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We’ve brought together the editor of workingdads.co.uk and the editor of workingmums.co.uk to discuss and debate International Men’s Day
International Men’s Day on November 19 has its champions and detractors. But if nothing else it’s an opportunity to talk.
So, like one of those episodes of Doctor Who where Matt Smith meets Tom Baker we brought together our editors to debate and discuss it.
JAMES MILLAR What does International Men’s Day (IMD) mean to you? Does it make you think of ‘old fashioned’ masculinity? Or does it make you think of ‘new masculinity’?
MANDY GARNER I guess my first thoughts were fairly negative and suspicious. Why is there a need for an International Men’s Day? Who’s behind it? Is it the kind of people who are basically trying to downplay the problems faced by women and the fact the power dynamics are firmly in men’s favour? Is it people like Philip Davies MP who attempted to talk out legislation about domestic violence among other things? Is it essentially people who don’t like women speaking up about inequality and discrimination?
If it is just about encouraging men to talk more openly about mental health and about positive role models for men then that sounds like a good thing.
Clearly this whole gender equality at work thing needs to be about more than just women speaking to themselves. I’ve been in so many meetings and at so many events, several of them about dads, where it is just women.
We’re not going to get anywhere that way. We have to talk to each other, but we have to talk honestly. We can’t just say what we think the other person wants to hear, and that can make for some difficult conversations.
But no important change has come about easily.
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If International Men’s Day can be about opening up those conversations then maybe that’s a good thing. Still, at the back of my mind is the feeling that equating International Men’s and International Women’s Day is suggesting that the challenges faced by men and women are kind of equal and ignores the hugely uneven power balance in the world.
Men, though, are clearly an important part of the solution.
JM Absolutely. As a day it’s undoubtedly been tarred by the sorts of people who spend International Women’s Day saying ‘But when is International Men’s Day??’ And, while I’ve a lot of time for the people who reply ‘Well it’s the other 364 days of the year!’ I’m not sure that actually gets us anywhere.
I think IMD is an opportunity to recognise that men have concerns and issues that need to be addressed. But equally importantly it’s an opportunity to show that those concerns and issues are not unique to men and don’t occur in a silo.
For example, mental health is important. But it impacts men and women.
Rethinking the workplace so men can work flexibly and spend more time with their families – something lots of surveys have shown is important to men – has to happen also because it will give women more flexibility to return to work if they want, and allow them to earn more and on an equal footing to men.
I don’t think it’s so true these days but perhaps in the past International Women’s Day has been guilty of excluding/forgetting men from the conversation? We have to make sure International Men’s Day doesn’t exclude women.
MG There is a lot of activism by women for women these days. I understand the anger and the need to have each other’s backs.
I think there are more men on board these days, but I fear backlash.
I know with bias training that it can have the opposite effect than was intended. It can make men feel disengaged and resentful. I think we need to focus on positive, joint action and there is definitely a recognition of the need to include men and for men to own the stuff that relates to them rather than it being taken over by women.
I think there is still a long way to go on this, though. On bias, I really like Diana Parkes’ approach where she talks about undervalued people in an organisation which can be anyone, male, female, a particular function, etc. I think it repurposes bias as about getting the best out of all your employees. In the 70s there were a lot of men on board with feminism, but they gradually felt excluded which spawned a backlash. I hope that doesn’t happen again. But trust is a difficult thing – hard to win and easy to lose. Trust is to some degree built on action, on defending women who are facing discrimination at work, on speaking up for greater rights for parental leave for dads, etc.
The mutual benefits need to be clearly communicated.
Some of the most powerful – for me – interviews I do are with dads who say how flexible working has allowed them to build a strong relationship with their children and their partner. That is partly to do with growing up without a father present, I guess. I also recall one man telling me he left his organisation after seeing one of his female friends bullied by management. I’ve been that woman. Understanding that bullying affects more people than just the person bullied is important. Solidarity is a powerful thing.
JM Yep, it’s a very fine line to walk to keep everyone on board and build as broad a coalition as possible.
That’s why I think IMD needs to take a ‘more in common’ approach in its focus.
So mental health is clearly a big one. It’s good that we’re giving credit to the issue of men’s mental health. Because we live in a society that still treats men and women very differently the causes can be different for men and women. Men do have to still deal with the idea that they don’t get emotional and they ought to be the breadwinner for example. But the benefits of tackling those expectations are for everyone, and that’s why it needs to be addressed as an issue.
Also we absolutely need to look at the world of work. There’s been enough research now to show millennial men in particular are not happy with workplaces which still regard flexible working as unusual, with the exception perhaps of working mums who are expected to want to alter their hours. I think this is something in particular that IMD ought to focus on.
Do you agree that we’re pushing at an open door on flexible working – companies want to do it because employees insist on it, but they need convincing it’s not going to cause great upheaval?
MG I think there is a definite recognition that flexible working is important to employees. I’m not sure if everyone gets just how important. So I think stats showing how many research it, ask at recruitment and so forth are important.
I also think the business benefits of flexible cultures – not just ad hoc agreements to flexibility for individual employees – need to be clearer and there needs to be more support available for employers – and in particular line managers – to see how that can work on a team by team basis, drawing from what others do but tailoring it to specific contexts.
