Thursday, January 22, 2015

Gender inequality as a human issue, not a women's issue

I have always firmly believed that gender equality is not just a women's issue. Living in a world of economic, social, and political inequality between the sexes affects the quality of life for all persons -- male and female, child and adult. The disadvantages for women with regard to gender inequality are more obvious, and we have touched on many of them in our recent classroom discussions: lower salaries as compared to males, the need to make a "choice" between family and career, and underrepresentation in the political sphere, to name a few. However, males are also adversely affected by gender inequality. Men who do not fulfill male stereotypes may feel emasculated by society, or may have trouble advancing in their careers or displaying sensitivity. Children who grow up in families where gender norms persist will likely have less interaction with their fathers, higher expectations of their mothers, and may feel neglected by one or both parents as a result.

Of course, these examples speak mainly to the experience of many middle- to upper-class persons in developed countries. But gender inequality is also a global issue. In some countries, the effects of gender inequality are much more dramatic -- for example, the practice of female genital mutilation in various regions of Africa and the stoning of female adulterers in parts of the Middle East.

One of the things that I have been struggling with since my feminist awakening is what seems to be a general sense of apathy among my male friends to the problem of gender inequality. Of course, when I ask my male friends whether they think gender inequality is a problem and whether something should be done about it, they invariably say "yes," and I don't doubt that they mean it. But most of my male friends seem unwilling to speak up in support of female advancement. On the rare occasion that I post an article with feminist undertones on social media, I receive plenty of recognition from females, but I rarely (if ever) receive comments or "likes" from my male friends. Moreover, anytime I speak about a particular instance of gender inequality in the media or my personal experience, my female friends are always more impassioned about the injustice of the situation. They take a more proactive approach, speaking in terms of what can or should be done. Most of my male friends may sympathize, but they (and the conversation) move on quickly. In these instances, I feel genuinely depressed about what seems to be a lack of meaningful support from my male peers. For some, perhaps their apparent disinterestedness has more to do with their uncertainty as to how they can contribute to the feminist dialogue.

In September, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (best known for her role in the Harry Potter series) gave a speech at the UN that resonated deeply with me. Among other things, she spoke about the adverse impacts of gender inequality on males and children, and the importance of male participation in the feminist movement. Her speech (which you can watch here) shed a spotlight on the UN HeForShe campaign, which defines itself as follows:
HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality developed by UN Women to engage men and boys as advocates and agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights. The campaign encourages them to speak out and take action against inequalities faced by women and girls.
On a tangible level, HeForShe seeks to engage civil society organizations, men's groups, universities, schools, corporations, and local government officials worldwide in launching campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality and of male participation in its promotion. As part of these efforts, HeForShe has made available an "Action Kit" in the form of a PDF document that provides information about the campaign and outlines steps that the institutions listed above should take in its support. People around the world are invited to show their support of the campaign by using the hashtag #heforshe.

For me, HeForShe represents several steps in the right direction. It is the first campaign I have seen that invites males into the feminist dialogue in a nonthreatening way. I am so excited to see where the campaign goes, and to use it as a platform to invite and encourage my own male friends to participate in the movement for gender equality.


Jessica S. said...

I think it is difficult for men to give up male privilege when a part of that privilege is being shielded from what women go through. Hence, making it a "women's issue," and distancing oneself from it seems natural. This way, no one needs to take direct responsibility. No one made mistakes; no one has to confront the fact that they are benefiting from unfair advantages and fewer constraints.

Sara Popovich said...

I have had a similar experience, in that many men that I have discussed gender issues with say they believe in equality of the genders, but are afraid to go much further than that. I think some men don't want to discuss the topic because they fear being labeled a feminist. I get the sense that these males think being a feminist will decrease their masculinity in the eyes of other men. I am looking forward to seeing where the #HeforShe campaign leads both in the United States and abroad.

Damon Alimouri said...

In order for gender equality to be attained, both men and women must participate in the process of emancipation. It would be impossible for the struggle for woman's liberation to be exclusively fought by women. Indeed, what is required is that women and men together disestablish contemporary norms and enterprises that perpetuate and propagate sexism (i.e. basically everything).

Much like the struggle against racism, which requires the participation of members of all races, the struggle against sexism requires both men and women. Indeed, it appears that in that struggle there will even be women, just as their have been people of color, who will seek to counter progressive efforts.

Rebecca F. said...

To be honest, I really struggle with the HeForShe campaign. On the one hand, I agree that discrimination and gender violence are societal issues that impact all of us and, as such, they are issues we should all care about. But on the other hand, I am hesitant to claim that feminism is only about achieving gender equality. I worry that if we transform issues that so disproportionately impact women into "men's issues" or "people's issues," we risk losing women's voices and agency in working toward solutions.

I hope HeForShe can help raise awareness and encourage individuals to make positive changes in their own lives and support movements that aim to put an end to gendered violence/discrimination. But I still believe that women should be spearheading the campaign for change at a national (and global) level.