Edward Sullivan is on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association for Equality. While he often writes on a wide variety of gender issues, his primary focus is gender equity in law and public policy.
This article is part of a Discussion addressing the question, ‘What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?’.
In barely a hundred years, the topic of gender equity has moved from a fringe notion to a dominant sociopolitical force. Few other ideals have so dramatically altered our social and political landscape, let alone in such a short period of time. However, what exactly is gender equity? Conventionally, “gender equity” refers to the idea that people should not face discrimination, restriction or prejudice on the basis of their sex, gender, or gender presentation and, more broadly, to actions or initiatives intended to eliminate such issues. This definition casts a wide net, and for good reason: gender is one of the most pervasive factors in the organization of social life, and while its bounds are beginning to blur, we have a long way to go before it can truly fade away. In the meantime, we have to work with what we have, and right now the most cost-effective avenues to improve gender equity in Canada are not found in law, public policy or social attitudes, but within the very institutions that devote themselves specifically to gender issues.
Over the last few decades, advocates of gender equity have succeeded dramatically in their efforts: women now make up almost half of the Canadian labor force and a majority of the electorate, are more likely than men to graduate high school, take home over 60% of bachelor’s degrees, and face significantly lower unemployment than men even during periods of economic downturn. Canadian women are thriving, and while it would be naïve to proclaim the end of gender inequity for women it is also important to acknowledge the progress that has been made. Almost any assessment of the status of women in modern Canada is bound to conclude not only that they face fewer issues now than at any other point in history, but that in many areas they enjoy significantly better outcomes than men. “Why,” some might ask, “would anyone want to stand in the way of movements that have created such progress? Why fix something that isn’t broken?”
To be brief, the answer is that gender equity is not as simple as “better outcomes for women” and that, as our society changes, so too must the efforts of those working to improve it.
From the beginning, gender equity advocates have concerned themselves almost exclusively with the status of women, justifying this approach by citing a set of unique social, political and legal restrictions applied to them on the basis of their gender. As more and more men became involved in such advocacy, however, that view began to come under fire; having experienced another side to gender inequity, male activists who had become sensitized to gender discrimination began to identify issues they felt had been overlooked by their female peers. “You’re complaining about not having been able to vote,” they pointed out, “but are you being ordered to literally go to war and die based on your gender?” These early feminist men opposed views that they felt positioned men and women as adversaries, advocating a more integrated approach that acknowledged a range of inequities faced by both women and men. They did not label women as “the enemy” in the manner that much of feminism’s second wave labeled men: to them, the true enemy was not men or women but a larger system that constrained both. Needless to say, this did not sit well with many prominent thinkers of the time who, drawing on early Marxism, saw gender discrimination as a system in which a unilateral oppressor exploited the unilaterally oppressed. Within this framework men could be the oppressor or oppressed, but not both, and since women had already been firmly labeled as “oppressed” there was only one role men could fill. By and large, male supporters began to step away, though many eventually became involved in early groups that preceded the modern men’s movement.
The result of all this has been a group of mainstream gender equity movements that didn’t just exercise extensive political power on behalf of women while completely ignoring the issues and input of men, but that actively blamed many consequences of its own mistakes on those it labeled “oppressors.” Much like a bear in a china shop whose desire for honey overrides any concern for the resulting cacophony, so too did truly good and heartfelt intentions all-too-often result in serious and unjust consequences for those groups not considered as stakeholders. The legacy of these actions can be seen in all too many areas – from so-called “primary aggressor” policies which in practice boiled down to “arrest the male,” to gender inequities in child custody that trace back to early feminist advocacy, to perspectives on domestic violence such as the Duluth Model which privilege ideologically-convenient explanations over statistical evidence, the side effects of well-intentioned remedies are indelibly stamped on the legal landscape. Moreover, even as awareness of such issues has risen, most mainstream movements have continued to ignore disparities in severe violent victimization, educational achievement, workplace fatalities, arrest/conviction/incarceration rates, homelessness, mental health outcomes (particularly for depression) and suicide, all issues where men come in dead – quite literally – last.
