A new approach is needed to engage men on gender equality

Lisa Annese
Topics Gender
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At an informal gathering of friends a few years ago, some (very decent and respectable) male friends were sharing stories about buck’s parties with the usual tall tales about men ‘losing their freedom’ and having one last hurrah. 

The commentary was loaded with sexism and misogyny. When it became outright degrading, however, my male partner spoke up and let them know in no uncertain terms that this sort of language was unacceptable; that women should be treated with respect and that he would not tolerate listening to men talk about women who were half their age in terms that he found disgusting.

Stunned silence ensued.

Then the subject was changed and not broached again. No one challenged my partner. In fact, the women who were there regarded him with awe while the men (hopefully) were successfully schooled in Feminism 101.

Unfortunately, this type of situation usually plays out in a very different way. When I speak out upon hearing offensive, sexist and degrading comments made by men about women, I am told that they are ‘just joking’, that I am being ‘hyper-sensitive’. I am dismissed as a ‘feminazi’ and the men revert to their original behaviour. What’s more, in some cases, condolences are given to my partner for having to deal with such an antagonistic, un-fun, uptight woman.

My partner’s actions demonstrate the role men can and should play in addressing everyday sexism and are one way they can contribute to greater gender equality. And while men’s role gender equality is certainly a hot topic with no shortage of views, including some arguing that men are key players in addressing gender inequality whilst others arguing that women need to be given much greater attention in order address the imbalance, there is no doubt that their actions and behaviours matter. It is no silver bullet though.

At our Annual Diversity Debate in 2016 we explored whether ‘engaging men’ is the game changer for gender equality. While both sides agreed that men need to play a role in addressing gender inequality, the negative team successfully argued that it is only part of the solution – and that more focus should be on elevating women as well as challenging and changing biased systems and cultures.

There is no doubt that initiatives aimed at ‘engaging men’ to address gender inequality have gained popularity in recent years. Initiatives such as the Male Champions of Change and the panel pledge, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Equilibrium Man Campaign, The 100% Project, and Catalyst’s Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) have been pivotal in putting this issue on the public agenda.

We know that gender inequalities still exist. Despite gains in recent years, you only have to look at the persistent gender pay gap, the high incidence of pregnancy discrimination and the lack of women in positions of leaderships to see that.

Gender inequalities abound, both attitudinal and structural. The inequalities are built into the systems and structures of Australia’s workplaces. But they are also personal and interpersonal with many men (and women) practising other everyday forms of sexism, often without realising it.

Men receive benefits and advantages because of gender inequality – whether they wish to or not. But it’s important to understand that men also lose from gender inequalities and will gain if these are addressed.

But how engaged are men in gender equality? Research tells us that men show less support than women for gender equality, including initiatives aimed at achieving women’s and men’s equal treatment and workplace efforts to eliminate gender bias. This isn’t necessarily because men object to gender equality. Rather, it’s more because they aren’t aware of the inequalities and simply don’t know what to do or say.

Our new study, Men Make a Difference: Engaging Men on Gender Equality, sponsored by Programmed and produced in partnership with Dr Graeme Russell and Dr Michael Flood, two of Australia’s leading researchers in men, masculinity and gender inequality, has for the first time looked at the evidence to determine what the problems are and how to successfully address them.

The report’s aim is to contribute to the debate on engaging men in a constructive way. It’s not about saying men are bad or good, or about praising or punishing men for their actions.

Some of the report’s key recommendations include ensuring gender equality initiatives involve women and men as active and equal partners.

Linfox and Women’s Health Victoria who partnered to conduct the Working Together Against Violence project is a great example of this in action. The project aimed to strengthen the organisational capacity of Linfox’s male-dominated workplace to promote gender equality and non-violent norms. Importantly, the training was conducted by a male and female facilitator working together to model respectful relationships.

Another example is the CEOs for Gender Equity (CGE) whose leadership includes Her Excellency, the Governor, Kerry Sanderson AO as Patron, and Chris Sutherland, Managing Director of Programmed, as Chair. Female CEOs currently represent 33% of their membership, more than double the state and national averages, and CGE is publicly committed to changing these numbers for the better.

Getting the messaging right to appeal to men as well as women is also key. This means we need to craft messages which will engage and inspire a diversity of men on a diversity of topics. This can be done by:

  • Appealing to men as bystanders – to men’s ability to speak up about and intervene in sexist behaviour and attitudes by other men (and women).
  • Emphasising the positive – suggest that many male staff are supportive of gender equality or fairness, but do not know what to do.
  • Using the right messengers – try to use messengers with whom men identify, who are respected by them, or who appeal to them.

Engaging with a diversity of men is essential. This has to include men in different organisational roles and levels, not just at executive levels, and with a variety of demographic backgrounds (e.g. ages, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations).

It’s a great idea to try connecting with key stakeholder groups to tap into and connect with a diversity of men (e.g. Australian Employers Network on Disability, Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, Pride in Diversity).

Try to craft messages which will engage and inspire a diversity of men on a diversity of topics – for messages about shared caring and flexible work, take a look at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Equilibrium Man Campaign or The Guardian’s Father’s Day video. For messages about pay equity, try Audi's #Driveprogress 'daughter' video.

And it’s critical to make the connection between work and home – by implementing initiatives that encourage gender equality in caregiving.

Aurizon has designed a highly innovative shared care policy that expands the child care options for staff. It involves providing a financial incentive based on half-pay for a partner to stay at home and care for their child in their first year, and for the Aurizon staff member to return to work full-time. This policy is inclusive of all parents including same sex couples, single parents, and both birth and adoptive parents.

Above all else, I believe that it’s not enough for men to say they care about gender equality. They have to be committed to making personal change – not just in their professional lives but also in their private lives.

At home, for (heterosexual) men, this might mean simple things like doing the grocery shopping or the meal planning, so that the burden of household tasks doesn’t fall overwhelmingly on their female partners.  

At work, it can mean making time to meet with female colleagues to hear about their challenges at work to see what change would make a difference to them, intervening on sexist comments and jokes or when men and women are judged unfairly to differing standards.

I encourage men to work with women in partnership to achieve gender equality. Only then will it really be a win for everyone – for women and men, at work, at home, and in the community. 


By Lisa Annese


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