Have you ever met someone who complains about sex discrimination against one gender and then supports sex discrimination when it’s the other way around? Our International Men’s Movement editor Glen Poole shares some personal experiences of sexism in surprising places.
The first job was as a cleaner where the female boss spent the interview telling me how much better women are at cleaning than men.
Then I went for a job as a barman only to be told by the male boss that he wanted a barmaid because the men who drank there preferred to be served by women.
Finally, I was given a one-hour trial at a food-processing plant. They set me the challenge of standing around a barrel with a group of older women peeling potatoes to see if I could get along with the all-female team. I don’t know if it was man’s innate inability to prepare vegetables or the belief that women get on better with women that swung it, but they decided they didn’t want a man on their team.
All of this took place in 1980s Blackpool, a depressed seaside resort about 50 miles north of Liverpool in the North of England. Unemployment was at its peak in the UK and most local jobs for young people were in retail or leisure. I became acutely aware of how many businesses put handwritten notes in their windows advertising for women—“waitress required”, “barmaid wanted”, “female shop assistant, apply within”.
I got hold of some guidelines explaining how to complain about sex discrimination through the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). There were lots of examples of women being discriminated against and making complaints. The best case study told the story of a woman who was refused work on a building site for being too weak and female. She walked into court carrying sacks of cement on her shoulder and promptly won her case.
I fantasized for a while about walking into court with a duster, cleaning the place perfectly; serving up a beer for with a cheeky barmaid’s wink and preparing some vegetables while making girly small talk with any women present—but it just didn’t have the same sense of triumph over the status quo as being an empowered woman claiming the right to take on a “man’s role”.
I decided that the vacant position of gender warrior was not looking for male applicants at this particular time. Fortunately, I’d become a beneficiary of these sexist employment policies by getting a “men-only” job at a local haberdashery. According to the male owner, he mostly employed girls because they’re more sensible than boys—but as “girls have periods and boys are good at lifting things”, the job was mine.
So at 17 years old I finally entered the workforce in no doubt that while the laws on equality said one thing, the world did another—carrying stuff was men’s work and complaining about sex discrimination was a job for women who wanted to prove they were as good as any man.
Years later when I had media skills and was a full-time dad I saw an advert for a press officer at the Equal Opportunities Commission. I phoned to ask if the one year of parental leave they gave women would apply to me if we had a second child —as the primary carer in our household I was the one who would need to take the time off, not my wife.
Guess what? The Equal Opportunities Commission told me it would only give parental leave to female staff who had babies and wouldn’t support any male staff who were primary carers to take the time off work. Who do you complain to when the people in charge of challenging sex discrimination discriminate against men?
The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up in 1975 to enforce the Equal Pay Act and promote gender equality. It published reports highlighting how women “shouldering the burden” of childcare helps cause the gender pay gap. And yet when it came to supporting families where dad is “shouldering the burden” of childcare, they refused to give dads the same support they give to mums.
It’s interesting to note that the Equal Opportunities Commission used to be run by a team of women-only commissioners. They didn’t put handwritten job adverts in their office window saying “commissioners wanted, boys need not apply”, but they might as well have done.
The first man to break through the glass partition at the Equal Opportunities Commission was Duncan Fisher, an expert on the systemic barriers faced by dads who want to share, or take on fully, the responsibilities of childcare.
Duncan is a decorated pro-feminist who was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to children as CEO of The Fatherhood Institute.
He has long been highlighting the fact that the countries which give parents the most equal parental leave rights are the countries which tend to have the narrowest gender pay gap.
Despite this knowledge, in 2006 the UK introduced “one of the most unequal parenting leave entitlement regimes in the world”, he says.
As well as exacerbating the gender pay gap for women, this approach to parental leave also has an impact on what happens to dads when they separate.
The countries with the most equal and supportive parental leave systems seem to be the countries where separated dads are most involved in their children’s lives.
In Sweden, which is generally hated by men’s rights activists as “the world’s most feminist country”, separated fathers are three times more likely to share the custody and parenting of their children than in the UK.
