We see important milestones being crossed every day and other signs that gender equality is improving around the world. One development which has been growing recently is the way in which men are entering the conversation about gender equality: from how they can be better allies, to what is the future role of men in society.
Although we see some men actively engaging and supporting gender equality work, it is still only a fraction of men, so how can we further engage men in the march towards gender equality?
To help answer this question, I caught up over email with Øystein Gullvåg Holter. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Gender Research, and has been a researcher working with the topic of gender equality with a focus on men since the 1980’s. One thing he highlighted in our conversation is that men being topics of research for gender equality is a relatively recent development:
“Historically, it was not so long ago that gender, practically speaking, was only one. Gender meant women. Men were neutral, the standard, the person, while women were deviants. While this has changed, research still mainly focuses on women,” explains Holter.
Gender Meant Women
Gender studies as a field emerged in the 60’s and 70’s as a response to the fact that women were often ignored in society, and gender researchers and scholars pushed back against this. As a result, the research focus was on women. A long-lasting and dominant idea emerged: gender mainly concerned women rather than men. This idea became widespread in studies trying to address the issue.
Subsequently, many gender studies departments used to be called women’s studies, or gender and women’s studies, including at the University of Oslo. This shift in the name of the department reflected a shift in the research about gender and gender equality, where the goal was to have the department more gender-balanced.
“When you involve men, you also indirectly involve women, so a broad perspective on gender is needed. Not reducing gender to a binary, and yet recognize the strong forces in society that has made gender into—mostly—a binary, almost like two social classes,” says Holter.
It is important that gender not just be thought of as women, but also men, and that men be included in research and conversations around gender equality. However, it remains that only a fraction of research delves into men and masculinity. This is problematic for many reasons. Especially since the existing research points out the way in which masculinities influence many parts of our society including migration, workplace dynamics, and war.
Research is Not Sexism
As a master’s student in Gender Studies at the University of Oslo, I am one of only a few men to have enrolled in the Gender Studies Master program since it started in 2011. In my own research about gender and migration, it is clear that when people think about gender and migration, it means just women, and this is a problem.
There has been some pushback against this movement to have men be more central in the field of gender studies. Some argue that this in a way upholds sexism, which is what gender studies was founded to try and address. Jeff Hearn, a leading researcher about men and masculinities who is based at Örebro University, addresses this point well in his book Men of the World.
We must understand uneven power relations to understand gender inequality, and this will only be achieved if men are included in the research.
This research, rather than upholding sexism, instead works to try and end it.
Researchers have reached similar conclusions that higher levels of gender equality improves men’s wellbeing. On the other hand, research has also highlighted how toxic masculine norms can lead to higher levels of suicide, more reckless actions, and risky behavior during the pandemic as recently reported in the New York Times.
All these previous points are made to highlight one central idea: when we talk about gender equality, and gender more broadly, it must be with both men and women in mind.
More research certainly helps, but how we do engage more men when talking about gender equality? Some key points taken from Harvard Business Review highlight these aspects when addressed from a leadership and business perspective.
Holter also had some had insights for this:
“I think there are many ways to engage men, and not just one ‘best practice’.”
How do we bring more men into this conversation? Perhaps some men simply need to be told, “You’re allowed to engage in this conversation.” Similarly, a good place to start is to ensure everyone knows that gender equality is something that we all benefit from and is not something just for women.
Continuing to apply a wide lens to research and conversations about gender equality, one that makes sure that men’s role regarding gender equality is included, will play an important role in this.
As Holter concluded in our conversation, “Even if there are barriers and struggles along the way. According to my research, men—not just women—will be better off, in a more gender equal society.”