In building a gender equitable future, the burden of progress can not be on women alone. This is a challenge that’s been addressed before — by leaders such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and movements such as the United Nations’ HeForShe campaign — but it can be challenging to actually take action to bring men and boys into the fold for a gender-equitable future on a day-to-day basis.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see that the Canadian federal government has put funding towards moving the needle on this issue within the country. Canadian nonprofit Next Gen Men has taken on the task of educating and engaging men and boys on feminism since 2014, and in support of the organization’s work, the federal government has granted Next Gen Men, in collaboration with the University of Calgary, $125,000 to go towards creating networks and spaces for feminist male leaders.
Building off the needs identified through the Women and Gender Equality Canada’s (WAGE) “Calling Men and Boys In” report and University of Calgary faculty Lana Wells’s “Insights and Reflections from Men about Supporting Gender Equality in Canada,” the funding will help lay some of the groundwork needed to help engage boys and men with gender equality.
To help accelerate the change, we sat down with Next Gen Men co-founder and executive director Jake Stika to learn three daily actions men and boys can take to start building a more gender-equitable future.
Unlearning gender stereotypes
Next Gen Men is dedicated to creating spaces of engagement and education around gender equity and working with both men and boys to build this conversation. In forming this education, the organization engages with the work of “unlearning” aspects of gender.
“Unlearning is often more difficult than learning,” says Stika. “Having to unlearn is a byproduct of being steeped in a culture(s) within a dominant narrative, whether that be patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, or otherwise.”
The process is a complex one and requires much more than teaching the literature of feminism. Stika explains:
“Many men don’t have a reason to question the status quo until they, unfortunately, face some sort of trauma — whether that be a mental health issue, a significant relationship loss, or an identity crisis relating to work or purpose. In those moments, we begin to question the status quo as it ceases to serve us. It can be a very vulnerable proposition to go on an unlearning journey as it means critically looking at everything you’ve been told or shown to be ‘true.’”
Recognizing the need to do this work, Next Gen Men offers men a safe space and the opportunity to be vulnerable. To work on unlearning gender, individuals should learn about the stereotypes they hold that they may not even be aware of, and actively question the messaging they may have grown up with — whether through their family life, friends, at work, school, or media. Parents, especially, should be tackling their own ingrained beliefs as they work to teach children about gender equality.
Change in the workplace
In more formal settings, like workplaces, it can be difficult to implement certain changes if one isn’t in a position of leadership (such as promoting diverse hiring practices or ensuring equal pay for equal work). But there are everyday moments in the workplace where men can engage with social equity, regardless of where they fall on the leadership ladder.
Unlearning gender stereotypes applies to the workplace as much as it does to any other situation, and men can practice that in multiple ways: by making sure women get the time and space to speak up and contribute in meetings; by checking assumptions about who may or may not want to take on certain roles and challenges; and by mentoring or sponsoring a woman at work.
And one under-rated way of promoting a more gender-equitable workplace? Men should support and actively take advantage of flexible-work policies in order to normalize the work-life balance women often need in order to shoulder the unpaid domestic labour they frequently take on. And, if and when parenthood comes into an individual’s family life, men can also promote gender equality by actually taking their full parental leave.
“I believe that the best way men can contribute to gender equality in the workplace is by taking parental leave,” Stika says, explaining:
“In doing so, organizations can no longer take for granted that only birthing parents take leave; men empathize more with the birthing parent’s experience as they are going through it, resulting in forming a stronger bond; and they gain competence and confidence in dealing with their child that translates to a lifelong gain in involvement.
“Additionally, men taking parental leave reduce stigma for their male colleagues — especially their subordinates — as well as create opportunities for their partner to maintain their career trajectory. It also allows for someone to gain new experience covering the men’s leave.”
With the male-identifying person taking leave, the burden of female unpaid domestic labour is also addressed as being a fundamental privilege that often goes unrecognized.
Talk about it
One of the most powerful steps men can take in building a more gender-equitable future is taking steps to actively support mental health and address harmful gender stereotypes. Next Gen Men’s youth education, including after-school programs, help young boys navigate the dangerous expectations boys can face, like being “tough” and participating in gender-based harassment.
“Unfortunately, it is often that traumatic event that leads men and boys to question what it means to ‘be a man,’” says Stika. He continues:
“For me, it was a couple of depressive episodes in my early 20s. For my best friend and cofounder, it was the loss of his 13-year-old brother to suicide. It is a big part of Next Gen Men’s work, because if you don’t have a healthy sense of self, you don’t have coping mechanisms or health-seeking behaviours, or you don’t have healthy relationships with others, it is incredibly difficult to be a healthy and happy contributing member of society.
“By building youths’ capacity in these areas, as well as role modelling to them what positive masculinities, healthy relationships, and gender equity look like, we give them permission to continue to get to know and be themselves rather than conforming to some societal caricature of masculinity that hurts themselves and potentially others.”
Despite nearly equal rates of mental illness among men and women, men are less likely to recognize, talk about, and receive help for their mental health. To combat this, experts encourage learning about men’s mental health challenges, reaching out to support services, and opening up related lines of conversations among friends and family.
Ultimately, a world where gender defines the kind of life you live, where people have to navigate binaries such as “masculine” and “feminine,” is harmful not only to those oppressed in patriarchy — men included — but to everyone.
Engaging with the very real challenges that many boys and men encounter daily, we can begin to shape and change what it means to belong to a gender and approach a world where equity, not sex, determines a life.