United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

Online Discussion

"The role of men and boys in achieving gender equality"

30 June - 25 July 2003

Week One (30 June-4 July 2003)
"The world of work"

The postings on this topic have raised a very wide range of issues. I will try to summarize the main themes, in a way that may be useful for the next stage of our discussion.


Colleagues from different parts of the world describe gender patterns, at work and at home, that are significantly different from each other. Compare, for instance, Janet Brown's description of working-class families in the Caribbean where women are often heads of households, with Rahul Roy's description of working-class families in Delhi where women have difficulty asserting even limited autonomy. Babatunde Ipaye describes a pattern of relative workplace equality in Nigeria which is very different from Charles Goolsby's description of marked gender inequality in low-pay workplaces in the USA. I conclude that we cannot expect a single solution to gender equality, or a simple strategy for men that will work everywhere.

At the same time, common themes emerge from diverse backgrounds. Postings from different countries raise similar issues - about work/home relationships, economic inequalities, men's self-images, education, etc. Provided we acknowledge local diversity, there are issues that can and should be taken up on an international basis.


The postings mention at least five different types of workplaces. In each of them, gender equality issues may take a different shape. They are:

1. The middle-class or professional workplace, where a trend towards equality follows the rising rate of higher education among women (Janet Brown).

2. Manual workplaces in the formal economy, where contracts and unions have some control and "family-friendly" policies are possible - though at present mainly used for women's child care.

3. Manual workplaces in the informal economy, un-regulated and un-unionized, where women's wages are exceptionally low, though men are often unemployed or intermittently employed (Rahul Roy).

4. The household as a workplace - (a) for paid domestic workers, both women and men, where issues of autonomy and violence arise (Radhika Chopra); (b) for unpaid workers, overwhelmingly women, whose "caring" work supports the education of children and the paid employment of men (Rachna Singh).

5. Outdoor primary industry, such as agriculture or the fishing industry (Carolyne Odhiambo), where gender segregation may be extreme.


Workplace gender inequality is multidimensional - it is not a single problem. The postings on this issue identify the following forms of workplace inequality:

1. Differences in wage rates, security of employment, capacity to get alternative employment (Rahul Roy, Radhika Chopra).

2. The type of work - distinctions between "men's work" and "women's work", both paid and unpaid (Carolyne Odhiambo, Babatunde Ipaye).

3. Workplace conditions - physical conditions, overcrowding, oppressive supervision, hours of work (Rahul Roy).

4. Violence, either directed against women, or tending to exclude them from public processes (Carolyne Odhiambo, Radhika Chopra).

5. Sexual exploitation, by employers or supervisors (Charles Goolsby).


Men and boys have a number of reasons for not wanting change in gender arrangements, and sometimes face difficulties if they do want, or support, change. Those identified in our discussion are:

1. Socialized expectations of being cared for, lack of skills in domestic work or practice in caring work (Rachna Singh).

2. Public policies, or employer practices, that make it cheaper or easier for families to maintain old breadwinner/housewife patterns, e.g. "family friendly" measures available only to mothers (Tom Beardshaw, Renee Laiviera).

3. Conceptions of masculinity which make it difficult for men to accept equality - ideas of physical strength, being the breadwinner, rejecting activities such as caring as "unmanly" (Carolyne Odhiambo, Babatunde Ipaye).

4. Fear of social stigma, or loss of dignity, if men allow women of the family to work outside the home, or if they depend on women's earnings (Rahul Roy).


At the same time, our discussion has identified a number of reasons why men and boys might want to move towards equality:

1. The negative impact on men's life and health of the "breadwinner" model and the "long hours" syndrome; men's desire for a better work/life balance (James Lang, Renee Laiveiera, Tom Beardshaw).

2. Men's commitment to social justice or human rights principles, applied to gender issues (James Lang).

3. Survival needs, in conditions of poverty where more flexibility in gender arrangements gives better economic chances (James Lang).

4. Desire for more active fatherhood, or to follow through on commitments to fatherhood already made (Tom Beardshaw, Janet Brown).

5. Pressures on working men that arise from the gender system and limit the quality of their working life or their economic flexibility (Rahul Roy, Radhika Chopra).


What can men and boys to, to realize these positive desires or principles? Our discussion has identified a variety of moves that men can make, including:

1. Using men's existing power or authority, to change the culture in a more equal direction, for instance changing gender stereotypes in educational materials (Laura Grunberg, Jennifer Jadwero, Babatunde Ipaye).

2. Relating to women in the workplace as persons, rather than as members of a gender category (Rachna Singh).

3. Picking up "women's work", especially caring work in the home (Rachna Singh).

4. Strengthening workers' organizations, especially in the informal economy, and integrating gender equality into union principles (Rahul Roy).

5. Modelling gender equality, e.g. by recruiting women to organizations, where they are underrepresented (James Lang, Carolyne Odhiambo).

6. Changing public policies to support more equal sharing of domestic work, and equality and safety in the workplace (Tom Beardshaw, Charles Goolsby, Renee Laiviera).

I am sure that with further thought, we can develop these proposals in a number of directions. I think this has been a very useful exploration of the issues, and I warmly thank all the participants.


Go to summaries for: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four or
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Division for the Advancement of Women -- DAW

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