"A truly equal world," wrote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her bestseller, Lean In, "would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes."
A common accusation levelled at feminism is that men and women are equal now so any gains that women make would come at the expense of men. Women can vote, they have access to equal pay in law, they can rise to the top of any profession, what more could they want?
However, as women have taken steps towards equality in the public sphere, there has been very little change in the private sphere. There has been no equivalent increase in men's caring compared to women's increased participation in the workforce and women are still responsible for the vast majority of care work. In fact, men's very economic independence and greater earning power are based on their avoidance of care. Caring is culturally-constructed women's work. It attracts low status, low public policy priority and low levels of funding. This is true even in areas where men are the predominant care recipients, such as suicide care and prevention.
While feminist scholars have taken a keen interest in care, it has not been well-researched in masculinities studies, which have tended to focus on male power and privilege. In Masculinities, Care and Equality, Niall Hanlon investigates the relationship between masculinity and care and looks at what it means to be a man from this perspective.
From the start, Hanlon sets out the gendered nature of care practices and the reasons why men's lack of caring is invisible. Caring is thought of as feminine and hegemonic masculinity involves writing out femininity from men's lives. Therefore, engagement in caring activities can feel like subordination to men.
The competitive nature of hegemonic masculinity is a driving force in men's lives and feeling a failure at this can create a sense of inadequacy for many men. Hanlon describes how these emotions can contribute to the domineering practices of homophobia, misogyny and gender-based violence, as men seek to deflect feelings of shame and project inferiority onto others. Furthermore, the denial of weakness prevents them from caring for themselves or seeking support.
Hanlon conducted in-depth interviews with 21 men about their experiences of caring and care. Participants spoke of care relations becoming a dumping ground for men's feelings of shame in the form of gender-based violence, homophobia, misogyny and suicide. In fact, men's investment in masculinity has been shown to be a key risk factor in men's violence. There was also a sense that marginalised men who held low status were especially prone to feelings of failure and inadequacy.
Eddie and Tom, who worked extensively with Irish traveller men, felt that their experiences of powerlessness and class and ethnic oppression often fed domineering practices against the women in their lives. Alex, a support worker for gay men, also found that men's lack of self-esteem could lead to homophobic bullying.
Hanlon explains how masculinity's denial of vulnerability makes many men unable or unwilling to access emotional support. Anthony Clare, author of On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, argues that male suicide is a demonstration of the ultimate keeping of control. Male suicide in the UK outnumbers female suicide by a factor of 3 to 1.
Older men's support worker, Paddy, found that men were reluctant to admit the need for care and support because it contradicted their sense of self-reliance so intrinsic to their masculinity. Cathal, a single parent, found that he received increased recognition from women for his caring work but that it was rarely understood or appreciated by other men. Dave, a social researcher, felt that giving up a job to become a primary carer would amount to changing one's own identity.
Hanlon's research shows clearly the harm that hegemonic masculinity does to both women and men, particularly in terms of affective relations (those that are concerned with love, care and solidarity). He asserts that it is only through affective equality that we can address other issues of equality and allow men to develop emotionally fulfilling relationships.
Hanlon explains that thinking about how men provide and access love, care and solidarity as separate from inequalities in social, political and economic life allows us to see both the inequalities that men experience and how men contribute to inequality by avoiding caring. He feels that looking at gender inequality in terms of affective equality has the potential to unite men and women, something that reactionary voices often fail to do.
So how do we approach this? Hanlon says that public policy needs to view citizens, not just as producers and consumers, but as carers too, especially in a country that defines care as a private concern. Care-friendly workplaces and social policies are often seen as a net economic cost but they are actually linked to greater participation, productivity and satisfaction in work.
Along with policy changes, men must be given opportunities to alter their practices and not just have their attitudes criticised. We must change how men are represented as carers in the cultural sphere and produce new models of masculinity for men to emulate. An important aspect to recognise is that the current gender-based care models are not socially inevitable. We need to examine the benefits of equality in men's lives and the ways in which diverse, caring masculinities can be nurtured.
Public discourse on masculinity is happening. While in 2013, masculinity was said to be in crisis, now discussion has turned to how perceptions and portrayals of masculinity are changing and what it means to be a man in 2014. The mental health charity, CALM has named 2014 the Year of the Male. CALM's director, Jane Powell, explains: "We think it's time to ask some big questions about men and work, health, the media, education, relationships and family and ask what it really means to be 'man enough'?"
From the 31st of January to the 2nd of February, the Southbank Centre will host a festival entitled Being a Man, in which voices as diverse as Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry and Jon Snow will explore all facets of masculinity and male identity.
Feminist debate has long been derailed by the question, "But what about the men?" Hanlon's book answers this sensitively and comprehensively and lays the foundations on which we can start to build a model of affective equality.
Masculinities, Care and Equality by Niall Hanlon is published by Palgrave Macmillan.Suggest a correction