He for She

June 6, 2014

"We're not losing manhood, we're gaining our humanity." - Gary Barker, Promundo

I spent yesterday at a women’s conference. And, as at all events billed ‘for women’, there were few men in the audience. The title of the event, run by the unflaggingly energetic entrepreneur Claudia Chan, is S.H.E Summit. I don’t think I’d apply to a HE Summit, so it’s not surprising men were so thin on the ground. But it’s a shame. Because when there are no men at these things the panelists are often singing to the choir. Also, part way through the morning there was an excellent session entitled ‘He for She’. I'd have loved more men to have heard it.

This topic came up in my last show with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, but it’s just as true in life as in the workplace: women aren’t going to get anywhere without the help of men. They can’t. Men are still the most powerful group on earth – they make things happen. And we need their support. 

On the panel were three guys: America’s Next Top Model judge and photographer Nigel Barker (you can’t NOT be British with a name like that), serial entrepreneur Simon Isaacs, who recently founded the site Fatherly, and Gary Barker (no relation to Nigel) of Promundo, an organization based in Brazil that aims to get men and boys ‘to promote gender equality and end violence against women’. 

Each spoke eloquently about the need for men to do their share of the work in the home, which we know doesn’t happen, and for men to speak up in particular about the awful problem of domestic violence. Nigel Barker experienced that first hand. He described his mother as a very strong woman who moved from Sri Lanka to Britain as a teenager thanks to her earnings as a model. She brought two female relatives with her so they could have a better life. But in marriage, her husband hit her. He didn't know how to cope with her non-pliant personality. He'd been raised to think women were a lower form of human. How dare his own wife not conform to type?

Simon Isaacs of Fatherly made the point that “it’s tough for men out there” in this new world of supposed female equality, saying the change in status for men was “terrifying”. (I should make clear he was in no way condoning domestic violence.)

This may be true for educated men, but it’s even truer when you’re uneducated and far down the socio-economic ladder. That’s where Gary Barker’s organization, Promundo, comes in. He says there are regular, poor, working class guys in developing countries who are willing to stand up for women. But the cult of masculinity is incredibly strong. Since hearing about the film The Mask You Live In, which should come out this year, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The recent rapes and killings of young girls in India, not to mention the horrific shootings in Santa Barbara the other week by a young guy furious that he couldn't 'get' girls, have made me stew even more.

An unfortunate byproduct of the cult of manhood: many men all over the world consider it unmanly to to be seen or heard to be supporting women. They don't want to be tainted by that association with the 'weaker' sex. And in some cases, women don't even expect - or necessarily want - that male support. 

One example: Nigel Barker said when he offered to be an ambassador for the UN’s Girl Up campaign, he was initially met with odd looks from the women. Er, what could he do, exactly?

He is now an ambassador for Girl Up. He's their only male ambassador. 

He thinks we've created too many lines between the sexes and that "we instill this difference from the get-go" when kids are tiny. "The only way we'll address it is by getting rid of that line between 'he' and 'she'," he said.

As the host of a show called The Broad Experience, I have mixed feelings about this. Women and men have such different experiences of the workplace, and of life in general much of the time - but these differences come mainly from the way we've been socialized. And, gradually, we can change that.

Maybe, Nigel suggested, next year's conference could be called the 'WE Summit'.