Remembering Dora

I was saddened to hear, via a casual remark in the course of a recent Zoom meeting, that Dóra Bjarnason had died. She passed away last August, but somehow I’d missed the news. She was only 73 but apparently had a history of heart problems. At the time of her death Dóra was Professor Emerita in Sociology and Disability Studies and Inclusive Education at the University of Iceland. She was a pioneer in her field, her innovative and influential work informed by her experience as the mother of a son with significant impairments. Here’s Dóra talking about her life’s work in a video interview from 2013:

I was surprised by how upset I was by the news of Dóra’s passing, considering that I only met her once and knew her for just a few days. I met Dóra in September 2016, at a two-day residential meeting in Amsterdam (see this post) to discuss plans for an international research project on fathers’ relationships with their disabled children. I was there with my Open University colleagues Jonty Rix and Myria Pieridou, and we were joined by colleagues from the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as by Dóra and her Icelandic colleague Hjörtur Jonsson.

Dóra with Jonty Rix and Alice Schippers at the meeting in Amsterdam

Dóra with Myria Pieridou

Myria, Alice, Geert Van Hove, Jonty, Hjörtur and Dóra

Dora was the senior member of our group, its eminence grise and in some ways a maternal figure, watching over our discussions and enriching them with both her academic expertise and the fruits of her personal experience. She was also the life and soul of the social side of our meeting, quickly establishing friendships and keenly interested in everyone’s stories and experiences.

She was also personally very kind to me, when my flight home was cancelled at the last minute and I was forced to leave my UK colleagues at the airport and return to the hotel for an extra night. I was also suffering from a stomach upset, which had caused me to faint in the departure lounge and injure my head. I was relieved to discover that Dóra and her colleague were still at the hotel, as they were also flying home the next day. When I met her at breakfast that morning, Dóra couldn’t have been kinder or more concerned about my welfare. She took me under her wing, insisting that I share their taxi to the airport, and not letting me go until she was sure that I would be all right on my own.

Dóra and Benedikt (via Facebook)

Since meeting Dóra Bjarnason, I’ve become better acquainted with her writings, both her academic work and her more personal reflections on her relationship with her son Benedikt, and have set her texts as recommended reading on the Open University Masters course that I oversee. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to meet Dóra again or have the opportunity to work with her. From one or two of things she said in passing, I think we might have had more than a few things in common: for example, I remember her remarking that Christians had always told her she wasn’t the right kind of Christian, while Marxists told her she wasn’t a proper Marxist.

From my brief acquaintance with her, I’d say that Dóra Bjarnason embodied the quality that the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel termed disponibilité, or availability to others. As he writes:

It is an undeniable fact, though it is hard to describe in intelligible terms, that there are some people who reveal themselves as ‘present’ – that is to say, at our disposal – when we are in pain or in need to confide in someone…. The truth is that there is a way of listening which is a way of giving… We must not speak of proof in this connection; the word would be out of place. Presence is something which reveals itself immediately and unmistakably in a look, a smile, an intonation or a handshake. [1]

Dóra was undeniably ‘present’ to those who encountered her: to her son Benni first and foremost, but then to her countless friends in many countries. She’ll be missed, even by those of us who hardly knew her.

  1. Gabriel Marcel. 2002. ‘On the Ontological Mystery.’ In The Philosophy of Existentialism, translated by Manya Harari. New York: Citadel.

Care ethics and precarity: reflections on an international conference


Pioneer Courthouse, Portland

Last week I was in Portland, Oregon, in the United States, for a conference on ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’, organised by the Care Ethics Research Consortium. I’m a relative newcomer to care ethics: my interest in the field has grown out of my academic work on issues of gender, identity and care, and in particular my research on men’s care for children, whether as fathers or paid workers. The relatively new discipline (or, more accurately, interdisciplinary field) of care ethics, and feminist care ethics in particular, has helped me to think about the ways in which men develop a capacity to care, and has converged with my growing interest in phenomenology, a philosophical tradition that underpins the work of many care ethicists.

My own contribution to the conference was a paper on marginalised young men and the development of caring masculinities, which drew on two recent research studies in which I’ve been involved, and discussed the ways in which the family relationships of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds influence their capacity to care, attempting to frame this within the relational perspective on identity advanced by care ethics. (To download the slides from my talk click on this link: CERC2018presentation_MartinRobb2) It was a pleasure to find myself on a panel with Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck from Portland State University, and to discover surprising affinities in their work on the role of family relationships in the development of leaders in business ethics.


