In the midst of #MeToo and #TimesUp, you may be feeling uncertain, confused or guilty. You may be wondering: What is my role as a man? What should I be doing?
Many of you have not done anything that may constitute a #MeToo story. In fact, until recently, you may have thought women have the same opportunities to succeed, and that we are making pretty good progress on gender equality here in the U.S. You may have never given thought to underlying gender biases and implied assumptions about women in our society. Hopefully, you have more understanding from the stories that have emerged.
It is important to recognize that this movement is not just about specific instances of sexual harassment and violence against women. It’s about the broader issue of men’s privilege and power—and the unbalanced dynamics that it has created, and the ways those dynamics shape women’s lives.
The answer to #MeToo is not to hide your head in the sand. Retreating to the sidelines of these conversations is not going to get us anywhere. You are the missing link to addressing these problems. We need your help to fix this. And we want to give you the tools to join this fight.
We wanted to know why some men become committed champions for women, and why they think it is so fundamental to our collective future—so we interviewed and surveyed 75 men in leadership positions around the world who are active allies and champions of women’s rights and equality. What we heard is that men who are true gender equality advocates do not view it as something they have to do; instead, they see gender equality as the way to bring transformational change to the broken parts of society. To them, it is necessary to bring both women and men together on equal footing to solve complex challenges —in communities and in countries—to help all of us.
“We are not so much talking about policies as much as human values,” one of our interviewees said. “We do have the capability to change how we see the world.”
The men we spoke with recognized that they continue to occupy most of the positions at the highest echelons of policy, industry and other sectors. They pointed to a fundamental need to change our norms and values around gender and offered several key strategies to get there.
These are three of their major overarching points.
#1: Listen to—and Seek to Understand—Women’s Stories
This is the time to listen to women and to try to understand the world through their eyes.
The individuals we interviewed said men have failed to recognize the harms that gender inequality has caused. They pointed out that because it doesn’t affect them directly, men in leadership either turn a blind to gender dynamics, or consciously ignore women’s concerns.
One way to overcome the blindness and bias is to draw upon personal experience. For the men who we interviewed, the realization of the importance of gender equality often came during formative years. Some grew up with feminist mothers and fathers; other saw gender-based abuse and injustice up close. Some saw the importance of women’s rights as soldiers or as refugees.
Their journeys were different, but these men share one commonality: they will not accept a world in which one half of the population is second class. “If the other half of humanity does not have rights,” one interviewee remarked, “you cannot talk about having liberty.”
The men we interviewed also pointed to negative experiences with rigid gender understandings, roles and norms that led them to become fierce advocates for gender equality.
One man noted the absence of strong, healthy gender relationships during his upbringing; as a result, he has a desire for future generations not to be raised that way, which motivates him to work toward gender equality. Another man we spoke with was a teenager when his country became a war zone; the strength of women in his family and neighborhood who stepped up as leaders and providers during the chaos and violence made an indelible impression on him.
One interviewee from a war-torn country was intensely affected by the gender violence in his own family: his aunt was forced at age 12 to marry a 50-year-old man who severely abused her for years. In adulthood, he was able to help his aunt out of the marriage. For him, supporting women’s rights became a calling. “This work has transformed my life,” he said.
A deeper understanding of the experiences of women had fundamentally transformed the perspectives of these men—and drove them to fight sexism in all its form. “It changes people. It changes men and many become champions,” one man said. “Once you put on the lens, you can’t take it off. The world never looks the same.” Another noted that “with a gender perspective, everything changes,” adding that he “cannot return to seeing the world from a male perspective.”
#2: Talk to Other Men
Creating opportunities for open discussions about our gendered roles, behaviors and norms can help us move towards more equitable concepts about men and women—but many men who we spoke with are working in some of the toughest environments worldwide to shift perceptions about gender norms. The countries they work in are haunted by the atrocities of war, the glorification of violence, ready access to weapons and a legacy of boys who know nothing else.
It is a long road to rebuild a social fabric, but it is also an opportunity to change mindsets. Some men are facilitating important and difficult conversations about what it means to be a man, leading to new understandings about how men’s roles as husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Many are bringing men and women together to figure out how to collectively solve problems in their communities and countries.
Promundo, an organization that works globally to promote gender justice and prevent violence, engages men and boys in partnership with women and girls around the world; one of their programs promotes men’s roles in caretaking and fatherhood. Sonke Gender Justice works throughout Africa to support equitable attitudes, norms and practices, including through community-level work, communication and individual skill building. MenEngage is an alliance of many organizations around the world that works with men and boys in support of gender justice. White Ribbon, active in 60 countries around the world, describes itself as a “movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.”
Now that women have broken their silence, it’s equally important for men to do the same. It’s time for men to talk with other men about these issues.
#3: Become Vocal Advocates and Accomplices for Gender Equality
Gender inequality is not just something plaguing countries that have experienced recent wars, and it is not confined to the developing world. In Western countries, the feminist movement, girls’ access to educational opportunities and labor market shifts, among other factors, have led to significant progress on gender equality—but even with the increased participation of women in the workforce, there are deep-seated problems in organizational cultures that were created by men and are still dominated by men. As #MeToo revealed, leaders have too often tolerated bad behavior, leveraged power dynamics to harass and abuse women and marginalized or silenced those fighting for gender equality.
Men have an important role to play in becoming visible and vocal allies of women. The men who we interviewed have done it—and you can, too.
The men we interviewed said that when they speak out on gender equality, it conveys a persuasive message—it signals that gender equality is not just a women’s issue. “When some men are involved, it is a sign that it’s not only [to] the benefit of a certain portion of the population,” one said, “but all of society.”
Men in leadership positions have a critical responsibility to become visible champions. Our interviewees stressed that men in leadership positions can shift the priorities and perceptions around these issues to gradually reshape how business is done.“It’s [gender equality] still not on everyone’s mind,” one man explained, “unless the boss—leader of the pack—is doing it.”
Yes, there is a double standard here. When men speak on women’s rights and equality, they tend to be heard; when women do, they can be dismissed, harassed and even attacked. The men we spoke with were well aware of this—and did their best to leverage their voices without minimizing women’s. “It is important for men to also shut up and work under women leaders,” one man said. “Men need to listen, learn and not always demand a seat at the table, but make room for others. You need some sort of balance between engaging men and men taking over the conversation.”
While vocal support from men is critical, it is also important to bear in mind the danger of overstepping and “mansplaining.” Men who we interviewed recognized that there is a balance between supporting women and dominating the conversation. “There are certain advantages to being a man because many audiences are more open to having a man speaking,” one man said. “But I do not and cannot speak on behalf of women, and ‘empowering women’ is horribly condescending.”
So where do we go from here?
Let’s start talking openly about gender roles and expectations—and about the society and world we want to see—from the living room, to the community center, to the boardroom, to the tables where decisions about war and peace are made. It’s a beginning.
This isn’t just “time’s up” for those who have done wrong to women–it’s time to get started on becoming champions for women and working together make our society fair, safe and full of opportunity—for everyone.
Men, your time is now.