Reports of a backlash again the gender equality agenda are circulating, and some young men are growing more hostile to it, so what do we do about it?
This week was International Men’s Day and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership [GIWL] held an event on involved fatherhood and gender equality. There was a lot of talk about shared or equal parental leave in recognition of the need to embed involved fatherhood early on. This has been much debated over the last few years. More interesting were comments by one of the panellists, Marvyn Harrison from Dope Black Dads about young men and backlash against the gender equality agenda.
Harrison is also a diversity and inclusion expert so is seeing first hand that some men are disengaging from the equality agenda. He spoke about talking to a teenage relative and about how he tried to speak about gender equality and the teenager was able to show him multiple videos on his phone where young women were denigrating men, which he perceived as hate speech against him as a male. Professor Rosie Campbell from the GIWL suggested that the language that is used about equality and feminism needs to be more thoughtful and promote cooperation rather than division. We have to talk in ways that are meaningful to men, she said. Perhaps we have to talk full stop rather than communicating via short messages or emojis on phones which are so open to misinterpretation.
I have definitely seen this division percolating on the teen side. My daughter said some of the comments on social media from young women are definitely being perceived as hate speech by men and in fact she perceived them herself as hate speech. ‘They basically saym Social media thrives on division rather than communication and collaboration. A lot of the language of feminism has become almost formulaic – even very young children have picked up on the ‘patriarchy’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. The trouble is that those terms are often being perceived in a personal way rather than a systemic one by young men so they have turned off and, worryingly, some have turned against women or see being male as a huge negative.
We do need to offer a positive vision for men rather than only focusing on the negative. And yet we know that sexual harassment and worse is something many young women are experiencing both online and in person, with the language used online becoming increasingly violent. It feels hard to say women need to think about their language in such a climate.
I remember my daughter describing a sixth form assembly after the murder of Sarah Everard. The assembly was focused on the case and was held in individual forms due to Covid restrictions. The sixth formers came out highly emotional. My daughter said almost all the girls in her class had tried to talk to the boys who generally turned off or tried to deflect the conversation. Any boy who tried to side with the girls was sidelined by the other boys. The whole thing quickly turned into a shouting match, with the girls becoming increasingly upset because they didn’t feel the boys were listening as they spoke about their experiences of assault and abuse. The school nipped the whole thing in the bud and we didn’t hear anything more about it.
But is that the right way to deal with it? Schools are a hugely important space for discussing such topics and for trying to find common ground. And it is common ground that we urgently need to find. Maybe it’s something every generation thinks, but I definitely feel parenthood is getting harder, particularly in the teen years. There are so many people whispering in their ears. Misinformation is everywhere. How do time-pressed parents compete? Certainly there needs to be more acknowledgement of how hard it all is and that parents and schools and any other relevant agencies need urgently to work together on this, but instead I keep reading about parents and schools being pitched against each other. Division is everywhere and we need good leadership that focuses on how to bring people together.