Men recognizing their gendered privileges is the first step in leveling the playing field between the sexes, J. Ron Crawford writes.
I’m a white male in America. I’m tall, healthy, and consider myself decent-looking. I grew up in a stable home with two loving parents and many opportunities. I played sports and made good grades. I work hard for things and I think that I’m smart.
But I am aware that I am extremely privileged.
In trying to understand these privileges, I’ve found that gender inequality is wound up tightly in a fear of rejection and lack of self-confidence that many men cannot escape. Avoiding frank talk of sexual issues (and sexual performance) often leads men to fear female power and push to subjugate women. The changing roles of women in society, from the office to the home, have left many men uncertain of what their roles will become, and have amplified those fears.
A common example of gender bias is found in workplace salaries.
My wife is smarter than I am, in many ways. She’s more organized and more inwardly creative. We’re both architects, but she’s a better one.
But even so, I’ve always expected that my salary should be higher than hers. At first, when we were starting out together, I told myself it was simply because I had one more year of experience in the field—an incredibly minor difference. Later, I accepted the reality that men make more money than women and that if I wasn’t making more than her, I was not getting the cut that I deserved.
Is that fair? Of course it’s not.
I have no idea what women in my own company earn. But that’s entirely beside my point. My point is that between the two of us, my wife and me, I have expected to be paid more, for no real reason other than the fact that it is a statistical societal norm. I expect those norms to apply to us and feel cheated if they do not.
I don’t want to be the primary breadwinner, I expect to be. The former is competition-based, appealing to my own sense of self-worth or ego, whatever that may be. The latter is basic privilege, an assumption that society’s rules will (whether they should or not) treat me differently than her. And for the most part, they do.
What would happen if this all were to change—if male and female salaries were equal? Well, for us, I don’t think it would make a lot of difference, because she is still working as an artist and college professor. As such, I don’t fear equal pay, but many men do, and the uncertainties that may come with that are very real.
My wife and I follow some elements of a “traditional” household (she spends much more time caring for the kids and I spend much more time on the road), but if she didn’t have her own career, pay equality would matter much more to us. A household with the husband as sole breadwinner and company man has much more invested in maintaining that traditional male privilege.
Households with one working parent aren’t exactly “traditional”—only upper-class women could afford not to have a job throughout most of history, and they were never the majority. While mid-20th Century America extended that lifestyle to a majority of families, we are returning to that historical norm, where only wealthy women will have such a choice. In fact, by 2002 only 7% of American families consisted of children, a working father and stay-at-home mother. Our return to the earlier norm of a majority of women holding jobs, however, is much different than before.
It is different not only because women now enjoy equal protection under the law. It is different because all women seeking their own work, whether out of necessity or self-fulfillment, are doing so with real and effective birth control.
That changes everything, especially the long-term dynamics of power. As Sara Robinson recently wrote:
With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before. We could choose to delay childbearing and limit the number of children we raise; and that, in turn, freed up time and energy to explore the world beyond the home. We could refuse to marry or have babies at all, and pursue our other passions instead. Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by the men—education, the trades, the arts, government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.
Modern forms of birth control have given women many of the freedoms that men have always had. This is terrifying to many men because they see the loss of their own societal privilege and especially their personal status.
When women gain power and experience many men simply believe that they, in turn, lose it. While some men see marriage or friendship as being part of a team, and are thrilled for their partner to gain power, others see a very different “traditional” dynamic, defining their own importance by their undisputed role as the head of household.
The logic of an anti-feminist is fairly straightforward, even if the circuitous biblical justifications for it are not always easy to follow. It dictates that a woman’s career ambitions are a threat to her husband’s ego, value, and “natural” role as leader of his castle, and therefore a threat to his relevance.
Rejection and loneliness appear to be a much greater possibility for these men in this new world. Wise women and female leaders are very threatening for any man who already subconsciously questions whether he has earned or deserves his role. It’s much simpler to look to the teachings of those who say women should go back to their traditional role than it is to consider examining one’s own wisdom and relationships with loved ones.
Even those men who are not threatened by female power have had to consciously learn from and adapt to it. We’re generally not socialized for these changes to be OK, and we have to acquire the self-confidence to embrace it. Our fear of losing privileges is closely tied to our fears of rejection, and we can’t overcome one without the other.
This fear of rejection obviously extends to sexual history. Men are threatened by women’s past partners because they fear they won’t measure up. As a result we have men who attempt to shame women for having sex, or for enjoying it. Since those women may be enjoying sex with other men, and not them, they feel diminished and weakened when they imagine other men achieving what they cannot.
If you think this behavior is paranoid and juvenile, you’re right. My wife makes a distinction between “men” and adult “boys” among the people we know. This has nothing to do with their careers, income, relationship status, or other “ego markers.” The terminology can generally be distilled to how they view women.
Men that are more controlling or lack the self-confidence required not to be aggressive or threatened tend to fall into the “boy” category. The consistent thread they share is their condescension toward women and fear of closeness or openness. Those that support women in their aspirations and are genuinely comfortable with strong women tend to fall into the “man” category. Part of this is her definition of masculinity, which many others share, of course. Part of it, as I’ve learned over time, is literal maturity. Those she calls “boys” often have been so sheltered that they have never had to confront their own privilege, or learn from it. They have never had to grow up.
To be fair, these aren’t simple shifts for some men to make. One does not easily go from insisting that female freedom is immoral to dreaming their daughter will become the next PJ Harvey. It takes serious self-evaluation. I have seen acquaintances turn from boys to men after a divorce, for example. That’s a difficult and unfortunate way to get there, but more engaged and supportive men have emerged afterward.
In my own life, I was forced to confront those feelings of inadequacy in much less earth-shattering situations. Once, for example, in my early twenties, I dated a woman who was very adventurous and would talk openly about her past boyfriends. Her most recent boyfriend at the time was doing quite well in the NBA.
I was three years younger than him, and as far as I knew he was a millionaire. I was, on the other hand, an intern who could barely pay my rent. I would see him on TV, eight inches taller than me, with arms literally twice the size of mine, and feel threatened. Still, I cared for her and trusted her, and I understood that she cared for me. So I had no choice but to accept that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have his strength, his money, or his fame. I was better for her than he was; she said so and I believed her.
That was a specific moment in time, when I looked at myself and realized how little he or anyone else from her past actually mattered. I had no reason to be jealous. I was beginning to be liberated from my fear of being inadequate, and that feeling of liberation—of self-confidence in the moment—stayed with me well after we parted ways. What I learned, and continued to learn, was that I didn’t negatively compare the women that I had dated, why would she (or any woman that I would trust) do the same to me?
It takes learned confidence and self-awareness for men to accept women as partners. Some can never get to that point, continually seeking younger women with less experience in the world. Frankly, it’s sad to watch, for it shows just how far those men have to go in order to be truly comfortable with their own place in the world, or confident in their own ability to please.
I’ve learned that life is better when I am aware of when and how my own privileges exist. I’ll always have more to learn. I can be a better husband, a better father to my boy and girl. Evaluating the privileges that I have as a man inevitably leads me closer to understanding the prejudices my wife faces, and that my daughter may one day face. I simply hope I can understand those prejudices well enough to help them confront them, wherever they occur, and to guide my son to do the same.