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.

GEO EVENT 3

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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