Presenting on ‘Young men, social disadvantage and the development of caring masculinities’, alongside Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck

The conference as a whole was an intellectually stimulating and challenging experience. It was a privilege to hear presentations by some of the key figures in the field, including Joan Tronto and Eva Feder Kittay, two of the ‘founding mothers’ of feminist care ethics. And it was good to finally meet people whose work I’ve admired from a distance – such as Carlo Leget from the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, arguably the ‘nerve centre’ of care ethics, Petr Urban from the Czech Academy of Sciences, with whom I’d previously been in email contact, and Maurice Hamington from Portland State University, whose writing on men’s embodied care I’ve found particularly inspiring.

Maurice also deserves credit for hosting such a well-organised and welcoming conference, in which careful attention was paid not only to scheduling a diverse programme of lectures, panels and presentations, but also to offering an aesthetically and socially pleasing experience, which included art, photography, music – and superb catering!

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Carlo Leget and Maurice Hamington opening the conference

One of the things I really liked about the conference programme was the way it combined the philosophical and theoretical with the empirical and practical, with sessions ranging from explorations of ancient Greek understandings of care and precarity, through to a very moving presentation on work with prisoners, which included first-hand accounts – and poetry – by young men who had themselves been incarcerated (and whose powerful poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ echoed many of the themes of my own presentation). Before attending the conference, my understanding of the concept of precarity had been fairly vague, but I came away with many new insights: Carlo Leget’s talk helped me to see that precarity could be chosen, as in the case of St Francis of Assisi, while Luigina Mortari drew out the etymological roots of the term, and Eva Feder Kittay’s keynote lecture clarified the difference between precarity and precariousness, in the process radically challenging the ways we understand the lives of disabled people.

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Stephen Fowler and Noah Schultz give poetic voice to their experience of the American prison system

The conference also added considerably to my already extensive care ethics and philosophy reading list. To mention just a few: Carlo’s talk prompted me to want to re-read Simone Weil, Merel Visse’s presentation on abandonment aroused my interest in the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and Petr pointed me towards political ethnographer Didier Fassin as a resource for understanding the (un)caring practices of the state.

Care ethics and politics: a few thoughts

A number of the conference talks had a political dimension, with a common theme being care ethics as an alternative or challenge to the current wave of neopopulism sweeping both American and European politics. I admit that I had some reservations about the ways the issue was framed, particularly in an important presentation by Joan Tronto, whose book Caring Democracy has been influential in this debate. From a British perspective, I have to confess that it was a little annoying to see Brexit listed, alongside the election of Trump and of reactionary governments in Europe, as an instance of right-wing populism, and I think it pointed to a possible weakness, or absence, in the anti-neopopulist argument as it was formulated by some speakers at the conference.

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Joan Tronto

Firstly, the inclusion of Brexit in this list overlooks the large numbers of British people who supported the ‘Leave’ campaign from a left-wing position, or for reasons that were far from reactionary, such as dissatisfaction with a perceived democratic deficit in the European Union and concern about the growth of a bureaucratic European superstate and the concomitant erosion of national identities. Secondly, it points to a need not simply to dismiss so-called neopopulist movements as inherently wicked, but to try to understand the genuine feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation that give rise to them: in Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s formulation, to identify the kernel of good sense within the common sense of neopopulism.

Both in her conference talk and in Caring Democracy, Tronto proposed care ethics as a framework for the renewal of democratic politics, in opposition to the undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies of neopopulist movements. But what if neopopulism itself is, at least in part, an expression of a desire for greater democracy and local control, in reaction to what are perceived to be distant and faceless supernational bureaucracies? In the words of British political commentator Paul Embery, it’s possible to view neopopulist movements as ‘defensive crusades against rapid cultural and demographic change, against the rapacious and disruptive power of global finance, and the weakening of democracy and sovereignty at the hands of remote and unaccountable institutions’.

What’s more, Tronto characterised neopopulism as a reaction to neoliberalism, whereas it could equally well be seen a rejection of paternalist state welfarism. There’s a danger that a care ethical approach could be perceived simply as a return to what political theorist Adrian Pabst calls ‘state-administered equality’, rather than offering a genuine alternative to the failures of both welfarism and neoliberalism. Incidentally, the British experience is a reminder that neopopulism is not only a feature of the political right: here in the UK we are currently witnessing a left-wing version that shares many of the features of its right-wing mirror image, including a cult of personality, media-blaming, conspiracy theories, and a strain of racism – in this case antisemitism.

