Is engaging men the game changer for equality? - Women's Agenda

Is engaging men the game changer for equality?

It was barely a week ago and yet, thanks to an eventful election in between, it feels like it took place in a different world.

On Tuesday night, over 400 men and women gathered in Sydney to partake in the Diversity Council Australia and National Australia Bank annual diversity debate.   The question dissected with wit and insight was this: “Is engaging men the game changer for gender equality?”


The affirmative team was made up of the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, Microsoft Australia MD Pip Marlow and NAB’s Stephen Barrow.

The negative team comprised Associate Professor from the University of Wollongong Dr Michael Flood, TV screenwriter and columnist Benjamin Law and author and broadcaster Clementine Ford. ABC host Tony Jones served as the moderator and interrogated each debater’s argument with some ferocity.

Attendees were asked to cast their votes before the debate commenced and 71% of attendees were on the affirmative team’s side. By the end of the evening, however, votes had swung. As Kate Jenkins put it, her team managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.

The “the” ended up being important. Is engaging men “a” game changer? Yes. But “the” game-changer? Perhaps not.

Kate Jenkins made the case for men’s engagement.  “We are not saying that men are more important or should be running the show, but they can work together with women in the fight for gender justice. If we can engage the large majority of men in our community who have historically failed to pull their weight, this will make a huge difference,” she said. 

Jenkins very helpfully included some fairly simple suggestions for men wishing to shift the dial. These varied from “doing the dishes”, “role modelling respect” to supporting women working.

Pip Marlow was the second speaker for the affirmative. “The reality is that men hold the majority of positions of power in our businesses, our boardrooms and our parliaments. History shows us that acceptance has never driven change so we need to engage the men who sit in these positions of influence. Their role in agitating and advocating for change at all levels is critical to driving the change required to create a better future,” she said.

Marlow expressed frustration at the lack of progress and was passionate in her call for men to get on board. “What gets measured get done,” Marlow argued, making the case for accountability.

Stephen Barrow said change always begins with the individual and that the “pure mathematics” of our population requires men to be part of the solution. “The cause has been stalled by polarising arguments about men versus women. The best way to make change is through inclusive leadership, through men being included in understanding the current situation more fully and also being part of the solution,” Barrow said. “This is an issue of numbers and basic psychology.”

Michael Flood kicked things off for the negative team and admitted it was a tricky position given his research on the positive impact of men’s engagement. Yet by focusing on the “the”, he mounted a compelling case. He argued that engaging men was not a game changer because it was simply another attempt at the same game.  

“Too often, we appeal only to men’s paternalistic concern for the women and girls in their lives, and not also to what is right, what is fair and just,” Flood said. “We tell men that ‘real men don’t hit women’, when in fact it is ‘real’ men – men who are invested in sexist notions of manhood – who are most likely to hit women.”

He quoted the feminist Audre Lorde who wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She might also have written, ‘The masters will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Certainly not by themselves. Certainly not without being part of a broader feminist movement. ” 

“In practice, efforts to engage men often set the bar for men very low,” Dr Flood argued. “They risk marginalising women’s voices. They focus too much on reassuring men and not enough on challenging systems and cultures of oppression.” 

Benjamin Law continued Flood’s theme by suggesting men have had plenty of opportunities to contribute to the progression of women. How many chances do men need, he asked. “Men are already engaged – look at the myriad initiatives in every sector that have existed for years, if not decades – and there is still inequality. Men won’t end inequality, just as white people won’t end racism,” Law said.

“In the struggle for #gender #equality…men have never changed the game & never will” @mrbenjaminlaw #DCAdebate

— NAB (@NAB) November 8, 2016 

‘If engaging men were the answer women would still do all the work and get half the credit’ @mrbenjaminlaw #DCAdebate

@mrbenjaminlaw if engaging men was the game changer, the world would have changed by now #DCAdebate

— A/Prof Rae Cooper (@Raecooper1) November 8, 2016

And then it was time for Clementine Ford to bring it home for the negative team. “Engaging” men, she argued, is effectively calling for women to be placable and polite in requesting a more equitable division of power.  It perpetuates the dynamic that underpins inequality.    

“Too often, engaging men has been about asking men to ‘help’ women, to decide how much power to give back to women. It should be focused less on valorising men and more on changing, challenging, and mobilising them,” she said.  

Rather than devoting energy and attention to pandering to men, Ford argues women ought to be engaged so they can be the architects of their own empowerment. She cited Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and pointed out that his overt feminism is lauded in a way no female leader’s feminism ever has been.  

The evening was studded with terrific gems from all speakers but Ford delivered the line of the night in her closing. “Men, I literally don’t care what you do as long as you get out of the way.”

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