Anti-sexist work with boys: education or indoctrination?

On Monday The Telegraph website posted an article by Dan Bell, arguing that the ‘Good Lad’ workshops recently introduced into a school in Oxford, aimed at teaching boys about sexual harassment and violence, were ‘the latest in a mushrooming series of initiatives in which ideologically-driven activists are being invited into schools, driven by the belief that boys need to be re-educated to prevent them from becoming a threat to women.’

Bell proceeded to list other similar initiatives aimed at what he described as the ‘indoctrination’ of boys, in which he claimed the emphasis was on ‘imposing an ideological worldview that first and foremost sees young men as potential abusers and perpetrators.’ In Bell’s opinion, these campaigns offer a glimpse of ‘an increasingly pervasive culture of toxic feminism in schools’ that is ‘weighing down boys with a collective sense of guilt and shame’ and are part of ‘a drive to make shame and guilt a formal part of boys’ education’.

A workshop run by 'Great Men'

A workshop run by ‘Great Men’

The article left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve often been critical of what writers such as Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes describe as the ‘therapeutic’ turn in education, the increasingly fashionable trend for using schooling as a way of delivering moral messages about ‘wellbeing’, whether it’s healthy eating or so-called ‘emotional literacy’. I’m suspicious of such initiatives, firstly because they are often profoundly anti-educational, tending to deliver ‘appropriate’ messages for students to passively absorb, rather than promoting the questioning approach to knowledge that should be at the heart of any truly educational process. Secondly, there is the vexed question of who gets to decide what these ‘appropriate’ messages are, and the power this puts in the hands of schools, local authorities and ultimately the state to regulate children’s thinking.

But thirdly, I tend to think that delivering pre-packaged moral messages to schoolchildren is simply ineffective. At a recent seminar on gender equality in Helsinki, I was rather alarmed to hear a representative from the Finnish education ministry talk about plans to introduce anti-sexism as part of the compulsory school curriculum. I remember a colleague telling me about his daughters’ experience of being exposed to anti-racist education programmes at their inner London school in the heyday of the GLC. He said they could certainly parrot the ‘correct’ messages but were deeply cynical about the whole process, regarding it as just another part of the compulsory, and resented, curriculum. There’s a risk that such programmes are about as effective as the pious religious messages inculcated by high-minded teachers in the Victorian era.

So there’s undoubtedly a danger that school-based programmes on sexism may actually turn boys off the whole subject. And Dan Bell’s catalogue of examples certainly includes some dubious practice. But are those examples typical of what goes on in these initiatives? I happen to know some of the people involved in one or two of the campaigns that he cites, and I believe he misrepresents their work. The work of the Great Men project, for example, can be much better described as starting a conversation with boys on the subject of gender equality, and enabling them to articulate their own thoughts and feelings, than any kind of ‘indoctrination’, or attack on boys.

As it happens, on the day that Bell’s article appeared, I was visiting a Youth Offending Service in south London, to talk about our recent research on the role of gender in work with vulnerable boys and young men. I was heartened to hear that reading about the research had inspired staff to organise their summer programme for boys around the theme ‘What is a man?’ They’ll be using art and media to encourage teenage boys at risk of offending to explore their thoughts and feelings about masculinity. For young men trying to work out their own sense of identity, while subject to powerful peer pressures to conform to kinds of ‘hypermasculinity’ that are damaging not only to girls and women, but also to their own wellbeing, this kind of work can be invaluable. Indoctrination? Hardly.

A final point. Dan Bell is the Features Editor of the online magazine, insideMan, which claims to promote ‘pioneering conversations about men and boys’. In some cases it undoubtedly does. But just as often it provides space for articles that appear to be part of an anti-feminist backlash and men’s rights agenda. When I was invited to write for the magazine about the Helsinki seminar mentioned above, some of the comments I received in response certainly fell into that category. So yes, we should certainly ask questions about the motives and agendas of organisations that are invited into schools to deliver moral messages to young people. But we should ask the same questions about the writers of newspaper columns, especially when they appear to select the most salacious and sensational examples in order to tar all anti-sexist initiatives with the same brush, and risk undermining the excellent and necessary work that many are doing to support boys in exploring positive ways of being a man.

