Last week I was in Vienna, Austria for a consultative meeting organised by Promundo, the international organisation that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys, as well as a number of other international agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to share the findings from IMAGES – the International Men and Gender Equality Survey – and to discuss possibilities for extending the survey to other countries. There were about thirty of us at the meeting – representatives from countries that have already implented IMAGES, as well as researchers and activists working on gender equality issues across Europe and beyond.
IMAGES, which was created by Promundo and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), is ‘a multi-year, multi-country effort to build the evidence base on how to change public institutions and policies to better foster gender equality and to raise awareness among policymakers and programme planners of the needs, realities and attitudes of men in terms of their health and development’. It was fascinating to hear, from Gary Barker of Promundo (US) and Øystein Gullvåg Holter from the University of Oslo, about the findings emerging from the survey so far, including claims about the impact of childhood experiences on adult attitudes. For example, it was suggested that if a boy sees his father taking a share in household tasks, then he is more likely have a positive attitude to gender equality as an adult. On the other hand, if a boy witnesses domestic violence in his family, or is involved in fights himself, then there’s a good chance that he will grow up believing that violence against women is acceptable. Perhaps the most encouraging message to emerge from the study was the positive correlation between men’s belief in gender equality on the one hand, and experiencing good mental health and a general sense of wellbeing on the other.
In addition to these general findings, there were two presentations from individual countries that have implemented the survey, both thought-provoking in their own way. One was from Eleonora Grosu from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where there were certainly some encouraging signs, but also some worrying statistics, such as the finding that 41% of men and 19% of women think it’s sometimes acceptable for women to be beaten. Also intriguing was the presentation by Srjdan Dusanic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the legacy of civil war and inter-community conflict continue to have an impact. One notable observation was that men who held ethnocentric or extreme nationalist views also tend to have negative attitudes to gender equality: a case of one kind of intolerance fostering another. Interestingly, the same study found that boys whose fathers had been absent during the war, and had therefore had to help their mothers with household tasks, tended to continue taking an equal share in those tasks in their adult relationships. A perversely positive effect of father absence, perhaps?
The final presentation, from Shereen El Feki, reported on attempts to implement IMAGES with men in the Middle East and North Africa. The discussion offered a fascinating insight into how to work on gender equality issues in cultures perceived to be hostile to the concept. Shireen talked about the multiple and complex influences on men’s attitudes in the Arab world, where a nuanced understanding of contemporary masculinity needs to take account of factors such as widespread unemployment, political disruption, and the worrying rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the younger generation.
The meeting ended with a highly topical exploration of the possibility of extending aspects of IMAGES to the large numbers of refugee and migrant men who have recently arrived in Europe. Recent events, such as the assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, have focused attention on the sexual attitudes of refugee men from the Middle East and North Africa. Is it possible to study these men’s attitudes and the roots of their masculine identities, in a way that doesn’t reinforce racist stereotypes? At the same time, as I noted in a recent post, it’s important that gender researchers and campaigners don’t fall back into a cultural relativism that is reluctant to condemn sexist behaviour when it’s committed by non-westerners. I was reassured by the evenhanded approach advocated by Promundo, which places equal emphasis on getting men to take responsibility for their actions, and at the same time attempting to understand (but not explain away) that behaviour. My own contribution to the discussion was to suggest that one way of avoiding relapsing into biological or cultural essentialism was to focus attention on the impact that the disruption and displacement caused by war, loss and migration might have had on refugee men’s masculine identities.
While its findings are intriguing, the work of IMAGES raises some interesting methodological issues. For example, is it possible to use the same survey, and the same research measures, in countries and cultures that are so widely different? For example, we heard that in Egypt, all research surveys have to be approved by the government. How might that influence men’s responses to the questions? Would they be concerned about giving the ‘approved’ answers in case they faced official consequences? And would they be worried about where the information might end up? More generally, is the whole notion of surveying personal attitudes rooted in the individualism of liberal western countries, where holding your own opinion is considered a virtue? How relevant is such research in cultures where men and women tend to draw their beliefs from collective traditions or religious teachings, rather than individual reflection? And if gendered inequality is deeply rooted in some of those contexts, is it surprising that many women choose to echo their male partners’ attitudes, even on issues such as domestic violence?
Despite these methodological concerns, it was clear from the Vienna meeting that IMAGES has already has achieved some important results that can provide support for promoting gender equality and engaging men. The proven positive correlation between gender equality and mental health can certainly be helpful in persuading men that promoting equality is in their own interest. And the connection between childhood experience and adult attitudes should encourage the growing field of positive work with boys on equality issues. It would be good if IMAGES, or aspects of it, could be extended to the United Kingdom – and it would be fascinating to see how the results here refleced the peculiarities of our national context – and whether they replicated those elsewhere in the world.