Commentary: Gender Equality, Not a Zero-Sum Game

Article Date

04 October 2010

Article Author

By Gary Barker

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

I saw a sign in a London tube station that read: “Women are from Earth, Men are from Earth. Deal with it.” We may have moved beyond Mars and Venus, but the “men versus women” debate rages on. The economic downturn, coupled with women’s rising dominance in the labor force, has spawned new arguments on the “he-cession,” “The End of Men,” and the latest, in a recent Newsweek cover story, “Men’s Lib.” Unfortunately, the thinking still too often goes that men are getting their comeuppance while women are finally getting ahead.

But is it really a zero-sum game? Should men’s perceived losses mean women’s gains and vice versa? I don’t think so. What’s occurring here is a redefinition of manhood, one that’s sparking a long-overdue shift toward more equity between men and women – in relationships, at home, and in the workplace. And that’s a good thing. It’s a shift that’s happening not only in developed countries like the U.S. and Sweden, but very slowly, too, in developing nations. For corners of the world mired in poverty, HIV and high maternal mortality rates, this reshaping of men’s roles can have a profound effect. When men work more alongside women, it can help reduce disease and violence as well as boost economies.

In my work with men and boys around the globe, I’ve found that to empower women, especially the world’s poorest women, it’s critical to work with men. Men can be engaged as caregivers – for their partners’ and their own health – as well as allies with women in achieving equality. They’ll indeed change their behaviors to strengthen women and support equality. And when men and women share power and responsibility, their lives improve.

For instance, I remember interviewing men who participated in a community loan program in rural Rwanda that initially was geared toward women. Then the program started including men. One participant, a disabled 44-year-old subsistence farmer, like his wife, told me:

“Men in my community thought I was controlled by my wife because I let her go out by herself and have her freedom when she was coming to the savings and loan group. But then I joined too. We invest together and we make even more money. I have confidence in myself. I don’t feel so self-conscious about my limp any more. And my wife seems to me more beautiful than she used to be, and our children are happier.”

From Brazil and Mexico to India and South Africa, we’ve collected stories of men who provide care for their children or relatives or who are involved in advocacy or activism to promote women’s rights. They are all roles that still too often contradict the expectations of men in those societies – for example, that domestic duties and caring for children are solely the work of women. In India, men in low-income areas reported doing housework when their wives were working or ill. They often did this with the curtains closed so their male peers would not ridicule them. They said that they – and their wives – were happier when they collaborated.

Governments can help foster such collaboration, too. Paternity leave, such as the generous one Sweden gives its fathers, is just one example. But it’s not only about men and work. Public policies also can have a role in changing social norms around what it means to be a man. Legislation can encourage men to participate more in caring for their children or in reducing violence. Policies also can help alter traditional expectations about men seeking health services or about who takes responsibility for a couple’s sexual health.

It will not be easy to achieve gender equality and to end the disadvantages women have long faced. But couples, communities and even countries are figuring it out. They’re finally realizing that “gender” is not shorthand for “women” only; gender equality requires working with women and men to benefit both of them. After all, studies show that the majority of the world’s adults live in cohabitating relationships, apparently like it that way and want to have children together. Most have figured out that cooperation is better than competition.   

The biggest challenge may be in our heads.

On a visit to an African country, I met with a United Nations representative working on women’s rights. As I handed her my business card, she looked surprised to see a man holding a senior post at a women’s research organization.

“So now you’re even taking our jobs in promoting women’s rights,” she said, half-joking, half-not.

 “Well, I see it this way,” I told her, “men can also work in gender equality so that women such as you can run for parliament and implement the policies we’re all advocating for.”

She looked at me as if I were from Mars.

Gary Barker directs ICRW’s work on gender, violence and rights.