Gender as a Women’s Issue
It is something of a paradox that the projects of “gender equality” and “gender mainstreaming” require the co-operation of men but are generally framed as “women’s issues”. In this paradox, the process of engaging men is often perceived as one of raising men’s consciousness about the problems faced by women in regard to equality and social justice. In short, the hope is that when men are shown how they individually and systemically oppress women they will see the error of their ways and take steps to mitigate this oppression. The challenge with this strategy is that it requires men’s involvement with gender to be based on empathy with the “other” rather than the pursuit of self-interest, which is a far more compelling motivation.
On those occasions when men’s involvement with gender is discussed in a way that appears conducive to gender equality (such as the academic discipline of Critical Studies on Men and Masculinities) it generally happens as a subset of women’s studies, which leaves many men themselves feeling “othered”. Elsewhere, men’s involvement with gender is championed by Men’s Rights Advocates, but here too we have a framing problem inasmuch as this discussion is about men’s problems (the much-mocked “what about the menz”) rather than gender mainstreaming, and indeed at worst can be explicitly anti-women. So there is a clear case for finding a different ground between expecting men to engage in statistically significant numbers in the “women’s issue” of gender and men only being interested in “men’s issues”.
Framing Gender as an “Everybody Issue”
One possible way through this problem is to complement framing gender as a “women’s issue” with the frame of gender as an “everybody issue” in which men have a much clearer stake. This comes with an expectation (or hope!) that men’s consequent involvement with gender has a flow-on effect to gender mainstreaming.
For example, the discussion around violence against women can be complemented with violence against people. It is firstly in men’s interest to engage in discussions about violence against people, as men are also subject to violence. Indeed, one might argue that asking men to focus on violence against women without the more general discussion of violence carries a hidden message that men’s experience of violence is less important. This discussion of violence against both women and men (and with it the statistical reality that the majority of violence is perpetrated by men) may have a greater potential to build awareness about violence against women than asking men to consider women alone as the victims of violence.
The same reasoning can be applied to numerous domains addressed by gender mainstreaming. A second example might be diversity and equality in the workplace. It is firstly in men’s interest to discuss diversity and equality in the workplace, as there are various reasons why a man might be discriminated against: he might be black, gay, disabled, short, overweight or have a strong regional accent. When men’s consciousness is tuned to the reality of how people are discriminated against at work in a way that appeals to their self-interest there is the potential to highlight discrimination against women that might not have been achieved when discrimination was solely a “women’s issue”. The point here is not to turn discrimination from a “women’s issue” into a “men’s issue”, rather an “everybody issue”. Further still, the point is not to stop using the frame of “women’s issues”, rather to complement with “everybody issues”.
Possible Dangers and a Theoretical Solution
There are two possible dangers to such a strategy, one that is serious and the other more a provocation to feminist thinking. The first danger is one of co-option. In other words, if gender ceases to be about women, will it become, like most other things, about men? If we go back to the example of violence, this would see the pivot from violence against women to violence against people as potentially erasing the specific and gendered nature of violence against women. However, this would only be a concern if those championing the issue failed in their job of identifying the different ways violence manifests, whether it be against women, Indigenous people or non-human animals and the environment.
And finally to the provocation. Making gender about everybody and not just women involves doing exactly that: decentralizing women. Of course, the centralization of women has and continues to be crucial in building awareness about women’s individual and systemic oppression by men. But at some point the centralization of women turns into its own form or privilege. We have certainly not yet reached the point where women do not need special attention, but it would be prudent to remember that gender is not a zero sum game. If men (and all the people who do not identify as men or women) are put at the heart of gender alongside women this does not detract from women. Indeed, it is precisely this faulty zero-sum logic that drives Men’s Rights Advocates, believing that men lose out due to the attention given to women.
In conclusion, we already have a good theoretical model to navigate this decentralization: intersectionality. While intersectionality has historically been used mostly to explore the dynamics between different feminist constituencies, it is easily extended to include men without even disturbing the centralization of power in gender discourse. For example, a wealthy female executive and a working-class young man with little education have a complex issue on their hands when it comes to discussing power and privilege. It is only a matter of time before Men’s Rights Advocates wake up to the legitimate uses of intersectionality in regard to men (and probably employ it for less legitimate ends), so now is the time for all mindful gender theorists and practitioners to bring men to the table before others with a less mindful agenda do it first.