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.

Posted in Boys and young men, Fathers, Masculinities, Violence, Women and girls | Leave a comment

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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Misogyny and the denigration of women: from Rotherham to Iraq

A couple of links via the excellent Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKRWO) on Facebook:

First, a letter to The Independent, on the Rotherham abuse scandal,  from a number of Muslim organisations campaigning for women’s rights. Key quote:

The honour code has no place in this country: women and girls, regardless of background, culture, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or familial lineage, are of equal worth. Fortunately, there is an emerging generation of human rights activists in Britain – many of whom are young, female and secular-minded – who are campaigning hard against misogyny and patriarchy within our communities.

Second, an article by Haleh Esfandiari, herself a former prisoner of conscience in Iran, on the way cruelty towards women by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been downplayed in media coverage. Key quote:

Volunteer fighters from around the world, including from Western countries, who have joined ISIS are complicit in these crimes against women. These young men who grew up in Western cultures seem to have absorbed nothing regarding the value of human life and respect for women. Why are there are no demonstrations in Western and Muslim societies against this barbaric onslaught on women and girls? How much longer will the Muslim and Arab world watch these horrors against women and children before speaking out and acting forcefully to protect them and rid the region of the ISIS calamity?

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Male role models in the media

‘Beyond Male Role Models’, the ESRC-funded research project that I’m currently leading, has attracted some media interest since our official launch in London a couple of weeks ago. We were mentioned in this Guardian article about a mentoring scheme run by Action for Children, our research partners. Last week I was interviewed by Robert Perrone on BBC Three Counties Radio. And then this accolade: an article in the MK (Milton Keynes) News that featured a photo of yours truly alongside David Beckham. I should make clear (in case there is any misunderstanding): Beckham is not my male role model!

Martin and Beckham

Posted in Boys and young men, Masculinities, Media, Research | Leave a comment

Faith and fatherhood on video

In June I took part in a seminar on ‘Fathers and fatherhood: policy, representation and experience’, organised by The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG). I was pleased to be asked to present the findings from my research, alongside key researchers in the field such as Margaret O’Brien, Jacqui Gabb and Gail Lewis.

My great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb

My great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb

My presentation was entitled “‘With prayer from your loving father': faith and fatherhood in one man’s letters to his son during the First World War” and drew on work in progress on my great grandfather’s letters to my grandfather in early 1916, when the latter was serving in the Royal Fusiliers and awaiting embarkation for France.

You can watch complete videos of all the presentations from the seminar here. My talk can be found on the second screen down. For Powerpoint slides from the presentation, follow this link and go to the foot of the page.

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An excuse for (apparent) inactivity

If things have seemed a little quiet around here lately, it’s because I’m active elsewhere – contributing to the blog for our new ESRC-funded research project, ‘Beyond Male Role Models: gender identities and practices in work with young men’. Do pop over and take a look – and follow us on Twitter.

There might be other research and teaching-related stuff I want to blog about here – but most of my time will be taken up with the project for the next little while.

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