By Robert Hurst, Athena Global
Hello, my name is Robert, and I am a man. A pretty confused man most of the time. If you suffer from Confused Man Syndrome, or know someone who does, especially in the realm of gender equity, read on. Below are four basic ideas that just might help clarify the gender equity fight for us all. Or, they will leave you even more confused than before. In any case, read on.
Gender Inequity is our problem. Fellow dudes, you might think you can skate away from this issue and keep it at arm’s length, but gender inequity is our problem for several reasons. First of all, it’s men’s fault. Maybe this handiwork is not yours or mine, but men built the inequitable system. We need to not sit on the couch while women try to clean the whole thing up. Not only is it rude to let others do all the work, women can’t fix men without men. It won’t work. It’s necessary for men to actually do things in order for any gains in gender equality to stick.
Second, it impacts men’s lives negatively also—and fixing it will improve life for everybody, not just women. Many men seem to feel that any gain for women will be at the expense of men, but this is not a zero-sum game. That’s the part that people usually fail to understand. You own the problem but you also have a big stake in the solution. Gender equity is a rising tide that lifts all boats, socially and economically. (For example see this report.)
We don’t deserve a special merit badge for being fair. We should always be respectful and fair to people, by default. The fact that we feel the need to go out of our way to reward men who act in a fair and equitable manner, calling them “allies” or “champions,” is a sad commentary on our world. Rewarding fairness might reinforce the idea that equity is abnormal and weird, and bigotry is normal. However, positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator that might outweigh those detrimental effects, so who knows. Way to go, Mr. Fair! Keep up the good work!
Well-meaning men get criticized from both sides. So you’re really trying to be a solid ally. Well, keep your head on a swivel and get ready to duck because the tomatoes will be launched from all angles. The sexist system has sneaky built-in ways of keeping men on the side of patriarchy, for instance by unleashing a horde of flying monkeys to drop insult bombs on anybody who threatens it. Oh, you’re “woke” now? Great virtue signaling! In addition, you’ll be receiving a dose of something a little more sinister. Research shows that men and women subconsciously question the masculinity and make assumptions about the sexuality of men who openly support gender equity. This hidden bias is present even in progressive-minded people—such is the depth of our societal disease.
And that’s not all. You’ll receive outright hostility from some women who resent your presence and energy in this space, women who will reflexively perceive your gender equity efforts as yet more attention-seeking and usurpation by a man. This unfortunately is a totally understandable reaction, but not helpful for recruiting male allies.
Listening isn’t enough. It’s at the top of most lists of suggestions for male allies: listen. Some men are well-practiced in the art of pretending to listen, so this suggestion makes them smirk lightly to themselves. Hey, no problem babe.
Sometimes listening is just an excuse. An excuse to sit back, do nothing. An excuse to stay out of it. Often in government and business, listening is just an excuse to keep doing what you’ve been doing. For example a city’s transportation department might have a plan they know is unpopular in the neighborhood; they stage multiple “listening sessions” with concerned citizens and groups over the course of several months and duly record all objections and suggestions, not so much to inform their work as to lend an air of legitimacy to the project they were always going forward with anyway. Similarly, the male leadership of a company might put on equity seminars, hire people to come in and give sensitivity lectures and whatnot, in order to avoid substantive moves like firing serial harassers or giving women equal pay for equal work. We’ve got to keep an eye on these sneaky listeners. Listening has become part of the con.
Even good-faith listening can be cursory and patronizing. Men need to learn to hear women. Not in order to respond, not to agree or disagree, definitely not to offer better explanations and advice, but to hear what women have to say and learn how they see the world. The empathy that comes with that provides the foundation for change to occur, and is a real skill that men need to learn.
But don’t pat yourself on the back too hard even if you learn this skill. You also have to act, and that can be very difficult and might require real bravery. Your actions in the face of discomfort, not your thoughtful silence, will define your allyship.
Which actions? Stay tuned for Part 2, the actions of true allies.