New Internationalist

A Black woman took my job

Issue 373

Michael Kimmel argues that it is in men’s interest to work for gender equality.

Over the past three generations, women’s lives have been utterly and completely transformed – in politics, the military, the workplace, professions and education. But during that time, the ideology of masculinity has remained relatively intact. The notions we have about what it means to be a man remain locked in a pattern set decades ago, when the world looked very different. The single greatest obstacle to women’s equality today remains the behaviour and attitudes of men.

In the mid-1970s, an American psychologist offered what he called the four basic rules of masculinity:

1 No Sissy Stuff. Masculinity is based on the relentless repudiation of the feminine.

2 Be a Big Wheel. Masculinity is measured by the size of your paycheck, and marked by wealth, power and status. As a US bumper sticker put it: ‘He who has the most toys when he dies, wins.’ 3 Be a Sturdy Oak. What makes a man a man is that he is reliable in a crisis. And what makes him reliable in a crisis is that he resembles an inanimate object. A rock, a pillar, a tree.

4 Give ’em Hell. Exude an aura of daring and aggression. Take risks; live life on the edge.

The past decade has found men bumping up against the limitations of these traditional definitions, but without much of a sense of direction about where they might look for alternatives. We chafe against the edges of traditional masculinity but seem unable or unwilling to break out of the constraints of those four rules. Hence the defensiveness, the anger, the confusion that is everywhere in evidence.

Let me pair up those four rules of manhood with the four areas of change in women’s lives – gender identity, the workplace, the balance of work and family life, the sexual landscape – and suggest some of the issues I believe we are facing around the world today.

Quality time with the family in Pondicherry, India – but it’s quantity time that creates the foundation of intimacy. Photo: Mark Henley / (http://www.panos.co.uk/)[Panos Pictures]

First, women made gender visible, but most men do not know they are gendered beings. Courses on gender are still populated mostly by women. Most men don’t see that gender is as central to their lives as it is to women’s. The privilege of privilege is that its terms are rendered invisible. It is a luxury not to have to think about race, or class, or gender. Only those marginalized by some category understand how powerful that category is when deployed against them. I was reminded of this recently when I went to give a guest lecture for a female colleague at my university. (We teach the same course on alternate semesters, so she always gives a guest lecture for me, and I do one for her.) As I walked into the auditorium, one student looked up at me and said: ‘Oh, finally, an objective opinion!’

The second area in which women’s lives have changed is the workplace. Recall the second rule of manhood: Be a Big Wheel. Most men derive their identity as breadwinners, as family providers. Often, though, the invisibility of masculinity makes it hard to see how gender equality will actually benefit us as men. For example, while we speak of the ‘feminization of poverty’ we rarely ‘see’ its other side – the ‘masculinization of wealth’. Instead of saying that US women, on average, earn 70 per cent of what US men earn, what happens if we say that men are earning $1.30 for every dollar women earn? Now suddenly privilege is visible!

Recently I appeared on a television talk show opposite three ‘angry white males’ who felt they had been the victims of workplace discrimination. The show’s title was ‘A Black Woman Took My Job’. In my comments to these men, I invited them to consider what the word ‘my’ meant in that title: that they felt that the jobs were originally ‘theirs’. But by what right is that ‘his’ job? Only by his sense of entitlement, which he now perceives as threatened by the movement towards workplace gender equality.

men who share housework have more sex. What could possibly be more in men’s ‘interests’ than that?

The economic landscape has changed dramatically and those changes have not necessarily been kind to most men. The great global expansion of the 1990s affected the top 20 per cent of the labour force. There are fewer and fewer ‘big wheels’. European countries have traded growth for high unemployment, which will mean that more and more men will feel as though they haven’t made the grade, will feel damaged, injured, powerless. These are men who will need to demonstrate their masculinity all over again. And here come women into the workplace in unprecedented numbers. Just when men’s economic breadwinner status is threatened, women appear on the scene as easy targets for men’s anger – or versions of anger. Sexual harassment, for example, is a way to remind women that they are not yet equals in the workplace, that they really don’t belong there.

It is also in our interests as men to begin to find a better balance of work and family life. There’s a saying that ‘no man on his deathbed ever wished he had spent more time at the office’. But remember the third rule of manhood: Be a Sturdy Oak. What has traditionally made men reliable in a crisis is also what makes us unavailable emotionally to others. We are increasingly finding that the very things that we thought would make us real men impoverish our relationships with other men and with our children. Fatherhood, friendship, partnership all require emotional resources that have been, traditionally, in short supply among men, resources such as patience, compassion, tenderness, attention to process.

In the US, men become more active fathers by ‘helping out’ or by ‘pitching in’; they spend ‘quality time’ with their children. But it is not ‘quality time’ that will provide the deep intimate relationships that we say we want, either with our partners or with our children. It’s quantity time – putting in those long, hard hours of thankless, unnoticed drudge – that creates the foundation of intimacy. Nurture is doing the unheralded tasks, like holding someone when they are sick, doing the laundry, the ironing, washing the dishes. After all, men are capable of being surgeons and chefs, so we must be able to learn how to sew and to cook.

