How to Bring Men and Boys on Board as Allies for Gender Equality

Our session emphasised that if we want to have a gender-equitable society, we need to do more to bring men and boys on board as allies to attain gender equality.
How to Bring Men and Boys on Board as Allies for Gender Equality
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Recently we organised the OECD Forum virtual event: Engaging men as allies for gender equality and diversity, focusing on the still surprisingly common restrictive views on how “real” men and women are expected to behave. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index 2023 Global Report: Gender Equality in Times of Crisis indicates that half of the people worldwide continue to believe men make better political leaders than women, about 45 per cent believe men make better business executives than women, while 30 per cent of women believe it is justified for a man to beat his wife!

Gary Barker, CEO and co-founder of the Equimundo Center for Masculinities and Social Justice mentioned that IMAGES, one of the largest studies ever on men and gender, found that half or more of men continue to believe in traditional views of manhood – that men should be in control at home and in sexual relationships, that manhood requires emotional repression and going it alone and that violence is a valid means to solve problems. The research also found that men who believe in these restrictive and unequal norms are more likely to cause harm to themselves, to be less satisfied in their intimate and personal lives and to have worse health outcomes.

More on the Forum Network: The Confusion about Manhood is Global. Are We Ready to Talk About It? by CEO and co-Founder, Equimundo Center for Masculinities and Social Justice

Men must learn to care for children, be mindful of their environmental impact, support the end of domestic violence, demand equitable workplaces, and actively contribute to the cause of gender equality. So how do we begin the conversation?

As Monika Queisser, Senior Counsellor & Head of Social Policy Division, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD, pointed out, to make progress, it is not enough to empower girls and women, we must also focus on empowering boys and men to prevent any negative feelings and behaviours, and what is now increasingly called “toxic masculinity”. But these conversations are not happening on a consistent basis, too often misconstrued as being unduly critical of men and boys or taking away from the much-needed focus on women and girls.

The OECD will continue to address the many persistent gaps and challenges faced by women and girls, but as Ulrik Knudsen, OECD Deputy Secretary-General, and Gender & Diversity Champion, highlighted that while some groups of high-performing men continue to be more likely to be employed, earn more on average and be in decision-making positions compared to women, in terms of educational attainment, boys are doing considerably worse than girls, dropping out of education early, and not attaining university level degrees as often as girls. Men and boys also experience higher levels of suicide, loneliness, more prison sentences, and less social mobility, at least in some quarters.

It’s so much of a win-win that if we could close the gender gaps in labour force participation and working hours, we could increase GDP by 9.2% across OECD countries by 2060.

Addressing these restrictive norms, focusing on more equitable, flexible alternatives is essential for men and women to become closer allies, and work jointly to find solutions. It could be a win-win for everyone, as bridging these gaps and crossing these systematic barriers in society would lessen the adverse effects on women and girls, whilst improving the lives of men and boys. It’s so much of a win-win that if we could close the gender gaps in labour force participation and working hours, we could increase GDP by 9.2% across OECD countries by 2060.

The reality right now is that women represent 97% of the teaching staff at the pre-primary level and 83% at the primary level, they make up 60% of teachers at upper secondary and around 75% of people working in health and social care are women, feminising these occupations, and creating gendered stereotypes that make it difficult for men and boys to consider careers in these sectors. At the same time, women need more support to enter more lucrative sectors, with better career opportunities and higher salaries, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

As Gary Baker said, this is not a FIFA World Cup match where one team is winning and the other is losing. We need to consider both sides to achieve full gender equality. That is not saying, however, that we should throw out everything we have done for girls and women and shift our attention solely to men and boys. No. We need to talk about gender as a whole – addressing how gendered expectations emerge from an early age at home and in school, how gendered stereotypes are increasingly polarised through (social) media, and other platforms such as online gaming while ensuring we prepare young people for a fuller spectrum of career options.

The trend we are seeing is that this generation of young men, whom we would have thought to be moving forward toward more gender-equitable attitudes, is in fact either stagnant or moving backwards. According to Gary Baker, “Half of men, particularly younger men in many countries, think that overall, feminism or women's equality has either gone too far or isn't a net gain for them. In some countries, we see that about two-thirds of men think that men have it harder than women these days.”

Professions like service, caring, and caregiving in the home, which we have often associated with women must become the gold standard of masculinity.

For many men, particularly low-income men, and men who don't perceive their career paths move toward those visions of manhood they aspire to, the world does not appear like it's in their favour. Instead of amplifying that anger, we need to replicate what we have been doing with young women over recent years and approach young men similarly – telling them they can be anything. Professions like service, caring, and caregiving in the home, which we have often associated with women must become the gold standard of masculinity.

How is it that boys and men aged 18 to 25 - 34 are more conservative than their parent’s generation? According to Michael Kaufman, author and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, the first international effort of men working to end violence against women, and senior fellow at Equimundo, it is due to the fact that from a young age, boys are bombarded with outdated, conservative ideals of manhood at every step: at school, places of worship, Internet, sports.

At a time of increasing inequality, we see the confluence of the psychology of becoming a man with the social reality of a transforming patriarchal society where the traditional roles for men are rapidly changing. And so, what rushes into the vacuum? Conservative thinkers and organisers using fear and insecurity to mobilise men to support their political projects, to turn back the clock to a more solidly patriarchal past of men in charge over women.

We need to be extra wary, according to Hyeshin Park, economist and gender programme co-ordinator with the OECD Development Centre, because social norms are not immune to backlash, especially during a crisis. For instance, when jobs are scarce, 43% of the population still believes that men should get the job and not women. Such attitudes continue to confine the economic sphere to men’s domain while ensuring that women remain at home.

If we want to end the ideas that come with patriarchy, we must end patriarchy. To get to the core of the issue, we need to understand its roots – where does it start? 

Such ideals don’t fall from the sky, Michael Kaufman emphasises. They emerge from our social, political, and economic realities. If we want to end the ideas that come with patriarchy, we must end patriarchy. To get to the core of the issue, we need to understand its roots – where does it start? We must go back to those fundamental questions.

If we want to have a gender-equitable society, we need an economically equitable society. We need to be able to find ways to embrace differences, “get off our high horses” as Michael Kaufman states, and be willing to reach out to men and boys, across the complexities, age differences, and every other difference, and say that we are ready to embrace the awaiting changes. We need to encourage men and boys to speak out, we need to learn from them, listen to their experiences, and find out how we can work for a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable future together. In short, the session concluded with a unified message: we need to do more to bring men and boys on board as allies to attain gender equality.




Learn more about Social Institutions & Gender Index

Discriminatory social institutions are at the heart of gender inequality. They curtail women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. They also limit women’s participation in the global response to climate change – even though they are among the most affected.

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