The Fawcett Society has done a remarkable thing: it has asked men what they think about gender equality. The report, Sex Equality State of the Nation 2016, has led to the discovery of a new bedrock of support for gender equality in UK across all age ranges of men, particularly among older men.
This opens a new chapter in the campaign for gender equality. If men can be seen to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, then a much bigger and stronger lobby for equality can be built. Such a change needs the backing of an authority in the gender equality movement, and the Fawcett Society, the oldest gender equality organisation in the world celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is exactly the right organisation to do it.
Men as supporters of gender equality: a social norm
The report shows that the support by men for gender equality is now a thoroughly established social norm.
- 86% of men are in favour of gender equality (compared to 81% of women).
- 60% of men declared themselves in favour of the goals of feminism, though only 4% declared themselves to be feminist.
- Only 5% of men oppose feminism.
- 55% of men think men in top jobs won’t make room for women unless they have to.
- 73% of men believe a more equal society for women and men would be better for the economy. Even 50% of men and women who express a negative reaction to “feminism” think that equality is good for the economy.
- Only 7% of men believe they would lose out if men and women were more equal in society (similar to the proportion of women who feel this, 5%.)
- Over half of men believe more needs to be done about gender equality.
- Only 13% of men feel equality has gone too far, a similar figure to women (11%).
The report also highlights greater ambivalence about the equality agenda among younger men.
- 78% of 18-34 year olds support equality, compared with 87% of over 55 year olds.
- 69% of 18-34 year olds believe gender equality is good for the economy, compared to 77% of over 55 year olds.
- 20% of 25-34 year olds believe equality has gone too far, compared to 13% overall.
- 49% of 18-34 year olds believe men in top jobs will not make room for women unless they have to, compared to 68% of over 55 year olds.
- 10% of 25-34 year olds oppose feminism, compared to 3% of the general population.
- 61% of 18-34 year olds are in sympathy with feminism, compared to 72% of over 55 year olds.
On the other hand, younger men feel a greater urgency about more needing to be done: 37% of 18-34 year olds compared to 26% of over 55 year olds.
A particularly stark attitudinal difference emerges between men of 18-24 and those of 25-34: 4% of the young group feel they would be disadvantaged by equality, but this rises to 17% in the next age group up.
Women are also divided over gender equality
The report also reveals the extent of ambivalence about gender equality among women.
- 46% of women say they would not benefit from a more equal society – 25% of 18-24 year olds and 68% of over 65 year olds.
- 21% of women believe men and women are already equal.
- 11% of women feel equality has gone too far.
- 36% of women do not think that men in top jobs have to be pushed to make room for women.
- 81% of women do not identify as feminist and 26% declare themselves to be unsympathetic to feminism. 81% of 18-24 year old women say they are not feminists, and 87% of 25-34 year olds.
What does this imply for the future of gender equality campaigns?
The take-home message for me is that women and men who support equality have more in common with each other than with others of their own gender who oppose equality. The way the equality narrative has fractured into women/for and men/against is a major departure from the reality and has deprived the equality movement of a huge amount of energy and commitment for far too long.
The greater ambivalence among younger men is a cause for concern. A couple of years ago I interviewed four teenage boys interested in gender equality and asked them about their experiences of the debate. I found a palpable fear of the caustic conversation about gender equality on social media, where highly visible retribution can be instant if one expresses the “wrong” opinion. I wonder if the polarisation to which they are exposed in their on-line social interactions accounts for their greater ambivalence?
The striking increase in the number of men who feel they would be disadvantaged by equality between 18-24 (4%) and 25-34 (17%) is a cause for concern. Could this be a response to parenthood, where men and women divide roles and amend their beliefs about gender equality accordingly as they encounter the constraints on sharing roles in parenthood, as researchers have shown happens to both men and women?
The Fawcett Society is setting about a new venture. Instead of interpreting the lack of engagement by men as typical unreconstructed masculine behaviour, it is genuinely asking what is happening and discerning differences among men. In so doing it is also exploring what is keeping many women at bay. This will open the door to a new possibility: uniting supporters of equality in UK, irrespective of their gender. My particular hope is that the Fawcett Society finds a way of engaging younger men by creating a place where real exploration about equality can take place without any fear of humiliation.