Men and gender equality: a report from Helsinki

Emma Watson at the United Nations (via

Emma Watson at the United Nations (via

Engaging men in the struggle for gender equality appears to be an idea whose time has come. In September Harry Potter star Emma Watson made a widely-reported speech at the United Nations, promoting the HeForShe campaign, and among a number of forthcoming events on this theme, next year’s conference of the American Men’s Studies Association, to be held in New York City, will be a joint event with MenEngage on ‘Engaging men and boys for gender equality’.

Back in June, Sandy Ruxton and I took part in a seminar on a similar theme at the Government Equalities Office in London, at which I talked about the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project and our research on gender identities and work with young men. One outcome of that event was an invitation to take part in a European Commission ‘exchange of good practice’ seminar in Helsinki, on the role of men in gender equality, which took place last week. The event was attended by representatives from 15 European countries – from Italy to Ireland, and Luxembourg to Latvia – and I had the privilege of being invited to represent the United Kingdom as an independent expert, alongside Barbara-Ann Collins from the Government Equalities Office.

During the seminar three countries – Finland, Iceland and Austria – presented examples of their policy and practice, and representatives from other countries discussed the issues raised by these initiatives and their transferability to their respective national contexts. When I first read the discussion papers, I had some reservations. There seemed to be a strong emphasis on structural change, specifically on policy relating to paternity leave, but less emphasis on changing attitudes and behaviour. Despite one or two notable exceptions, there was also very little focus on ‘hard’ topics such as men’s violence against women. I was also concerned about proposals for a ‘ministry of men’, or similar structures to represent men’s interests, and the risk of giving comfort to the ‘me-too-ism’ of the men’s rights lobby.

Helsinki: last Tuesday evening (author's photo)

Helsinki: last Tuesday evening (author’s photo)

However, the actual seminar went a long way towards dispelling these anxieties. Despite the enormous variety of policies and practices across Europe – from the egalitarian welfarism of the Nordic nations, through the ‘familism’ of Italy and other southern European states, to the young democracies of the Baltic ‘accession’ countries – there was a reassuring degree of common ground, among the academics, activists and civil servants present, on many key issues.

For example, there was a definite consensus in favour of the model of dedicated, non-transferable and preferably paid paternity leave, pioneered by countries like Iceland. However, it was heartening that participants concurred that the aim of encouraging fathers to take paternity leave was not simply to support women’s re-entry into the labour market, but to encourage the development of caring masculinities. There was also a shared sense that equal parental leave was as much about the rights of children to care from both of their parents, as it was about the employment rights of adults. And there were some interesting discussions on the need to influence culture as well as structure, and the complex interplay between the two.

Another key topic at the seminar was gender segregation in the workplace and the absence, which seemed to be common across the continent, of men working with children, whether in education or in welfare services. However, it was refreshing that a number of participants echoed the critical perspective on this issue that we’ve tried to articulate as part of the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, cautioning that the ‘problem’ of boys can’t simply be attributed to the absence of men from the family or school, and that simply employing more men won’t necessarily improve outcomes. At the same time,  claims that men contribute something distinctive that women are unable to provide risk falling back on outworn stereotypes, and undermining the positive work of women teachers and welfare workers.

There was also a great deal of agreement about ways of engaging men, and about the problems involved in doing so. There was a shared nervousness about simply focusing on ‘men’s issues’ in a way that might set them up in a competition for resources with women, or encourage a belief that men were victims of gender inequality to the same degree as women. Instead, there was agreement that the process of engaging men must happen in the context of supporting and promoting gender equality. But how to convince men that these processes were of interest and relevance to them? One way forward appeared to be persuading men that current gender relations were bad for them, too, imposing on men a limiting model of masculinity, and that more equal relationships could be good for the wellbeing both genders – for example, by giving men the opportunity to be more fully involved in the care and welfare of their children.

I left Helsinki feeling pleased and privileged to have met so many interesting and committed people doing important and innovative work, often in very challenging contexts, and also feeling cautiously optimistic about a developing consensus around the importance of engaging men, if campaigns for gender equality are to be successful. Closer to home, I also came away reassured that the issues thrown up by our work on the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project were finding an echo with other researchers, activists and policy-makers and that our research could make a timely contribution to this important debate.

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