The awful Sarah Everard case and its aftermath is fuelling debate around gender equality. We want to be part of that conversation. And part of the solution.
I was all set to blast out this blog on Monday. I felt I had to respond to all that was going on around the issues of gender equality and women’s safety in the wake of the horrible Sarah Everard case.
But then I decided to wait. To consider. That might mean I’m doing the internet wrong. But the issues exposed are as nuanced as they are infuriating, as complex as they are urgent.
Of course parts of the picture are clear. For example, the Met messed up its strategy around the Clapham Common vigil last weekend.
But if we are to make progress, to actually strive for gender equality rather than just talk about it then we need to drill down to its underpinnings. And to consider where men and dads fit into that.
Times columnist Hugo Rifkind wrote an odd column, slightly despairing and bewildered. He posed questions. I tried to engage with him on social media and, at the second time of asking, he did in a thorough, fair and constructive way.
There was a few thought provoking points in his article I want to address because they speak to wider issues.
First, he aimed some drive by shade at ‘professional male feminists’. I’m a professional and I’m a feminist. Was he talking about me? Probably not because I’m not aware of any professional feminists male or female. I know of writers, chief executives, campaigners etc. Just being a feminist doesn’t pay the bills. The comment stank of straw man. But more than that it undermines the idea that men can embrace #heforshe because they believe in equality. There’s a snidey implication that men who profess themselves feminists are putting it on in order to impress women. That says more about the accuser than the feminist. And it reduces men to the role of simplistic sex-obsessed organism. Those that seek to speak for men sometimes don’t come across as actually liking men very much.
And that leads to Rifkind’s second point that’s worth addressing. He said that ‘making men feel bad about themselves’ has not proved a fruitful strategy in changing behaviour.
Again, a straw man or a woeful misunderstanding. But also an opening for a way forward. For my feminism, and that of workingdads.co.uk while I’m editor, is about encouraging and offering men a positive alternative.
You don’t have to feel bad about yourself because you could do better. It’s a lesson we dads teach our kids early – nobody’s perfect, everyone falls, the key is to get back up and keep trying.
We need to fundamentally alter the roles, expectations and stereotypes that stick to the sexes so fastly.
That’s why an OECD report this week is so helpful. It doesn’t use the term toxic masculinity. That’s a phrase I’ve used in the past but I’m keen to turn my back on in light of recent reading. The OECD ‘Man Enough’ report refers to masculinities. In doing so it echoes Martin Robinson’s recent book You Are Not The Man You Are Supposed To Be. Both suggest that there is more than one masculinity. That men have agency and choice, while recognising we are all deeply aware of dominant and damaging models of masculinity.
That’s a breakthrough in itself.
Next is to make those theories, thoughts and words into action. That’s where workingdads.co.uk comes in.
Increased paternity leave – properly funded, ring-fenced for men, flexible working, honest and open accounts of fatherhood. Jobs that welcome a flexible or part time approach. These all fuel new gender roles. Men want the opportunity to care. The policies to enact that opportunity exist. They don’t have to be expensive. They do challenge existing norms. But the benefits they reap are huge.
Better mental health for mums and dads
Smarter, better behaved children
A larger and fairer economy.
And, crucially in light of the current debate, if dads do their fair share at home and show that caring has value like work does they turn out kids with a more gender equal outlook. That’s how we move attitudes. Boys and girls who see gender equality modelled at home take that expectation out into the world. They become adults who are aware of the impact of their actions, men who won’t stand for women to be treated differently, partners who would not dream of hurting the person they love, dads who are content to combine work and family responsibilities in whatever way they see fit.
The media will move on. The issues raised in the last two weeks will sink back down the news agenda. For all the heat generated the government believes it can see off criticism with the promise of streetlights. Lamp posts are not the answer to gender equality.
But some momentum has been achieved. We must hitch our agenda to any and all signs of progress and make the case for including men and dads in the conversation. But most of all we must act. Hugo Rifkind’s column was titled ‘How should men behave in the era of MeToo?’ Behaviour is for dogs and children. Adults act.
Too much talk in the past few days has focussed on men crossing the road to avoid making a woman walking at night feel threatened. Do that. But it’s easy. Think about why she feels threatened, how you can tackle the underlying, endemic issues and take action. Commit to the housework, embrace flexible working, talk about your feelings. Don’t feel bad about yourself for being a man, feel good about being a man who is thinking about what he can do better, who is visiting workingdads.co.uk, and who is genuinely, incrementally, importantly making the world a better place.