The idea that flex is a mutually good thing is vital.
If it goes too much on the business side you get exploitation – exploitation of people on zero hours contracts in the name of flexible working, for instance.
Mental health is clearly a huge issue for everyone in the workforce and for those about to join it. I have three teenage daughters and I am disturbed by the amount of mental health issues around these days.
I don’t know so much about the boys, perhaps they are storing up problems for the future by not talking about them now, but the girls have been hit by a number of different impossible expectations and the impact on self esteem is immense.
Clearly there is a big issue with male suicide and more needs to be done to help men talk about their problems and admit to doubts and fears. I know how it can damage men profoundly if they can’t and that inability to process emotions has an impact on the women who care about them too.
I find it annoying when expressing support for women facing discrimination, low pay, etc, is presented as hating men. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am in favour of any platform that enables us to work together on some of these things as long as it genuinely aims to resolve them and doesn’t get caught up in power politics.
Imagine having your own successful creative business that allowed you to work your own hours, take leave for ALL of the school holidays (if you wanted to) as well as providing you with a great income?
JM Interesting that you mention line managers. They are really important to changing workplace culture because they tend to be the ones that lead on the ground. If I knew more about how the military is organised I’d be able to draw an analogy!
But they have a wider significance that fits really well with IMD, and that is as role models. IMD is a chance to celebrate and publicise men who do challenge the stereotypes and show that things can be done differently. And that is really powerful.
Tying flexible working and role models together… I’m off to a coffee shop to do some work next. I see so many mums there with tiny babies. But I hardly ever see men, certainly very rarely on their own with a small child (though not never!). A man in there with a small baby would be a powerful role model.
The new mums in the coffee shop often, inevitably, look stressed and tired and sometimes miserable. I know it’s hard work being a new parent. But I don’t reach out and ask how they are getting on for fear of looking patronising, or even a bit creepy. I get that’s probably my problem and I should just be nice. What advice would you give men looking to take the opportunity to reach out and help women – particularly in the workplace – without appearing patronising or, worse, creepy?
MG I think it’s about talking to the people in your team as human beings.
The worst manager I had was a man who was basically a bully.
The best was also a man who would announce the emails he got from his children’s schools about them getting some sort of merit to the whole team. He always asked how the kids were. When I told him I was pregnant [very unexpectedly and just at the time I was being made a permanent member of staff so it was a bit awkward] he was just really genuinely pleased for me. He did the same with everyone and it was so appreciated. I told him once that he was a great manager and it surprised him. He really didn’t think he was. We need to have some sort of way to recognise those human attributes because they are so important.
Standing up for people who are being bullied, badly treated or are just the butt of endless ‘leaving early?’ type of comments [when you are having to rush off to pick up kids] is also amazingly powerful. The everyday stuff. Listening to people. Asking how they are. Understanding the pressure points. Being a decent human being. It matters.
Just to add too re the whole thing about pay. I think there is a tendency to defensiveness about pay. I’m all in favour of greater transparency because without it nothing much will change. I speak as someone who told her [male] maternity cover [on a lower grade] to ask for more pay only to find he was already paid the same – or possibly more – than me. Pay is the way employers show how they value people. Surveys show a LOT of women suspect they are valued less than men. Employers hide behind a lot of excuses when it comes to pay, because it is a nasty can of worms, but it could be your partner, your sister, your mother, your daughter, who is being paid less than you for doing the same job. That inequality has potentially huge ramifications through the course of their lives and, as their partner, brother, father, son that has an impact on you too.
JM Basically when it comes to managers and line managers etc the golden rule is ‘don’t be a dick’. And that applies to life more generally. Men are raised to value certain behaviours and attributes but it’s often all a show really. Man or woman you don’t want to see colleagues, friends, partners – other humans! – feeling sad/browbeaten etc. The higher you rise up the pyramid of privilege – man, white, middle class etc – the more opportunity there is to abuse that power. But I think if I could urge men to learn one lesson from IMD it’s to take away that mantra – don’t be a dick.
But what lessons should women take from IMD? If a working mum came to you and said ‘What’s the best thing I could do on IMD to help/support men?’ what would your answer be?
MG I think it’s generally the same stuff – encourage men to ask for flexible working or to take paternity leave, ask them about their kids, listen to them etc. Don’t make assumptions. Treat them as equals in the parenting stakes – things will never change if we don’t create the expectation of equality. I think expectations are important.
Try and make networks or spaces generally where men can speak about their views on work life balance issues. I know it can be hard for men to join networks that are already set up and dominated by women. Sometimes a dads network is a good thing to enable frank conversations, but the aim must be to enable conversations generally about this stuff which bring men and women together so they can influence policy and culture, but dads need to own their part of it. It’s no good women running everything.
JM So basically our message this IMD is ‘work together’. Men: take the opportunity to think about women and how you can be a good ally. And women: don’t dismiss the challenges men face and take the opportunity to think about how you can be an ally to men who need help (and if you do it’ll probably help everyone).
And talk to each other. Men talk to other men. Women talk to men. Men talk to women.
Are we essentially saying – Act. Communicate. Agitate for change. Because if we are, then I know this great book that comes to the same conclusion…