).