When I go jogging around a park or pass a construction site, I do not have to worry that I might be sexually harassed by being dragged into a bush and raped or being catcalled at like a piece of meat. When I was a kid, I did not have to worry, as a boy, that I might have to miss school because of my period, there being no provision made by the state to ensure that girls have access to free tampons or pads, just as condoms are available for boys and men.
When I show sharp emotion in the workplace, I do not have to worry that I will be thought of as immature or emotional. Any display of such emotion may even be rewarded because it shows humanity (when I cry) or authority and leadership (when I raise my voice). Women showing the same range of emotion may be infantilised and mocked (“She is so childish!”; “Is it that time of the month?!”) or ridiculed and scorned (“She is such a cow!”; “She isn’t ready for promotion because she loses her temper!”)
We live in a world in which, for the same job, a woman is likely to be paid no more than about 75% of what I get paid even though our economic value is identical. Very often, she would be paid far less than that. We live in a world in which certain traits, and biological bits and bobs, that are more in abundance in men than in women become the basis of templates of “excellence” in a construction of fake meritocracies across various spheres of society, from the academy to the corporate world and beyond.
I have often shared, by way of one of many examples, the story of a prominent international law firm that had invited me to coach an excellent woman who was on the brink of becoming a partner at the firm. In mapping out her professional development and career progression, another woman, who oversaw professional development at the firm, had concluded that this very talented attorney — call her Sandy — still had one major weakness. Sandy, apparently, was an ineffective communicator.
When I did my own assessment of Sandy’s communication ability, I reached a different conclusion. There was absolutely nothing wrong with how she expressed herself. She was lucid, confident and systematic in how she explained what was in her head. There were a few tweaks one could make, for sure, since no one is born a professional speaker, of course, and those of us who have for years studied communication, argumentation theory and participated in debate and public speaking competitions, have plenty of tricks of the trade we could share with others. But, fundamentally, Sandy’s communication ability should never have been a bar to becoming a partner. So, what was going on here?
Sandy wasn’t prone to being shouty, like countless men at the top of the corporate ladder and she didn’t comport like a man when she sat on stage or when she took to the podium. She didn’t gesticulate wildly and assertively when making a point. She was measured in her tone, and calm, and she let the content of her excellent legal analysis do the persuasiveness work in her communication.
This evidently didn’t fit the law firm’s institutional template for what it means to be a good communicator, a template that even a woman colleague had accepted as an “objective” measurement of speaking ability — as opposed to a patriarchal yardstick of what leadership consists of when it comes to communication.
The firm had two broad choices. Either it could lead the way and expand the idea of what it means to be an effective communicator (including rethinking the measurements used by the human resources department and professional development executives), or it could let the opportunity to challenge established norms pass by and simply force everyone to sound like one of the company directors who were all men fluent in one boisterous way of communicating. My (would be) consulting stint at this firm didn’t last long. I never heard from them again.
These are just some of the small and big ways in which the world is organised to favour boys and men unfairly. That is the essence of structures of patriarchy. Men reading this didn’t invent patriarchy. We were born into these structures. But we do benefit, knowingly, from patriarchy and that is unfair. Arbitrary traits like one’s sex or gender should not so fundamentally determine one’s luck in the business of living, and in shaping the prospects for flourishing.
One basic test of the sincerity of one’s professed commitment to equality is how you respond to a demand for equality by anyone who does not have access to it. If you are indifferent to a movement aimed at making the world more rather than less unequal, then you might be able to utter the words “I support equality” but you’re likely just being politically correct when you perform such virtuous speech. You’re gaming.
If you are actively obstructing the work of a movement aimed at equality, then you reveal yourself as a friend of injustice, inequality, elitism and of the hegemonic power distributions of the unequal world we were born into.
Men can either be sincere and active allies of feminists and of the feminism movement or we can choose to be culpable opponents of feminism, by obstructing its aims or being culpably indifferent to these. We shouldn’t be indifferent. We shouldn’t be obstructive. All men should embrace feminism, enthusiastically. It is important to understand why.
Feminism is essentially a demand for equality and justice, a demand that we should live in a world in which sex and gender discrimination, including patriarchy and misogyny, are smashed. How can men not be enthusiastic about signing up for this project? In fact, we should be offering servant leadership assistance to the women in this movement, given the enormous amount of unjust power we enjoy just on account of our gender. We should simply give up power to the point necessary for the world to be said to be a more just and equal space.
The first obvious reason us men should sign up for feminism is because it is the decent thing to do. To reject feminism is to reject equality. To reject feminism is to say no to the affirmation of the inherent dignity of all human beings, and not just the dignity of boys and men. But how can men sleep easily at night, let alone imagine ourselves to be morally decent, when we are implicated in the injustices of patriarchy and do nothing, despite our disproportionate amounts of social, economic and political power, to end the hatred of women, and to end the systematic, systemic and institutional forms of discrimination against women?
Second, if the moral argument doesn’t persuade you, then perhaps an appeal to economic logic might. After all, men love capitalism. Capitalism requires us to get as much out of workers as possible. That is the value-maximisation driver behind market capitalism. It is the kind of thing that turns on the men who run companies the world over. Now think about this elementary inefficiency built into patriarchy, guys: if you fail to develop the full human potential of girls and women, you rob society, and corporations themselves, of the opportunity to have a more productive workforce that can better serve the very aims of capitalism.
I am, of course, only half-joking. The complex further debate to frame is whether one can get rid of patriarchy while retaining capitalism at all, or even in its current guise. There are many good arguments for the view that capitalism feeds off patriarchy. But, for goodness sake, while we settle that argument, why are so many men so daft as to not realise that even if you do not want to be an ally of feminism because of political or moral considerations, that treating women in your company equally makes good business sense.
I am, lastly, not going to entertain here needless distractions from these core points. Of course, feminism has complex debates internal to the movement. Some liberal feminists, for example, are often blind to the intersections between gender, class and race. Still other women (of all colours) are often themselves patriarchal. And, yes, not all men are vicious perpetrators of the hatred against women.
These nuances matter in the fullest exposition of the issues. But they are not salient in a statement of the fundamental overall reality that, in terms of the dominant patterns, women in general are victims of patriarchy with almost no exception. And men of all persuasions, including gay men, woke men and men who work in the social justice sector have some patriarchal tendencies within us. We need to focus on the essence of the problem and not try to steer the conversation away from difficult truths.