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 Four (21-25 July 2003)
Wrap-up week

My thanks to all who have participated in this week's discussion, and in the seminar as a whole. Over the four weeks we have had around 70 contributions, from activists, practitioners and researchers, from 27 different countries. This represents a great fund of experience and ideas, which I am sure will be put to good use.


In the wrap-up discussion, many colleagues made observations on ways of encouraging men and boys to contribute to gender equality. The methods discussed include:

Informal educational work in intimate settings, such as the family (Rachna Singh)

Awareness raising and strategic discussions within institutions, such as the UN itself (James Lang)

Specific programs for men & boys within public sector institutions such as health and education, including reproductive health (Tom Beardshaw, Tanya Shahriar)

Public policy settings that support equal participation in the workplace, sharing of domestic work & childcare (Sonja Uher, Tom Beardshaw)

Community education programs by NGOs focussing on issues about men's practices (Jorge Lyra, Irma Tobing)

Gender equality movements among men, such as anti-violence movements (Michael Flood).

These methods are not sharply distinct. It is likely that progress with any one of them will support other forms of action.


The discussion also identified a number of important problems that confront any attempts to change men's and boys' gender practices in the direction of gender equality.

These include limited societal support for gender equality (Tanya Shahriar), and lack of concern for issues about men and boys in many public sector institutions and programs (Jorge Lyra). Men may have a divided consciousness: as Rachna Singh points out, fathers may support gender equality for their daughters but not for their wives.

Both popular and professional frames of thought about gender can make it difficult to imagine or practice change. It is common to think categorically about gender, "women are (all) like this" and "men are (all) like that". Jorge Lyra gives a good example, mentioning young men's beliefs that the male body is simpler than the female body and that physical frailty means femininity - beliefs which lead to under-use of health services and difficulties with health education.

There are also problems about the process of organizing about gender equality among men and boys. Irma Tobing notes a predominance of boys among school dropouts (in some countries) - this removes boys from the institutions where gender education can most easily occur. Jonathan Scourfield points out a tendency for menswork to be socially polarized, with those interventions most concerned with gender equality tending to be interventions targeted on working-class and marginalized men. Rumana Hashem notes how the minority of men working for gender equality are likely to be stereotyped as effeminate and liable to be intimidated. Mark Justad and Michael Flood also comment on the ambiguous political position of men contesting men's benefits in a patriarchal society. Our own seminar shows the ease with which mistrust can arise in discussion of these issues.

Strategies concerning men intersect, as a number of contributors to the seminar have noted, with other issues of inequality - class and race for instance. James Lang points to the interplay with global inequality and privilege, and Audrey Jones mentions broad differences between the developed and the developing world. I would add an issue from my own research, the emergence of new arenas of gender inequality under "globalization", e.g. the workforce of transnational corporations and the operation of global media and markets. The men who hold power in such arenas are not easily influenced by local interventions.


It is often easier to identify difficulties than paths forward, but our discussion has also had something to say about opportunities. A gradual shift of opinion towards gender equality, especially among younger men, has been mentioned several times in the seminar. This sometimes arises from a broad commitment to social justice and human rights, which as Audrey Jones observes are readily acknowledged by men and boys. Though men continue to hold power around the world, as Rumana Hashem points out, we may also acknowledge that this is not a monolithic patriarchy. There are elements in most men's consciousness that a program for equality can address.

"Men" are not a homogeneous group, any more than "women" are. There are divisions of interest among men, as Mike Messner argues, which align some groups of men, on some issues, with women or specific groups of women. Kathleen Lynch (in the "Value" discussion) makes the same point, noting how for many men, the gain from patriarchy is more symbolic than material, may even be illusory. As Sixtus Kennedy Otieno observes, trying to live up to an imaginary image of masculinity leads to many damaging consequences. A more gender-equal society will not be to the advantage of all men compared with the world we now live in, but it may be to the advantage of a majority of men. (The difficulty is that the men who have most to lose are currently those who have most power.) There is potential for alliances and joint action on a range of issues.


Our task in this seminar has been to explore issues rather than come up with a plan of action; even so, some concrete proposals have emerged. They include:

Expanding research on men's and boys' beliefs about gender and support for gender equality (Rachna Singh)

Changed public policy regimes to support employment equality and create pressure against gendered violence (Caroline Dumounteil, Tom Beardshaw)

Developing partnership and cooperation between men's and women's groups and movements (Michael Flood, James Lang)

Improving child care support for low income families (Sonja Uher).

I am sure many people could add more concrete proposals to this short list. I would add, also, a more general thought. Mark Justad mentions a vital fact - men are shaped by patriarchy but are not entirely limited by it. We have a capacity to imagine a world beyond patriarchy, and it is important not only to take practical actions towards equality, but also to exercise that imagination. As Josephine Ngalula puts it, men cannot build or develop the world alone; men need ways of imagining how to do it in equality with women.

Though the developed world often prides itself on achieving gender equality, there is more inequality than most people believe, and the gains of the past are not secure for the future. To take just one example: much of the content of mass media in the developed world still presents to young people exploitative images of women, violent images of men, and reactionary ideas about gender. There is still a tremendous struggle to be conducted, as the UNESCO charter famously put it, "in the minds of men".

Again, thank you for your participation. I have greatly valued our conversation, and I hope it will continue in many other forums.


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

Website: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
United Nations