IWD: ‘Male feminists’ – controversial, contradictory or comrades in the fight for gender equality?

27 February 2018

“No, I wouldn't say I'm a feminist. That would be, maybe, going too far."

When Piers Morgan recently asked the President of the United States whether he was a feminist, his admission that he was not a devout supporter of the women’s movement somehow made headlines around the world. When the same question was posed to Jacob Rees-Mogg he branded the very idea of a man being a feminist as ‘ridiculous’ and Nigel Farage admitted he did not even know what ‘feminism’ means.

Whilst I cannot help but think I would be more shocked if these particular gentlemen admitted that they would be attending the next year's Women’s March with placards and pink pussy hats, it is telling that a male being asked whether he is an ‘f-word’ still causes such a stir.

For the benefit of Mr Farage, feminism is simply defined as the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’  

In the current climate, it is important that we remember that gender equality is not just a women’s issue. Parity is an aim that we all need to strive to achieve together. Ostracising one gender from the fight is just not going to work. We need collaboration and male allies now more than ever.

Where are we now?

In January 2017, marches led by women took place across the world to stand in solidarity and to promote women’s and human rights. In November, the #MeToo campaign prompted an unprecedented dialogue which has brought down powerful men from entertainment, media and politics. The year of 2017 was a transformational period for many women and now, in early 2018, the movement shows no signs of stopping.

The voices of survivors are gaining power and the world is having to come to terms with the widespread prevalence of sexism and sexual abuse, particularly in the workplace. The uncomfortable truth is that this is not something that a few women have suffered from, it’s everywhere and every woman has a story to tell. The sheer magnitude of the problem has allowed the movement to gather an unheralded momentum, seemingly overnight.

But the problem itself is far from new. I, like many, was sadly not surprised by the revelations. Institutionalised sexism has become all too familiar and I hear stories every single day about how women have been assaulted and harassed.   

The campaign against sexual abuse has been passionate, empowering and unfortunately, long overdue. However, as the #MeToo Twitter hashtag went viral, a reactionary hashtag started trending on Twitter too - #NotAllMen. The mix of hope, despair, rage and anger being expressed and vocalised by women in the mass media recently caused many men to feel uncomfortable, defensive and unfairly blamed for the actions of other men that they personally denounce.

I fully understand how, as women, it is easy to feel that ‘men’ are the problem and that it is hard to feel much sympathy for those currently feeling so dejected and indignant. They will never have to experience being paid less because of their gender, nor will most of them understand what it is like being harassed and catcalled on an almost daily basis. But just because it is not their lived experience, does not mean that there is not a role for men in the fight for gender equality.

The problem is not ‘men’ per se. The problem is predators, abusers and the complicit bystanders who did nothing to stop them. The problem is how society has normalised abusive behaviours and created entirely different standards for how men and women are expected to behave.

Feminism is about equality and allowing women to escape the disadvantage gender binary places upon them. If we truly want to achieve equality, men also need to be free from the constraints of ‘masculinity’ and expectations of how they should think, feel and act.

When the UN launched the HeForShe campaign in 2014, it recognised that feminism is not just a woman’s fight and that men play an important role in questioning toxic social norms, which they ultimately suffer from too. Pressures to be aggressive, macho and not reveal vulnerabilities have a profoundly negative impact on men. It is well known that the suicide rate in young men is considerably higher than in women.

It is imperative that men are brought into the conversation on gender equality in a productive and open-minded way or else we are all doomed to fail.

So, what can men do?

Men have the potential to be powerful allies in the movement; we need them to listen, ask questions and feel like they can contribute without being shouted down or deemed disingenuous. I do not want men to feel ashamed for simply being men but I hope that every single person, male or female, will re-examine their past behaviour in this brave new world and ask themselves if they have made a mistake. There is a difference between saying ‘I am a bad person’ and admitting that ‘I made a mistake, what can I do to ensure it does not happen again?’

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal few men in Hollywood spoke out, which at first seems surprising. However, the very fact that Trump was able to pass off the comments he made in 2005 about kissing women, grabbing their vaginas and using his celebrity to get them to do whatever he wants, as mere ‘locker room talk’ during his election campaign, is a sad reflection on what is considered ‘normal’ language in some circles.

I understand many men talk like this is private; I’ve been told as much by various men I am personally close to and apparently ‘this will always happen, that’s never going to change.’ I am not so naive to believe that there will ever be a day that all men stop objectifying women and making outrageously misogynistic comments about their bodies.

But we are all guilty of affirming and applauding this behaviour when we do not speak out against it. I have certainly laughed along with a sexist joke or uncomfortable comment for fear of not wanting to seem ‘prudish’ and ‘uptight.’ I have brushed off offensive remarks and unsolicited advances as just something that comes part and parcel of being a woman. I have felt uncomfortable talking to men about ‘women’s issues’ and compared myself to other women, judging them and myself much more harshly than I would ever judge a man.

As such, I too have contributed to cultures that excuse sexual harassment, promote the objectification of women’s bodies, maintain the gender pay-gap, ‘slut shame’ women for their sexual choices and generally perpetuate the patriarchy to the detriment of women. And the chances are, you have too.

The first step is acknowledging that there is a problem.

Men need to recognise their privilege; for example, in the wake of the BBC pay gap revelations, six male presenters took a significant pay cut to bring their wages in line with their female counterparts as it ‘seemed fair’ . Action is required by men in positions of power, and if they see inequality they have to be prepared to sacrifice some of their own privilege to make things more equal.  Passively wearing a black suit to the Oscars or sharing the odd Facebook status is just not going to cut it.

Before significant progress can be made, there needs to be a willingness from men to simply show up at the table and listen. There is no place for defensiveness;  now is the time to question the behaviours that we consider ‘normal’ and evaluate how these could be counterproductive to promoting gender equality.  

There is an onus on men and women to have these awkward conversations and if there is ever any doubt where a boundary is drawn – ask. As women, we need to be mindful not to shout men down for trying to understand.  This will be a significant  learning curve, and it is about drawing a line under these prejudices which have permeated every aspect of our society and saying that we are going to work together to change them.

Of course, actions speak louder than words but I hope that one day soon everyone will proudly respond like Justin Trudeau did when he was asked if he was a feminist in 2016:

It shouldn’t be something that creates a reaction. It’s simply saying that I believe in the equality of men and women and that we still have an awful lot of work to do to get there. That’s like saying the sky is blue and the grass is green.”


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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