Why men need to talk about, with and listen to women.
I think it was in the middle of my university days when I swamped myself with comedy tapes from charity shops that I really started opening my mind to a whole host of issues that until then I’d been blind to. Not wilfully you understand. It was simply the stuff that was either never discussed or that I never had access to in what were the couple of decades before the internet exploded upon us.
It’s difficult trying to put this in terms without anything sounding loaded, pre-judgemental, or running the risk of getting tied up in theoretical knots because different terms mean different things to different people. To some, the title alone may give reactions to “Oh, he’s talking about feminism. And if there’s one thing I don’t like it’s those feminazis! Yeah – Pooffles, why do you hate men?!?!?” to “Oh that’s nice, he’s showing he has a sensitive side” to “That’s it Puffles – bite their bollocks off too!!!”
Dammit! That’s me being pre-judgemental.
Let’s look at political institutions first
This one really does stem from my university days listening to an old Ben Elton comedy tape. It was first released at the time when they first allowed the broadcast of adverts for sanitary towels and tampons. Elton tore into Parliament and how sexist it was – along the lines of:
“Well that must have been an interesting day in Parliament. “What shall we do today gentlemen? Put the unemployment back to work? Ban nuclear weapons? Solve global poverty? No! Let’s ban tampon adverts from the telly!!!””
He then went onto tear into one brand which apparently had the advertising tag line of
“Ladies, do you have a secret?”
…before reminding everyone that approximately half of the world’s population were going to, were already or had experienced menstruation in their lives. Which hardly makes it a ‘secret’.
Why are institutions so squeamish about normal bodily functions?
You only have to look at the problems politicians have in facing down (in particular) religious groups over the issue of sex education. At the same time, there are very strict limitations on what materials can and cannot be used. The boundaries have been pushed back in recent years, but as recently as the mid-1990s (when I was at secondary school) I recall an horrific session in RE (“Religious Education”) when the (female) teacher had to explain what circumcision was. At the time I didn’t really know what it was – so patchy had my previous sex education been prior to then. With no materials and only a blackboard and chalk for help, she tried to draw some very bad diagrams to explain what it was all about. I came away none-the-wiser.
Yet her hands were tied by the rules and regulations of the day. Publishers simply weren’t allowed to publish materials showing real organs of real people that teachers could use in a teaching context.
Think about it:
Stuff that is so important – relating directly to the creation of new life itself (amongst other things) that…you are banned from seeing real life images of what it’s all about. It’s that essential that the powers that be at the time were (and some still are) so worried that we’d all be corrupted if we saw such images.
We’re in a slightly surreal time in terms of societal change and attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies has been doing some great work in trying to change attitudes of the wider public as well as those of the broadcasting authorities about what can be broadcast pre-watershed. Yet the number of people who appear on that show with various illnesses and conditions who have not been to their GP still raises (my) eyebrows. Even the BBC acknowledges that going to the GP can be embarrassing for many – hence this guidance.
Guidance and information such as the above crushes those that wish to censor. Having these series on mainstream prime time television also means they can reach out to wider audiences. It needs to.
This mindset repressed men too
Boys and men have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side you’ve got institutional squeamishness while on the other side we’re being bombarded with sexual imagery in order to sell products and services to us. You’ve got the institutions sending out a whole host of mixed messages while at the same time you’ve got advertisers effectively saying “buy this stuff and you might get laid!”
One of the biggest mixed messages for me is that of faith schools. (I tear into them here). All three main political parties in Westminster have backed the expansion faith schools in principle and practice, even though both governments have clashed with faith institutions that run such schools over the issues of sex education and equal marriage. Politicians can’t have it both ways.
What about the world of work?
Well, you’ve got generations of mis-educated men whose knowledge of what women have to put up with is extremely limited at the best of times. This is reflected institutionally in the imbalances across key institutions – whether Parliament, corporate boardrooms, editorial boards in the media to coverage of sports. Having ‘paper policies’ are not nearly enough – as well-meaning as they might sound. If there is any chance of achieving the culture change that’s needed, there needs to be a critical mass of people across organisations to affect that behaviour change. For me, one good example is the “I bet this building was designed by a man” rule of thumb when looking at building design. Think of the last time you went to the theatre, shopping centre or railway station. What are the women’s toilet facilities like? How accessible are they? Are there often long queues?
What about wider society?
“If it doesn’t happen to us, we can become blinded to it” – or words to that affect. Not being a jogger, I had (until recently) no idea the harassment that women have to put up with from men until some of my Twitter contacts started tweeting about them – on a depressingly regular basis.
There’s also the problem of safety on public transport. Would there be such pressure to reduce staffing at public transport interchanges if the critical mass of ‘decision makers’ were women who actually had to use said interchanges on a regular basis late at night? Exactly. Yet all too often we get this macho “We’re tough on crime” line from politicians of all colours which makes for sharp soundbites but does little to make people feel safe or reduce crime.
From the employers’ perspective
Well…it’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? Or is it?
I wonder how many firms have undertaken a consultation exercise with their employees prior to an office move, asking them what the most important facilities were to them/what they would like to see in their new premises. Public transport access close to to the office? Essential shopping facilities (e.g. food) close by? Number of toilets? Refreshment facilities? Amount of space? Break out areas and meeting rooms? Access to the building out of hours? Flexible/home/mobile working?
One of the things that struck me about many of the women I met and worked with in the civil service was the number who had chosen to work for the civil service because of the flexibility and work/life balance. Many could have worked in (and had offers from) the corporate world and The City but turned down eye-wateringly high salaries to work for the civil service. Whether such flexibility will remain post-cuts remains to be seen. With a Cabinet full of privately educated men from affluent backgrounds, I can’t say I’m not concerned. Parliament doesn’t have the critical mass of women and neither unfortunately does the Coalition. This reflects both in policies and practices.
So…what can men do about it?
Show courage – which is easier said than done. It means challenging that inappropriate behaviour, whether it’s in the office or even online. It also means acknowledging when we’ve stepped out of line. It may also mean having to accept some uncomfortable things too – as Lambeth Council are doing on the issue of rape awareness. There’s also a strong role for women here too to help educate men. If we’re not told about what you have to put up with, it makes it harder to know what to do to help change things.
There’s also a “She’s my mother/sister/daughter” aspect too – If treating any one of the three in such a manner is unacceptable, then it’s unacceptable to all. Isn’t it? Finally, if men are part of the problem, then men are part of the solution – as the White Ribbon Campaign campaigns on.
Quite comprehensive, isn’t it?
Covering schools, large institutions, employers and wider society. It’d be nice to see some consistency and co-ordination from the Coalition and from politicians in general about this. Is that too much to ask for?