Why it is Important to Engage Men in the conversation of Gender Equality

The argument that describes gender inequality as a human rights issue approves the notion that it is an issue for both genders because ‘humans’ comprise of both men and women who co-exist and are co-dependent most of the time.

According to Wikipedia, Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex, sex-based social structures, or gender identity.

The word gender and the role it plays in each society is socially constructed including the responsibilities that society considers appropriate for men and women. If you remove socially constructed roles from the word, it only defines the biological sex and gender the person identifies with, which means the issue of gender inequality is not limited or fixated to remove the inequality of ones gender but to give all humans equal socio-economic opportunities. UNICEF says gender equality "means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities, and protections. It does not require that girls and boys, or women and men, be the same”.

The ladder towards women empowerment

Empowerment is a process. A gradual process of visibility, conversations, dialogues, resources, and recognition. This process is not restricted to marginalized and vulnerable communities or one gender, it is for everyone to become stronger, more confident, and take control of their actions. Involving men in the process of empowering women is necessary to fix the problem from the grassroots level.

Many well-intentioned empowerment efforts in the past have faced backlash from men and increased violence against women since men were included in the awareness. According to UN, in a water project in Africa, efforts of an aid agency to involve women more effectively as pump attendants met stiff resistance from men, particularly when it was proposed that women pump attendants should also be given bicycles to allow them to carry out their work. Men objected first on the grounds the women could not learn to ride bicycles. When that was proven wrong, the real objections emerged, that is, that bicycles – a clear status symbol in a poor community – should not be given to women if men did not already have them. The aid agency learned an important lesson, that efforts for gender equality and the empowerment of women must include awareness raising and engagement of men.

While the vast majority of us agree that involving men in this process is an integral aspect, women-only safe spaces are still an important rung of this ladder. Men and boys can play an important role in reclaiming responsibility in the home, the community, and the workplace but the need for a conversation that is led by women for women still holds unprecedented importance in this narrative.  

For example, when webinars, workshops, and programs about gender equality allow women to share their experiences and concerns, they are hesitant to raise their voice in mixed-gender settings. The same women feel more free, open and have candid heart-to-heart conversations when in women-only settings.

This is why topics like sexual assault and domestic violence are still preferred to be conducted in women-only settings to avoid creating additional trauma for harmed parties enabling a space to address gender-specific issues facing those who identify as women. However, some organizations highly advocate for involving men in these conversations too so that victims of abuse have positive male role models. If, how, and when men should be included, that’s the discretion organizations have to make based on their initiatives, topics, and audiences.

‘If’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ Dichotomy

Women Economic Empowerment is one of our strategic initiatives at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Our 2019 GSBI accelerator cohort has a separate affinity group for women-led enterprises to help them scale their businesses through exclusive business resources and webinars. To find out the answer of if, how and when for our center, we recently conducted an anonymous survey to ask our staff if women-only settings hold more importance in our WEE initiatives or if men should be a part of all discussions. Some of the highlighted opinions are:

“I think involving men in some parts of the broader discussions is important, but that it is also critical to have female-only forums. For so long women have been excluded, and they deserve to move forward a dialogue that reflects their unique perspectives and values in service to other women. That said, the discussion is part of a broader solution that must engage men, but I don't think men should be invited to add their input to everything. Maybe an 80/20 rule can apply, whereby 80% of our sessions are designed for women-only, and 20% are designed for both men and women.”

“In terms of supporting women social entrepreneurs, I am in agreement with creating gender-restricted spaces, because I recognize the value such spaces can create for any under-represented, vulnerable, or marginalized group, and I understand that the presence of men could inhibit conversations. As a man, I prefer to leave it to the discretion of the organizers and participants of the spaces to decide if, when, and how, men should be included in any of the group activities. Regardless of the decision made, it is incumbent upon the organizers of these spaces to share the learnings (respecting confidentiality, of course) with the rest of the Miller Center team as appropriate, so that we can all be better allies. That said, our WEE initiative includes a second dimension, which is supporting SEs working to benefit women and girls, regardless of the gender of the social entrepreneur. I don't see any reason why those spaces should be restricted to women-only.”

Men as an Ally of Women EmpowermenT

Men have the most important role in achieving gender equality and promoting women empowerment initiatives. Men as an ally can be a role model in elevating women’s access to  employment, appropriate working conditions, control of economic resources and full participation in decision-making. UN Women’s campaign HeForShe is an example of a similar solidarity campaign to achieve equality by encouraging all genders to partake as agents of change and take action against negative stereotypes and behaviors. If you are a man reading this, here’s how you can become an ally of women empowerment efforts.

  1. Increase your participation in domestic work and family responsibilities to strive for work/life balance together.

  2. Advocate for women’s access to employment, rights, and opportunities.

  3. In you are an organization, create positive male role models on gender equality by introducing fair employment practices, anti-discrimination measures, and gender-inclusive decision making and by combating sexual harassment in the workplace.  

The Way Forward

To shake the current scenario, the way together is the way forward. Currently, around the world, men hold decision-making positions in all key areas, such as in the executive, economic decision-making, media, academia, and the judiciary. The top to bottom change is necessary to fill the leadership gap and to have our next-generation to be more inclusive and diversified. The involvement of all ‘humans,’ regardless of the gender they identify with, is necessary to have a future which is bright, open and free of any inequality.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hira Saeed joined Miller Center in July 2018 through a partnership with the US Embassy in Islamabad and Atlas Corps. Hira works as a GSBI Women’s Economic Empowerment Fellow to implement  new  research,  initiatives,  and  projects  to  help advance women’s economic empowerment through GSBI programs globally and with a specific focus in the Middle East.