If care ethics is to offer a real challenge to neopopulism, then surely it needs to understand the genuine feelings of alienation that have given rise to it, including the perceived loss of the communal and national identities that give meaning to many people’s lives: in Pabst’s words ‘a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood’. In other words, neopopulism could itself be seen as the expression of a desire for a renewal of relationships of care and connection, albeit often in a distorted form. Perhaps a care ethical alternative to neopopulism might incorporate some of the ideas developed in an alternative strain of British progressivism – the movement that has come to be known as ‘blue Labour’ – including work by thinkers such as PabstMaurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford.

Given its feminist provenance, it’s not surprising that care ethics tends to be associated with the political Left. But if it’s to offer a real alternative to neopopulism, and one that connects with the experiences and aspirations of ordinary people rather than imposing solutions from on high, then I would suggest that care ethics needs to avoid being tied too closely to one side of the political divide, and to offer a genuine challenge to the orthodoxies of both left and right.

Discussing fathers and disabled children in Amsterdam

Last week I was in Amsterdam, for a two-day meeting with a group of colleagues from the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland and the UK, discussing a possible research project on fathers and their disabled children. The participants included some key figures in European disability studies and inclusive education, some parents of disabled children – and some people who were both. Disability studies is an area in which I don’t have any particular expertise, but I was invited because of my research interests in fatherhood and identity.

We were exploring the possibility of using video as a means of encouraging fathers to talk about their relationships with their disabled children – and in this context disability was defined quite broadly, to include intellectual and developmental as well as physical disabilities. During the course of the meeting, some colleagues who were also parents shared videos of their own children with us, an experience I found thought-provoking, inspiring and often profoundly moving. As a newcomer to the field, I felt that I learned a great deal, both personally and professionally, from this experience and from the discussions that followed. Most of all, it was a pleasure and a privilege to spend two days working with, and getting to know, such a thoughtful, committed and basically nice bunch of people who, despite the challenges that some of them face on a daily basis, were also great fun to be with.


With Myria Pieridou, Alice Schippers, Geert Van Hove, Jonty Rix, Hjortur Jonsson and Dora Bjarnason at Dauphine Restaurant, Amsterdam. Two other Icelandic colleagues – Kristin Bjornsdottir and Hermina Gunnthorsdottir – joined our discussions via Skype.

Thinking about the specific issues surrounding fathering a disabled child helped to deepen my understanding of fathering more generally – and contributed to the thinking I’m doing about my book (still in the very early stages) about men, masculinity and the care of children. I found myself wanting to know more about the ways in which a father’s response to the birth of, and his later relationship with a disabled child differs (if at all) from that of the child’s mother. And does the gender of the child make a difference to the kind of relationship that a father develops with him or her? To what extent do teachers and other professionals treat the fathers of disabled children differently to the way they treat mothers? Finally, how can increasing our understanding of the role of fathers help to improve the ways that professionals interact with disabled children and their families? I’m hoping that our planned research project might go some way to answering these questions, and I’m looking forward to working with this international group of colleagues on the next stages.

My visit to Amsterdam was slightly overshadowed by the way it ended. My flight home was cancelled at the very last minute (I was actually waiting in the departure lounge), which meant that I had to spend an extra night in Amsterdam. To top it all, I’d been feeling a bit off colour and that, together with the stress caused by the cancellation, led to me fainting and cutting my head (though not badly). The colleagues I was with were fantastic, checking I was OK, helping me to re-book my flight, and finding me a hotel room for the night. Thank you, Jonty and Myria. And thanks to my Icelandic colleagues, Dora and Hjortur, who were still around and made sure I got safely on my way the next day.

‘Parenting and personhood’ conference

Last week I attended a conference on ‘Parenting and personhood: cross-cultural perspectives on family-life, expertise, and risk management’, hosted by the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The conference was organised in collaboration with the project Parenting Cultures and Risk Management in Plural Norway at Uni Research Rokkansenteret in Norway.