Let’s be clear, the parenting gap for separated dads in Sweden is still huge – and its notably narrower than other countries that have excluded dads from their thinking when it comes to parental leave rights.
And I’ve yet to find a Fathers’ Rights campaign that fights for equal parental leave rights for mums and dads when children are born with the same passion they fight or equal rights for dads when they separate.
Looking back on my own fatherhood journey, I’d like to have had equal rights as a dad every step of the way. It’s over 25 years since I entered the world of work and I can see now that there was a path I wanted to follow as a man that my culture wasn’t prepared for.
I didn’t want a ‘man job’ I wanted a ‘me job’ and I didn’t want to be a dad who earned enough money to employ my partner to be a full-time mum—I wanted to be a full-time dad and be financially independent.
A great career, a great income and a great hands-on dad—that’s what I personally aspired to and while I’ve had my glimpses, I haven’t ticked all the boxes.
I also ticked boxes I didn’t know existed, particularly in terms of relationships, friendships and personal growth. And as my personal concerns have shifted from the egocentric to the ethnocentric to the worldcentric, I’ve become interested in the change I want to see for everyone, not just for me.
I want future generations of boys and girls to grow up in cultures that don’t simply stick them in “man jobs” or “woman jobs”, I want us to help each child discover their unique brilliance so they can live their lives to the full in ways that serves themselves and serves others.
I want every parent to have real choice in the role they play in bringing up their children and I want men and women (and every other gender imaginable) to learn to work in partnership with each other no matter what their gender is.
This isn’t about reversing roles or making everything 50:50, it’s about empowering individuals to make choices that work for themselves and work for others. Understanding how we do gender is not the only pathway to this and I’m telling you ‘siblings’, it’s a part of the journey we can’t ignore
If your view of gender problems is filtered through the belief that women ‘have’ problems and men ‘are’ problems then you end up with solutions that support women and penalize men. And if you think men ‘have’ problems and women ‘are’ problems the reverse is also true.
One of life’s ironies is that I ended up working for the Equal Opportunities Commission when they hired the media relations consultancy that I worked for. We got along fine until someone heard me on radio advocating for fathers’ rights and I became persona non grata.
I took it personally at the time. My views on gender equality weren’t politically constructed at that stage, they were simply born out of personal experience. I grew up aware that women faced sexism and discrimination and then experienced sexism and discrimination as a man.
It was the most natural thing in the world for me to be concerned with both and a huge wake-up call when I discovered that those who are charged with tackling sex discrimination against women often endorse sex discrimination against men.
A decade on, having worked on the gender equation from many different angles, I can see strengths, weaknesses and diversity on all sides.
When it comes to shared parenting for example, one feminist perspective is that men’s unwillingness to “lean in”, “pull their weight” and “share the burden” of childcare holds back women’s progress – if only those patriarchal men would change, women could have equality.
On the other side one men’s rights perspective is that women’s refusal to relinquish “ownership” and “control” of their children prevents separated dads from sharing their kids—if only we could “defeat feminism” and change the laws that discriminate against dads, men would have equality.
When you ask people individually what the cause of these problems is the answer is clear – it’s either men, women, feminism or the patriarchy. And the solution is equally clear—it’s either men changing, women changing, defeating feminism or dismantling the patriarchy.
From a personal perspective I’ve found that men, women, feminism and the patriarchy have all resisted the path that I want to take as a man at different times.
I’ve found I’m most empowered as a man—particularly when trying to change things outside of me—when I change what’s inside first.
And I’ve found that considering how the problems that women and men face can provide us with opportunities to help each other grow and flourish and fulfil our potential — to be far more rewarding and effective than any other approach I’ve taken to solve gender problems.
All the external gender problems I’ve personally faced have been because I’m viewed by someone else as “the wrong gender” or the “the wrong gender ideology”.
My parting invitation to you is this—the next time you find yourself thinking that someone’s gender or gender ideology is a problem—stop saying to yourself “what’s their problem?” and start asking yourself “what’s their potential?”
—Photo credit: adactio/Flickr
Further Reading: We’ve Got To Learn To Talk About Men