Could teenage boys protesting in skirts create gender equality for both men and women?
A group of 17 Welsh boys made headlines this week by turning up at school dressed in skirts to demand sex equality for boys!
The boys, aged 14 and 15, were fed up of being forced to wear long trousers in the middle of a heatwave, when the girls at their school can choose to cover or bare their legs.
The brave boys don’t particularly want to wear skirts, but they would like the choice of wearing shorts or trousers which they see as being equivalent to girls being able to choose skirts or trousers.
As one of the campaigning young men, Tyrone Evelyn, said: “It’s just appropriate for the weather – we don’t want to be hot and bothered. Girls can wear skirts, so I don’t see why we can’t wear shorts. It’s a reasonable protest.”
A similar campaign was staged by Swedish train drivers last month and both incidents highlight how rigidly men and boys can be policed to ensure gender conformity is maintained.
And yet our gender norms are clearly in transition here in the United Kingdom as elsewhere. This week the Queen gave the royal stamp of approval to gay marriage in England and Wales.
This is good news for all men and boys. As our perceptions of what constitutes a “normal” marriage become less rigid, so too our beliefs about what a “real man” should or shouldn’t do become more fluid. As Mark McCormack, author of The Declining Significance of Homophobia observes “decreased homophobia results in the expansion of gendered behaviors available to young men.”
This doesn’t mean that we men have to behave differently—or that there is necessarily something wrong with our existing behaviour— but it does mean that a broader range of behaviours, ways of being and life experiences become available for us to choose from if we so desire.
Having choice (including the choice to stay the same) sounds very reasonable if only it were so simple. Gender is not presented to us like a menu of options from which we pick and chose, it is learned and lived in relationship with the world around us.
And in the world around us—as the beskirted boys in Wales demonstrated this week—there are still many systems and cultural attitudes in place that shape men’s beliefs and behaviors.
There are many ways in which men and boys are denied the freedom to explore and express a range of gendered behaviors and the dress codes that are forced upon us are the most overt example—so overt in fact they we are unaware of the invisible hand of convention helping us to “choose” what we wear each time we go out in public.
When it comes to growing our hair, wearing jewelry, wearing ties, choosing how we cover our legs (or not) schools, employers and event organizers are free to enforce more rigid rules on men and boys than they enforce on women and girls.
The legal rationale for this discrimination, according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the UK, is that “employers do not have to impose exactly the same dress code on men and women, if the dress code applies ‘conventional standards of dress and appearance’”.
And therein lies the gender transition trap that buttons up men and boys. The way we express gender is transitioning from the conventional to the post-conventional—from an age where we have expressed our gendered roles in distinct and separate masculine and feminine spheres, to a future where men and women are fully expressed and enabled to operate in many different spheres and adopt roles that are flexible and interchangeable.
To understand how that gender transition is taking shape, it’s helpful to look at three distinct but overlapping elements that are changing—our spheres, our roles and the way we express our gender.
There was a time when we mostly occupied separate spheres—the public sphere of men and the private sphere of women and children. Gender transition begins when women begin to enter different aspects of the public sphere such as education, politics, career and so on.
As women step into the “masculine” sphere their roles change as do their ways of expressing gender. In World War II, for example, women took on a broader range of working roles than ever before and in 1944 five times more women’s trousers were sold than the previous year.
It’s interesting to compare this transition with the skirt-wearing boys in Wales. The boys already share a co-educational sphere where the official roles that boys and girls can play will be generally equal, but ways of expressing gender through clothing are policed. The Welsh boys aren’t saying that they want to dress “like girls”, they’re saying they want the same range of choice that girls have. If girls can choose to wear trousers or skirts, then why can’t they choose to wear shorts or trousers, particularly in the middle of a heat wave?
This is similar to the way women entered the public “masculine” sphere. They didn’t say we want to take on the breadwinner role and have a man at home looking after the house and kids, they simply said we want the same choices as men. If men can choose to vote, go to university and have a career then why can’t we?
And so gradually, over time, systemic barriers that prevented women entering the “masculine” public sphere as equals have been removed and the proportion of women in university, work and politics continues to grow.
Even so, our protesting schoolboys in Wales belong to a generation of young men whose beliefs and behaviours around the gendered nature of parenting are in transition.
According to Professor Lynda Gratton at the London Business School, research studies are showing that younger men “are asking profound questions about how they are going to integrate active parenthood with their professional lives”.
Gratton says one of the key barriers these young men will face is “a rigid corporate mindset”and “out-of-touch policies” that are “preventing the concept of fatherhood from evolving in the workplace”. Even so, the way young men view the gendered role of father is not about being a hands-off economic provider, it’s about “paying attention, nurturing, listening, mentoring, and most of all, being present”, says Gratton.
When we look again at those three distinct but overlapping elements of gender—our spheres, our roles and the way we express ourselves as men—they are changing at different speeds.
Men’s and women’s behaviour is changing year after year with more women spending more time earning and more men spending more time on childcare.
As the gendered behaviours available to young men expand perhaps the most significant change of all is the gradual fading away of the “boys don’t cry” conditioning that has helped create generations of stoical men. Stoics don’t complain about having to wear trousers to school, they “man up” and get on with it.
Men who have access to a wider range of ways of expressing gender are better equipped to complain about things that affect them personally as men—if the system seeks to enforce them to conform to unacceptable gender rules, then they’ll slip on a skirt and demand equal or equivalent choices.
For this new generation of young men, perhaps the personal is becoming political. Maybe this generation of young men will make greater progress in facing down the systemic and cultural barriers that have left men mostly stuck in the “masculine” public sphere. And maybe together with their straight partners (and their gay friends) they’ll accelerate the transition to a post-conventional world where men and women are fully expressed and enabled to operate in many different spheres and adopt roles and behaviours that are flexible and interchangeable.
If this is what’s possible for this generation then for all our sakes let’s give them a pair of shorts to wear to school and let them get on with it.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Sonali Campion