Monday, 20 July 2015

The Role of Men in Womens' Rights Campaigns

Having just finished Annabelle Crabb's excellent book "The Wife Drought", I feel like I have a much better understanding of some of the struggles women face in the workforce, and in society generally. I could pour pages and pages of type through my keyboard, and only scratch the surface.

Whilst I never thought of myself as a chauvinist, the book certainly changed my perspective on the difficulties faced by women, and probably did more to convince me to declare myself a feminist than anything else. For the sake of this article, let's take it as agreed that I am a feminist, and that I want to do more to support women's progression towards equality.

This, then, raises its own problems.  What should my role be, as a privileged male, in campaigning for women's rights?

One militantly feminist view is that, as a man, I could not possibly add anything to the debate. What could I possibly understand about what women go through on a daily basis? I think this is almost as damaging a view as the traditional chauvinist perspective which supports the ongoing inequality in women's rights. This view ignores the essential contributions which must be made by men in advancing women's rights.

An equally damaging view is that the improvements in women's positions can only be attributed to men. This view often espouses the argument that 'men voted for women to have the vote'. This too,
ignores the essential role of women in promoting their own rights.

Both of these views (and lots of views which fall somewhere in the middle) assume that the merit of a person's arguments or actions depends solely on which side of the power imbalance they are. Either men's actions are inherently more virtuous because they come from a position of power, or they are worthless, because they come from a position of privilege. Either women's contributions inherently more valuable because they come from a more challenging position, or women's agency can only be attributed to the concessions of men.

Needless to say, both of these views miss many essential
points. This brings us back to the role that men should take in debates.

When I dip my toe into the scalding waters of equity debates, I often feel like I have to be careful not to be too vocal in suggesting options or alternatives, or calling out sexism. I feel like I sometimes risk being shouted down by militant feminists for presuming to have a view. On the other hand, I think that if I stay quiet, and don't speak out against oppressive, bigoted, sexist comments, I am 'guilty by omission.' "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept."

On the other hand, I have to accept that my opinions are coloured by my privileged position. I am a straight, white, educated male. I have had everything handed to me on a platter. I have not had to convince others that my gender should not prevent me from being employed, or makes me a riskier investment. I have no real lived experience of inequality. Reading feminist literature does not give me the right to think I have all the answers. I think, therefore, that I have to be sensitive in this debate.

I love intense discussions. I love stating a case, and then defending it. I love being shown how wrong I am, or having my views vindicated. Either way, I have learned something.

Someone once suggested that we should consider people's opinions without considering who they are. This, while a nicely moralistic idea, ignores the fact that some opinions are worth more than others. The opinions of people who have studied and researched, and obtained qualifications, are inherently more valuable than those of people who have just come up with an idea and published it online. (Such as this one!). The opinion of a woman who has succeeded in climbing the corporate ladder should be given more weight than the opinion of a man who has hopped from job to job as a sales assistant. That doesn't mean that his view is meaningless, it just means that the woman's view is likely to be based on real experience.

What the internet often misses, though, is that the sales-assistant who hopped from job to job, might just have come up with an idea which we should all be thinking about. The CEO of a multinational might be espousing an outdated theory, or might just have been 'lucky.'

The lawyer blogging to himself might have hit a nail on the head, or his years of study into law, might have completely failed to make him a qualified feminist.

So I think that while we need to be sensitive about what we contribute to discussions about women's rights, we also should be free to have and express our view, especially if we are willing to engage in rational debate about its merits.

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