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‘Boyhood’: first thoughts

I missed Richard Linklater’s Boyhood when it was first released: our multiplex doesn’t show many non-blockbusters, or it shows them fleetingly and at odd times, so it’s a case of blink and you miss it. But last night, thanks to our excellent local film society, I finally got to see the film. This is not the place for a full review, and others have expressed more articulately than I can what’s so good about this bold, absorbing and deeply humanist film. But I wanted to share a few initial reflections on Boyhood‘s portrayal of masculinity, though again I’m not sure my insights will be particularly original, as a number of reviewers have already considered this aspect of the movie, and especially how it intersects with issues of class and ethnicity.

As others have said, Linklater’s film is as much about fatherhood, motherhood, and even brotherhood and sisterhood, as it is about boyhood. As those who have seen the film will be aware, Boyhood is the story of a modern American boy, Mason junior, from the age of about six to the moment he leaves home at the age of eighteen: the remarkable thing being that the film was shot in real time, over a period of twelve years, so that we witness the actual physical ageing process in both children and adults. But it’s also the story of Mason’s sister, Samantha, and his mother, played by the deservedly Oscar-winning Patricia Arquette.

In terms of the film’s treatment of fatherhood, it has to be said that (at least on a superficial viewing) men don’t come out of it particularly well. At the beginning of the film the children’s biological father, played superbly by Ethan Hawke, is presented as an immature and mostly absent boy-man who has left their mother with the responsibility of bringing up the kids, reappearing every now and then to take them off for ‘fun’ weekends. So far, so stereotypical.

As the film unfolds, we see Arquette’s character form relationships with two other men who become substitute fathers for Mason junior and Samantha. Rather repetitiously, both are revealed as, to varying degrees, drunks. Interestingly, both men present on the surface as paragons of responsible masculinity: the first, a middle-aged college professor who is singlehandedly raising two children of his own, and the second a younger army veteran whose experience of combat is at least superficially a badge of mature masculinity. But both are revealed as damaged men and therefore unable to act as adequate father figures to Mason junior. We see this only fleetingly in one scene with the second man, before he disappears from the family and the film, but spectacularly in the case of the first, whose alcoholism leads to controlling and then explosively abusive behaviour.

While all of this is going on, we witness a slow transformation in Ethan Hawke’s character, Mason senior. Incidentally, that shared name seems to me an endorsement of a sense that this is, in fact, the central relationship of the film, and the one that finally absorbs most of our interest and attention. Maybe this is because of Hawke’s performance, or maybe because the director is a man, or maybe it’s simply because I was watching it as a man, and as a father. We see Hawke’s character evolve over time to become more ‘adult’ and responsible, but crucially without losing any of the energy and likeability of his younger self. Mason senior studies accountancy, gets a proper job, meets a new partner from a conservative Christian background, has a child with her – but without ever letting go of a kind of expressive and playful masculinity, symbolised partly in his enduring love for rock music (the film has a superb soundtrack). For me, the scenes between him and his growing children – scenes of disappointment, embarrasment and momentary joy – are some of the most engaging and memorable in the film. What Mason senior seems to represent is, not so much the stereotypically irresponsible manhood that appeared to characterise him at the outset, as a kind of open and fluid masculinity that is able to adapt and conform to the adult world without losing its own identity.

On one level, it seemed to me that the film was exploring and problematising the notions of ‘absence’ and ‘presence’ that characterise some of the debates around contemporary fatherhood. To put it crudely (and the film is too complex to be reduced to crude dichotomies), one could argue that the two substitute fathers are physically present in the children’s lives but emotionally absent, and indeed emotionally hobbled, while the biological father is for the most part physically absent, but at least emotionally engaged and trying, if not always successfully, to express genuine feelings and to make the relationship with his children work.

I think director Richard Linklater is probably more drawn to this character and these relationships than he is to the mother and her connection to the children. To be sure, the mother is a powerful, consistent presence in the film, and there is certainly no moralising judgement of her parenting, or of her unfortunate choice of partners. When Mason senior tells her towards the end of the film, ‘You did a good job’, it’s an assessment we want wholeheartedly to endorse.