Finally, let’s examine the last rule of manhood: Give ’em Hell. What this says to men is: take risks, live dangerously. And this, of course, impacts most dramatically on our bodies, sex, health and violence. Masculinity is the chief reason why men do not seek healthcare as often as women. Women perform self-exams, seek preventive screenings, and pay attention to diet, substance abuse, far more often than men. Why? As health researcher Will Courtenay writes: ‘A man who does gender correctly would be relatively unconcerned about his health and wellbeing in general. He would see himself as stronger, both physically and emotionally than most women. He would think of himself as independent, not needing to be nurtured by others.’1 Or, as one Zimbabwean man put it, ‘real men don’t get sick’.2

Indeed. The ideas that we thought would make us ‘real men’ are the very things that endanger our health. One researcher suggested slapping a warning label on us: Caution: Masculinity May be Hazardous to your Health. A 1994 study of adolescent males in the US found that adherence to traditional masculinity ideology was associated with: being suspended from school, drinking, use of street drugs, having a high number of sexual partners, not using condoms, being picked up by the police, forcing someone to have sex.3

These gender-conforming behaviours increase boys’ risk for HIV, STDs, early death by accident, injury or homicide. It’s no exaggeration to say that the spread of HIV is driven by masculinity. HIV risk reduction requires men to take responsibility by wearing condoms. But in many cultures ignoring the health risks to one’s partner, eschewing birth control and fathering many children are signs of masculine control and power.

Finally, let me turn to what may be the single greatest public health issue of all: violence. In the US, men and boys are responsible for 95 per cent of all violent crimes. Every day 12 boys and young men commit suicide – 7 times the number of girls. Every day, 18 boys and young men die from homicide – 10 times the number of girls. From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution but one that is admired. Four times more teenage boys than girls think fighting is appropriate when someone cuts into the front of a line. Half of all teenage boys get into a physical fight each year.

Violence has been part of the meaning of manhood, part of the way men have traditionally tested, demonstrated and proved their manhood. Without another cultural mechanism by which young boys can come to think of themselves as men, they’ve eagerly embraced violence as a way to become men. It would be a major undertaking to enumerate all the health consequences that result from the equation of violence and masculinity.

And just as women are saying ‘yes’ to their own sexual desires, there’s an increased awareness of the problem of rape all over the world, especially of date and acquaintance rape. In one recent US study, 45 per cent of all college women said that they had had some form of sexual contact against their will, and a full 25 per cent had been pressed or forced to have sexual intercourse against their will. When one psychologist asked male undergraduates if they would commit rape if they were certain they could get away with it, almost 50 per cent said they would. Nearly 20 years ago, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday proposed a continuum of propensity to commit rape upon which all societies could be plotted – from ‘rape-prone’ to ‘rape-free’. (The US was ranked as a highly rape-prone society, far more than any country in Europe; Norway and Sweden were among the most rape-free.) Sanday found that the single best predictors of rape-proneness were:

1 Whether the woman continued to own property in her own name after marriage, a measure of women’s autonomy.

2 Father’s involvement in child-rearing; a measure of how valued parenting is, and how valued women’s work.

So women’s economic autonomy is a good predictor of their safety – as is men’s participation in child-rearing. If men act at home the way we say we want to act, women will be safer.

Mark Henley / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk
Quality time with the family in Pondicherry, India – but it’s quantity time that creates the foundation of intimacy. Mark Henley / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk

And the news gets better. A 1996 study of Swedish couples found positive health outcomes for wives, husbands and children when the married couple adopted a partnership model in work-family balance issues. A recent study in the US found that men who shared housework and childcare had better health, were happier in their marriages, reported fewer psychological distress symptoms, and – perhaps most important to them – had more sex! That’s right, men who share housework have more sex. What could possibly be more in men’s ‘interests’ than that?

Another change that is beginning to erode some of those traditional ‘masculine’ traits, is the gradual mainstreaming of gay male culture. One of the surprise hit TV shows of the past year has been ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’. Imagine if, 10 years ago, there’d been a TV show in which five flamboyantly gay men showed up at a straight guy’s house to go through his clothing, redo his house and tell him, basically, that he hasn’t a clue about how to be socially acceptable. The success of ‘Queer Eye’ has been the partial collapse of homophobia among straight men. And the cause of that erosion is simple: straight women, who have begun to ask straight men: ‘Why can’t you guys be more like gay guys?’

Rather than resisting the transformation of our lives that gender equality offers, I believe that we should embrace these changes, both because they offer us the possibilities of social and economic equality, and because they also offer us the possibilities of richer, fuller, happier lives with our friends, with our lovers, with our partners, and with our children. We, as men, should support gender equality, both at work and at home. Not because it’s right and just – although it is those things. But because of what it will do for us, as men.

The feminist transformation of society is a revolution-in-progress. For nearly two centuries, we men have met insecurity by frantically shoring up our privilege or by running away. These strategies have never brought us the security and the peace we have sought. Perhaps now, as men, we can stand with women and embrace the rest of this revolution; embrace it because of our sense of justice and fairness, embrace it for our children, our wives, our partners, and ourselves. Ninety years ago, the American writer Floyd Dell wrote an essay called ‘Feminism for Men’. It’s first line was this: ‘Feminism will make it possible for the first time for men to be free’.

Michael Kimmel is professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. His books include Manhood in America (Free Press, 1996) and The Gendered Society (Oxford University Press, 2000). He is spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS); http://www.michaelkimmel.com

  1. 1 WH Courtenay, ‘College Men’s Health: An Overview and a Call to Action’, Journal of American College Health, Vol 46 No 6, 1998.
  2. 2 M Foreman (ed), AIDS and Men: Taking Risks or Taking Responsibility, Zed Books, 1999.
  3. 3 JH Pleck, FL Sonenstein, and LC Ku, ‘Masculinity ideology: Its impact on adolescent males’ heterosexual relationships’ Journal of Social Issues, 49 (3), 11-29, 1993.

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