As our society has moved closer to the goal of overall gender equity, the natural expectation would be a shift towards approaches that integrate the concerns and issues of men, women and those outside the traditional gender binary. What has happened, curiously enough, is almost the exact opposite. Far from moving towards the integration of diverse perspectives, the most dominant and powerful advocacy groups have doubled down, becoming progressively more hostile towards differing views and increasingly attempting to control and limit the range of acceptable views within the gender and gender equity discourse. Often this has merely involved attempts to censor divergent or opposing views, but in some cases (as CAFE itself has experienced on more than one occasion) that hostility has escalated to outright illegal action. The few male-positive groups that do manage to operate relatively unchallenged do so almost entirely through compliance with dominant activist perspectives on gender that often sabotage the effective address of men’s issues, or by targeting a single narrow issue while avoiding engagement with the wider gender discourse entirely. Indeed, the mere act of labeling an issue men face as stemming from discrimination has become as risky as it has taboo – even when men’s issues become entirely impossible to ignore, they can still be conveniently excused through collective blame, or reframed as “just a side effect” of some approved women’s issue.
The aversion to any acknowledgment of how discrimination contributes to the issues men face has much wider implications: more than anything, it’s emblematic of a continually widening double-standard in how the situations of men and women are conceptualized, framed, analyzed and explained. Today, an activist icon such as Hanna Rosin can publish, with a straight face, an article titled “The End of Men,” rework that article into a book, and even participate in a debate by the same name without facing significant social sanction. In fact, that achievement can be widely lauded, and the book a best-seller. On the other hand, so much as daring to suggest, with copious hedging and the caveat that he “would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” the possibility that men’s greater presence at both extremes of ability may be one factor influencing gender ratios in certain academic areas? That is enough to not only “draw fire” from a wide variety of critics, but lose the speaker two jobs as well in a reaction a fellow professor described quite bluntly as in tune with “the days of McCarthyism.” To call the contrast ‘stark’ would perhaps be an understatement; it has become socially taboo to attribute issues men face to discrimination, but even more taboo to attribute issues women face to anything but.
Ironically enough, it’s this same double-standard that has become a gulf which, besides completely undermining attempts to address the issues facing men, presents a key roadblock to mainstream, woman-focused gender equity advocacy. In spite of unprecedented awareness and resources, progress on many core issues (such as sexual assault, equal pay and STEM education) has become increasingly difficult, and the activist response has been anything but introspective; far from any re-examination of the issues or their approach, advocates for women have focused primarily on the introduction of increasingly invasive legal and public policy remedies with little concern for their potential consequences. Few seem to see any contradiction in the actions of people like Rosin who, even as they loudly proclaim women’s triumph over men in a slew of areas, continue to endorse efforts and perspectives that focus almost exclusively on women. Fewer still seem to have considered the deeper implications, both for those addressing gender equity issues and the social landscape as a whole. When standing on the outside it seems almost simple: we can’t have more female doctors without more male nurses; we can’t have more female CEOs without more male stay-at-home parents; we can’t end perceptions of women as weak without acknowledging male victims; we can’t end intimate partner and sexual violence without acknowledging both men and women as victims and perpetrators. The equation seems complicated when half is overlooked, yes, but when viewed head-on it’s hard to miss where it leads.
Men deserve to have their issues addressed for their own sake, not for the sake of women. Nonetheless, as long as men remain confined to a restrictive gender role, women can never truly escape their own; we need both doctors and nurses, CEOs and stay-at-home parents, and when men are forced into one or barred from the other women will always be pressured to balance that. Even if gender inequity was once purely a women’s issue, that day is long past, and in order to truly move forward there needs to be more than just an escalation in rhetoric and advocacy. This cannot happen when many prominent organizations still advocate for only one gender, shout down even conscientious dissent, and attempt to crown themselves the be-all and end-all without offering evidence to justify such claims. Men’s issues cannot be solved until men are allowed a space – a real space in which to do so – and they can work towards a solution without opposition at every step. Until that happens, simply escalating the current approach to women’s issues will only cost more, create more frustration, and cause more collateral damage.
In order to make true progress, we cannot force men to fight a progressively harsher battle to have their issues recognized, nor demand that they ignore the hostility they continue to receive from groups that supposedly share their goals, nor expect them to break themselves trying to shift the inertia of government when groups with vastly greater resources are leaning on it as hard as they can. We cannot foster an approach that pits gender equity advocates against each other, to everyone’s detriment, on the basis of whether or not they think men’s issues deserve to be addressed in their own right. The most cost-effective thing we can do, as Canadians, to further gender equity in our country is to convince existing equity organizations that they need to sit down and really think about how they do things, think about their approach to gender equity, and then move towards an approach that brings all stakeholders to the table in their own right – yes, even men.