At the end of the day the film offers no simple dichotomies between stolid, responsible mum and ‘fun’ but irresponsible dad. It’s much more complicated than that, and in fact the film itself is endlessly reflexive about these very issues, making them the subject of countless conversations between the characters. It’s this complexity and ambiguity that makes Boyhood a landmark film about families, intimate relationships – and masculinity. It’s a tribute to its many-layered quality that I’ll know I want to watch the film again, and to revisit these reflections – and who knows, maybe have second thoughts about the way it deals with these issues.

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‘Beyond Male Role Models’ conference

You can see some photos from the end-of-award conference for our research study, ‘Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men’ over at our research project blog.

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Presentation at the International Conference on Men and Masculinities – and a surprise guest

My colleague Mike Ward and I gave a presentation at the International Conference on Men and Masculinities in New York City, sharing the findings from our research project, ‘Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men’. Here are a few photos from our session, including a surprise late arrival in the audience:

The panel assembles

The panel assembles

Martin explains the background to the research study

Martin explains the background to the research study

Mike describes the research process and summarises our key findings

Mike describes the research process and summarises our key findings

Jane Fonda, no less (apologies for poor image) makes a surprise appearance in the audience

Jane Fonda, no less (apologies for poor image) makes a surprise appearance in the audience

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Men as agents of change: Barclays / Women’s Business Council seminar

Larry Hirst speaking at the Barclays/WBC event

Larry Hirst speaking at the Barclays/WBC event (via Dominic Jermey on Twitter)

On Tuesday I was one of the speakers at a breakfast seminar at Canary Wharf, hosted by Barclays and the Women’s Business Council, on ‘Men as agents of change: engaging men in gender equality’. It was a privilege to be invited to take part in a panel alongside Jo Swinson, the Minister for Women and Equalities (who was on the panel with me at another event last November), and John Timpson and Larry Hirst, two male business leaders who have been at the forefront of gender equality initiatives in their own  industries.

The seminar was attended by about 80 people, the majority of them from the business world, and more than half of them men. The group discussions after the panel session demonstrated an encouraging level of commitment and interest, and some excellent examples of emerging good practice.

Participants at the seminar (via @Govt_Women on Twitter)

Participants at the seminar (via @Govt_Women on Twitter)

For my own presentation, I was asked to present some ‘headline messages’ from my research with men and boys, and what follows is the substance of what I said:

  1. There’s a lot already going on that we can build on in terms of engaging men in gender equality

While there’s still obviously a long way to go – we also need to take note of how far we’ve travelled – and what we can build on.

One of the ways in which men can support equality for women at work – is by taking an equal share in the care of their children, and in domestic responsibilities more generally – which has been one of the main focuses of my own research.

Although the picture is varied and uneven, we’ve seen an increase in men’s involvement in the care of their children in the past 20 years or so. When our own children were small, I was fortunate in having a job that enabled me to work from home a lot of the time – and as a result I did most of the transporting to and from school, nursery, doctor’s appointments, and so on. In those days I was often the only man at the clinic, or at the school gate – now, it’s much more normal and acceptable to see men taking on these roles – and the number of men involved in their children’s care, or even taking the role of stay-at-home dads, has increased tremendously.

Just as importantly, I think we’ve seen a parallel changes in men’s – most men’s – attitudes – and in wider social attitudes. Increasingly, being a good man, a good father – maybe being a good manager – isn’t just about being the breadwinner – it’s about being there for your children and your family. Men who don’t pull their weight in the home are increasingly frowned on socially – and among their male peers. That’s not to say it’s the same in all social groups or every workplace.

At the same time, and again we need to be cautious about this, there’s been a shift in attitudes towards things such as gender-based violence and sexist language and imagery. In the last few years we’ve seen the growth of campaigns that enlist men on the side of gender equality – MenEngage, White Ribbon, and the high profile HeforShe campaign launched by Emma Watson at the United Nations.

Yes, I’m sure we all have our reservations about how widespread these changes are, and I’m sure we can all think of exceptions from our own experience, but there is a shift, I think, particularly among a younger generation of men – and we can build on this in engaging men’s support for gender equality.

  1. Changing policies and structures can make a difference

In the longterm, we need to work for deeper changes in attitudes, but in the medium term, implementing changes in policies and structures – whether at the societal or the company level – can change behaviour.

