Sexism has long been viewed as a women's issue for women to solve. The pioneers of the feminist movement have all been women, and the majority of those fighting for gender equality today are women. Yet sexism is also damaging to men, as recent research and publications have been bringing to our attention. The flipside of gender stereotypes that oppress women is an 'ideal' of masculinity that constricts men. Men feel pressure to be strong and in control, they cannot show weakness or ask for help and they are mocked for talking about their emotions. So, if sexism is a men's issue too, why aren't more men involved in tackling it?
There are many reasons. Firstly, some view the movement for gender equality as a battle between women and men. They think that in order for women to gain equality, rights have to be taken away from men. Fortunately, there isn't a limited amount of equality to be distributed between the genders, and research has shown that gender equality is beneficial to both women and men. According to the Global Leadership Forecast, which surveyed over 13,000 leaders from around the world, those companies that were performing in the top 20% financially had nearly twice as many women in leadership roles as those in the bottom 20%.
Equality makes a difference at home, too, as research by sociologists Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams has shown. When men increase their share of housework and childcare, their children are happier, healthier and do better in school. Their wives are report higher levels of marital satisfaction and have lower rates of depression. And the benefits for men are even greater: they are physically and psychologically healthier, they smoke less, drink less and take recreational drugs less often. Gender equality doesn't take from men to give to women. Instead, it improves the professional and personal lives of both.
Secondly, many men - and women - are suspicious of the term 'feminism'. A recent survey by the Fawcett Society found that more than two thirds of Britons support gender equality, but just seven per cent would call themselves feminists. The two terms are, in fact, synonymous, but what is it about the word 'feminism' which is so off-putting? In the past, many who found the movement for gender equality threatening responded by branding feminists as ugly, angry, aggressive, dogmatic and man-hating. Unfortunately, due the influence of the patriarchal figures who created this stereotype, many of these negative connotations have stuck. It shows just how far we've got to go that the name for someone who pursues gender equality is a 'bad' word, but it is positive news that the majority of Britons want to see a gender equal world. The principle is more important than the terminology.
Many men sympathise with the feminist movement but, as a member of the privileged gender, feel they will offend women if they try to get involved. Of course, men with a 'Thanks for pointing this issue out, ladies, but we can take if from here' attitude are contributing to the problem rather than solving it, but they are a tiny minority. All men who want gender equality are welcome. Instead of seeing their gender as an obstacle, the focus should be on what they can contribute: we'll be able to effect change much more rapidly if the whole world - not just half of it - is working for gender equality.
For those men who want to get involved, here are a few ideas of how to do so in a sensitive and effective way. Firstly, don't be afraid to claim the identity 'feminist'. The more men who are suspicious of it and reject it, the more the feminist movement is seen as an unpleasant battle between men and women. Secondly, to make sure you don't become a 'we'll take it from here' figure, give up the privileged position you might be used to holding of speaking first and for the longest - and listen instead. Women have been tackling sexism for much longer than men and they are the ones most oppressed by it, so learn from them. Use the power that you have as a man well. Use it to challenge other men's sexist behaviour, because these men will - sadly - listen to you more than to a woman.
This week, we've launched our new story-based campaign, First Man Standing, in response to the doubts men have shown about whether they should be involved in tackling gender inequality. We want to show that men can be part of the solution and, to do this, we're collecting stories about men who have challenged sexism to demonstrate what men's role in this movement can look like. Have a look at our stories if you're unsure - they're an inspiring example how men can get involved. I challenge you today to be the first man in your family, your group of friends or your workplace to make gender equality a priority - because it's not a women's issue, it's a human issue.Suggest a correction