Monday, 23 July 2007

Time for men to face up to the challenge of change

In examining gender-based problems such as violence against women and child abuse, is it time for men to cut the bullshit and face up to the reality of what they need to do to bring about positive change, I ask in this piece leading up to women's month.

August focuses on women; but it may be well to devote some of the attention to men. Of course many of the women’s group (perhaps correctly) point out that there is no place for men in their cause. After all, men are the source of many of their issues. They might also remind us that when men are included in key activities (on the matter of gender) they are (again) likely to dominate, and marginalise the voices of women.

Such women’s groups – strong, strident and angry – are needed (age-old problems sometimes require radical voices to foment fundamental change), although one might suggest they are more in the mould of women’s rights activists than gender campaigners.

However, we cannot get away from a focus on men. In struggling to realize the human rights of women, men are implicated in the solution. Even if changes in policy and law are won, we will need to see a change of mindset from men in particular, to bring about positive and democratic change.

For men, a good place to start is with ourselves. To look inwards; to review who we are and what we do; to change our attitudes, how we see things, and also how we react to the social challenge of getting involved.

I will suggest that we start by looking at ourselves in relation to three areas. Firstly, in the area of sexual relations, men need to be less selfish. They need to be focused less on the destination and take into account that women partners savor moments before and after sex, much more. In survey after survey, women complain that men are poor lovers (and are more inclined to get it all over within 60 seconds). They moan about our failure to understand that they see sex as part of the broader understanding of intimacy which, in their view, should often be linked to romance and to being valued and respected.

In a sense, our behaviour in relation to sex echoes a wider dysfunctionality with regard to relationships and to meeting the needs of our partners. The root of the problem here is many men are emotional misers/emotionally inarticulate /emotionally unastute. This affects the quality of sex with women who, I am told, respond better to blokes when the latter are more in tune with them and what they are going through.

Secondly, men need to look at issues around stress and inadequate communication in personal relationships. It starts when men fail to find the right balance between work, their own personal time and good social interaction. The long hours at work are seldom balanced with enough attention to the other dimensions within lifestyles. As a consequence, stressed out men bottle-in their problems. Those closest to us would like to talk to us about certain personal and family matters and about how we are coping, but they constantly hit a blank wall. In the end they withdraw or give up, and we are left in isolation. Such shutting down on the part of men exacerbates the pressures and often leads to excessive drinking, and to the insidious build-up of health risks.

Thirdly, men often don’t realize that they need friends and that they need to maintain good friendships. Men are almost always interacting with other men, but in most cases this is superficial. In most cases, “friends” are actually acquaintances and the links are maintained for opportunistic reasons: we work together, we are discussing a deal or, in desperation, we need someone to chill out with. As time moves on, we lose contact with close friends. When we meet in the street or the mall, we greet like old buddies and promise to link up, but never make the time. These are some of the questions: How do we select our friends, and do we value the really good guys in our life - or do we retreat? Do each of us have at least a single friend (a mate, as the Ozzies say) who will give us tough feedback and challenge us when we mess up? Who can tell us to cut the bullshit and face up to reality? Are we encircled by a close group of trusted male buddies that we can talk to about personal things, or are our associates just “die manne” that we enjoy drinking beer and discussing sport with.

Fifthly, men need to learn how to relate better to their kids. The same problems mentioned above (of withdrawing, of excess stress and of avoiding discussion of personal issues) damage our relationships with children. In building our families, communities and society, we need to be conscious of the wider impact and influence of how we relate to our kids. Relate badly, oppress them, close down their thinking, teach them bad habits with regard to personal relationships and we sow the seed for broader social dysfunction and pathology.

Although we must (and usually do) love all our kids equally, we are given particular responsibilities with regard to the boy child. We are expected to provide a role model and to provide guidance that would prepare the boy to go into the world and deal with its pressures, demands, opportunities and wonders. Let’s admit we don’t always know what to do and, especially during their teenage years, problems arise. We should be bold enough to talk to each other and seek out relevant information and advice. Our girl children of course also need preparation to go out into a world filled with entrenched attitudes and rules. We need to work with our partners to ensure we prepare our girl children to be confident and bold women, ones with the strength of character to pursue their goals in life with style and strength.

Another thing that puzzles me about men is what I sometimes see as “herd” instincts. Although men claim to be tough (and some of them openly admire intimidating and bullying behaviour as a style of managing and doing business), there is actually a great deal of cowardice in the ranks when push comes to shove or when the chips are down. The tendency of men to conform and to seek acceptance by who they view as having power is what contributes to conformity and the dearth of innovation.

In business, if the young men “copy” their forerunners (some call this mentoring) well enough, they are more likely promoted. If you don’t rock the boat, if you fit in, you stand a better chance of advancement and if you come from the same school and university as a key executive in the business, all things being equal, you are likely to be given the juiciest projects to run. Men also like to conform in other spheres. At a workshop with a group of young men in Alex some time ago, one young married man said he was loathe to help his wife by hanging out the washing in the yard. “My friends would mock me and claim I am under petticoat government”. Another said that friends told him that one needed to slap one’s girlfriend now and again so that she stayed in line and knew who wore the pants. He noted that it took courage to take a stand against such behaviours, but that for many guys, peer pressure takes the upper hand.

In organizational situations, this herd instinct (mainly from men) becomes a barrier to renewal and change. The effective change manager must devote a great deal of effort to breaking the “group think” by encouraging more open ended and creative responses to the possibilities and challenges in the environment.

These are the soft issues (although in change management we say the “soft stuff” is really the hardest); I now turn to the hard issues of sexual violence against women and what I view as the challenge to get involved in actions to combat the scourge. Many women’s groups prefer to go it alone on these issues. But such a line is a mistake. Not all men are perpetrators. And women need as many allies as they can muster to take up this issue. Men are well placed in corporations, in the legal system, in law enforcement and in the commanding heights of government. Winning them over (from a stance of bystanders/onlookers/condemners in the crowd to some form of concrete stance or action) can play a catalytic role in effectively combating sexual violence against women and girls.

We have to ask ourselves as men: in what ways does the general culture (how we view and treat women) contribute to an environment where violence against women can flourish? Are there areas or times (as in pub conversations) where we collude with views that see women as lesser beings, as ones who exist for the pleasure of men and as persons who are sometimes partly to blame for ill-treatment meted out to them.

Furthermore, in line with many public calls in recent years, the challenge is to join activities to highlight rape and sexual violence, and to call for social and legal reforms to eradicate these evils. Because you are I are not perpetrators, we cannot just fold our hands and claim that it is not our problem (especially when these evils and injustices spring from a society that we as human beings have created!). If we really find this violence repugnant, should we not be taking some form of stand or getting involved in practical action to eradicate such oppression of women?

1 comment:

Sharon said...

What a valuable article!! Every point that you have raised is worth pondering, but I do believe that most of us are in danger of swinging the balance the other way simply because we fail to recognise that men and women have absolutely got to move away from the blame game.

Never forget that men are also victims of gender engineering, just as much as women are. For me, the crux of the matter is that we do not recognise each other as having very similar yearnings, dreams and even ambitions. We as women, are just as responsible for the way we teach our sons, relate to our brothers, fathers, colleagues and husbands, but equally importantly, how we encourage our daughters, sisters, mothers and colleagues to relate to men. Balance, recognition of our similar needs and respect for individuality are so very important. Women often fail to see this just as men often actually excel at this. Over the years, I have discovered, distressingly, that women are emotional bullies just as men are physical bullies!! Do men highlight this aspect of women? It’s a must, if we are ever to reach harmony!!