I recently attended a Europe-wide seminar in Finland on men and gender equality, where there was a lot of discussion of arrangements for parental leave – and a lot of interest in the example of some of the Nordic countries, which have implemented nontransferable and often paid paternity leave – and we’ve seen some recent initiatives here in the UK for improving access to shared parental leave. The lesson of these schemes is that structural change can lead to a change in men’s behaviour. It can make men realise that this is something they want – and they will take it up with enthusiasm, if the scheme is right.

  1. Women play a vital role in influencing men’s attitudes to gender equality

My own research shows that men who are what we might call gender equality pioneers have often been influenced by the example of women in their lives. Men that I interviewed who were involved fathers, or opting to work in childcare, talked about the crucial influence of their mothers, grandmothers, or female teachers, on their own values and attitudes.

I think this works in other ways too. Increasingly, men have wives, partners, daughters, who are in the workforce – and are achieving success there. My late father-in-law was very much an old-fashioned male manager– but he became something of an unlikely feminist when he saw his own daughter working to build a career as one of the few women managers in her company.

  1. Gender equality benefits men as well as women

More flexible working arrangements and improved access to parental leave mean that men, as well as women, get to spend more time with their families. My own research shows that fathers can care – and many men find that an opportunity to be more involved in their children’s care makes for a better quality of life – as well as for better relationships with their partners.

In terms of the workplace, and without falling back on stereotypes, my own personal experience – and it’s borne out by my research – is that a more gender equal workplace is generally a better place to be. Not all men are cutthroat and hyper-competitive and many prefer a more cooperative and supportive office or shop-floor. Certainly my own experience, of working in the voluntary sector and now in academia, where the majority of my colleagues and many of my line managers have been women – has been mostly beneficial.

So men have a great deal to gain from gender equality, whether at home or at work – and we can use this to enlist their support.

At the same time, we need to be honest:

  1. Gender equality doesn’t always benefit men.

We need to admit that there are some costs as well as benefits for men in this process. There may be fewer seats at the table for men, if we achieve greater equality for women in recruitment and promotion. And standing up for women’s rights in the workplace may not always be a popular move for men.

But the message of my research, and of my own experience, is that men don’t act only out of self-interest – whatever our stereotypical views of masculinity. Most men have a strong sense of justice too – and many men will want to support gender equality simply because it’s the right thing to do.

  1. What can men do – and what can we do to engage men?

Men should be certainly encouraged to take their caring responsibilities seriously – and managers need to make it easier for men to do this – and at the same time make sure that men and women who take time off for caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged when they return to work.

Managers should also question and challenge the long hours culture that still prevails in many parts of British business – and which while it mostly disadvantages women, who still do the bulk of the caring at home, also discourages men from taking a full part in family life – and thus supporting their partners’ careers.

Men should support their female colleagues in campaigns for more flexible working, better access to promotion, taking a stand against discrimination and so on. And managers need to support men who do this – and at the same time think of imaginative ways to involve men in moves to improve gender equality. We need to encourage men to sit on gender equality committees and to take responsibility for making change – and not see it as just a women’s issue. We need to involve men in discussions about gender equality – but carefully – without men taking them over – and without playing into the hands of the men’s rights lobby.

To conclude: men can and must be agents for change in achieving gender equality – it certainly isn’t going to happen without them.

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National Consultation with Women: 10th November 2014

I was pleased to be invited to take part in the National Consultation with Women organised by the Government Equalities Office in London last Monday , in preparation for the Commission on the Status of Women / Beijing +20 event at the United Nations in 2015. It was a privilege to sit on a panel with Jo Swinson, the Minister for Women, and with representatives from a number of women’s organisations doing great work. Although it was a little intimidating to be the only male panel member, and one of only a handful of men in a room of more than 100 representatives from women’s organisations, I think the discussion went well. I came away with a real sense of commitment, on the part of both government and third sector organisations, to work at engaging men as change agents in the continuing struggle for gender equality.