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

My colleague Lindsay O’Dell and I presented a paper on ‘Parenting and distance’, which we’d developed with a number of our colleagues in the Children, Young People and Families research group at The Open University. The paper introduced our new research project, exploring three case studies of parenting at a distance, and shared some initial findings from one of those exemplars, looking at the experience of parents with a disabled child living away from home for extended periods. I also managed to smuggle in a reference to my own recent research on my great grandfather’s wartime letters, which I believe provide an interesting example of a man ‘doing’ fatherhood at a distance, under conditions of extreme anxiety. You can download the slides from our presentation here:

Parenting and distance slides

The conference was truly international, with most delegates coming from outside the UK, and with speakers representing a variety of European countries, as well as North America, South Africa and Australasia. Highlights for me included the opening keynote lecture by Frank Furedi, a report on the Norwegian project from Synnøve Bendixsen and Hilde Danielsen, and panels on fatherhood and parenting online, where I learnt a new word: ‘sharenting’ – the phenomenon of parents sharing intimate details of their children’s lives and their own parenting experiences via blogs and vlogs.

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

As always, one of the best things about the conference was meeting new people and sharing ideas and experiences. I enjoyed making connections with colleagues doing research on various aspects of parenting in Norway, Denmark, Canada and the USA, and I look forward to keeping in contact with them as our own work on parenting and distance moves forward.

Thanks to Ellie Lee of CPCS for a superbly organised conference.

Reflections on the American Men’s Studies Association Conference

I arrived home on Monday from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. It was a rather different affair from last year’s conference in New York City. That was a big, high-profile event, coinciding with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and featuring celebrity guests such as Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. It was deliberately aimed at gender equality activists as much as researchers, and as such was certainly a heady and inspiring few days. However, it  could be argued that academically it was somewhat less satisfying, and specifically that there was little in the programme to appeal to those from a humanities background.

Flag pole on the 'Diag', University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

Flag pole on the ‘Diag’, University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

This year’s conference was smaller, more intimate, with a greater emphasis on academic research, and an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. From such a stimulating programme  it’s perhaps invidious to mention only a few presentations. However, highlights for me included the opening plenary in which three literary academics talked about masculinity in American novels, the keynote lecture by linguist Scott Kiesling discussing the ‘masculine stance’ in language and the history of the word ‘dude’, and a couple of fascinating papers analysing gender relations in popular television programmes. The poster presentations were very good too: I was particularly pleased to link up with Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD student at Ann Arbor, who is researching the use of social media by fathers, including some of the British ‘dad blogs’ that I’ve started to follow.

Preparing for the panel on fatherhood

Preparing for the panel session on fatherhood

My own paper, analysing faith, fatherhood and masculinity in the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War (see my last post), was part of a panel session first thing on Saturday morning. I was presenting alongside Joyce Lee, another Ann Arbor PhD student, and Carol Watson-Phillips, a retired researcher from Massachusetts, both of whom were examining aspects of contemporary fatherhood. Despite the early start, the session was well-attended and the questions were intriguing, even if being asked to extend my analysis to my relationship with my own father was somewhat challenging!

Networking at the AMSA conference

Networking at the AMSA conference

The School of Social Work at the University of Michigan were excellent hosts, and I made some useful contacts and had plenty of memorable and stimulating conversations. Ann Arbor itself was a fascinating town to explore: not just the university campus itself, with its imposing architecture and impressive art gallery, but the Art Deco theatres, the multitude of bookshops and restaurants, and the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The weather was (we were given to understand) typical of Michigan: spring sunshine one day, biting wind and snow showers the next (though not the deep drifts we had to contend with last year in Manhattan).

I don’t yet know where AMSA 2017 will be held (somewhere warmer perhaps?), but if the programme is as interesting as this year, I hope I’ll be going.

The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.


(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 


One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 


The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.

IMAGES of men: a report from Vienna

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.

(New York, 19 September) — To kick-start a solidarity movement in support of women’s rights and full equality between women and men, UN Women held a special event for the HeForShe campaign from the United Nations Headquarters in New York today. With UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and event co-host Emma Watson called on men and boys worldwide to join the movement for gender equality today. They were also joined by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, senior UN officials, such as UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, actor Kiefer Sutherland and civil society representatives, participated in a discussion about the central role men and boys can play in the achievement of gender equality. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated the night. Pictured: Gary Barker, International Director, Promundo-US and Co-Chair, MenEngage Alliance Photo: UN Women/Simon Luethi For more on the event, please see: To join the HeForShe campaign, please visit:

Gary Barker of Promundo (via

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.

Shereen El Feki (via the

Shereen El Feki (via

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.