Panel members were asked to prepare answers two key questions. These were the notes I made for the event:

  1. What have been the most important achievements in gender equality in the UK in recent years? 

I assume I’ve been asked to take part in the panel because of my work with men and boys – so will answer mainly from that perspective. I’ll just mention a couple of things:

In terms of men’s contribution to gender equality probably the most significant change is that fathers are much more involved in the care of their children than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Anecdotally: when my children small, I was often the only man at the nursery or school gate. Now it’s commonplace to see fathers picking up their children, pushing buggies, etc. Of course there are huge variations according to social class, ethnicity, geography, and there’s a long way to go, but research shows that more men are caring for their children more of the time, and the number of dads taking primary responsibility for childcare has risen.

Just as importantly, the image of what we mean by a ‘good father’ – and a ‘good man’ – has begun to change, whatever the reality on the ground. What we expect from men is changing, and now includes taking a fair share in childcare and household duties – and society increasingly frowns on men who don’t do their bit.

Public services – health, welfare, education – are now much more father-friendly. Where men once felt excluded – e.g. from ‘mother and toddler’ groups – services now make positive efforts to include fathers, and often run fathers-only services. Government policy now claims to be ‘father-friendly’ in many areas.

This is obviously good for women: it supports them in achieving a better balance of work and caring responsibilities, because men are helping out more. But it’s also good for men – it means they get to spend more time with their children – and to break out of the straitjacket of traditional masculine roles – and to develop more caring masculine identities (which in the long run is good for women too). And it’s good for children – as they have access to care from both parents.

How has this come about? A combination of legislation – e.g. better parental leave arrangements, more flexible working – and changing social attitudes. But also, it has to be said, as a result of long-term pressure and campaigning by women for men to pull their weight.

The other area I’d highlight – and this is much more recent, more tentative – is the growing support of men for gender equality campaigns. We’ve seen the rise of organisations such as MenEngage and White Ribbon, which directly involve men in campaigning against sexism and gender-based violence. More recently, we’ve seen the launch of the HeforShe campaign, and a number of seminars, conferences and initiatives around engaging men in promoting gender equality.

What are the key issues we still need to address if we are to achieve real gender equality?

I’d highlight three things, again from the perspective of engaging men in the struggle for gender equality:

Despite some progress, more could still be done to encourage men to carry out their fair share of caring and domestic responsibilities. We still have a culture of long working hours in Britain, compared to many other countries, and many women still face discrimination or loss of career prospects on returning to work after an absence for caring responsibilities. At the Helsinki seminar that I attended recently (see my report here), there was a lot of support for the Icelandic model of parental / paternity leave – which involves dedicated, non-transferable, paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers. This has been shown to increase take-up of paternity leave and increase men’s involvement in family life. Good to see the UK Civil Service announcing something similar for its staff here – but it needs to be rolled out more widely.

We need better processes and structures for engaging men as change agents for gender equality. Without men’s support, gender equality is not going to happen, for obvious reasons. But we need to be careful. I don’t think this means we need a ‘minister for men’, or parallel structures to mirror those put in place for women – nor must we pander to the men’s rights / anti-feminist backlash lobby who claim that men suffer from discrimination as much as women. Instead, we need to make sure we engage the growing number of pro-women, pro-gender-equality men’s groups in supporting change.

Finally, the big issue we still need to tackle is gender-based violence. Things are changing – recent initiatives by government on domestic violence, sexist and homophobic bullying, FGM, forced marriage, etc. are all very welcome – and attitudes are certainly changing, particularly among the younger generation. But I’d like to see a world where my daughter feels as safe walking down the street in the evening as my son (though it’s not a safe world for young men either, as we know) – i.e. real gender equality in the use of public space. And wouldn’t it be great if the next generation of parents didn’t have to warn their children, if they’re lost, not to speak to a man? How do we get there? It’s a long, generational process: it needs education, particularly of boys and young men (of the kind that the Great Men project, represented at today’s event, is already doing), and it needs media campaigns, and probably legislation. Some of this is starting to happen – and the work of organisations like MenEngage and White Ribbon is crucial in engaging men in the process – but it needs a long-term, coordinated and sustained approach, if women and girls are to feel safe in public spaces and in the home.

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Men and gender equality: a report from Helsinki

Helsinki: last Tuesday evening (author's photo)

Helsinki: last Tuesday evening (author’s photo)

Last week I took part in a European Commission ‘exchange of good practice’ event in Helsinki, on the theme of the role of men in gender equality. I’ve written a post about it over at the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ blog.

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