In his new book, The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution, Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign – the largest international network of men working to end violence against women – offers up the tools, the strategies and, most importantly, the powerful results that all people will reap when men and women are treated equally. In a recent conversation with Aspire Editor Gayle Jo Carter, Kaufman talks about the current state of gender equality and how both men and women can work to fulfil the title of his new book. Excerpts below:
Q. As I was preparing to interview you, there was an article in the paper about the male leaders at Davos talking about their fear and now their reluctance to take on mentoring women in the #MeToo moment. Is this legitimate or just another excuse for men to leave women behind?
“I’ve heard that same excuse for years and it’s still a lousy excuse for inaction. For some men, though, it’s not so much an excuse as a sign of their incomprehension of the problem. They still don’t get it. And then there are some men who are genuinely confused and have honest questions about appropriate workplace behaviour. To each of those different men we give a different answer. To the ones making an excuse, we call them out and say, ‘You’re just trying to find more reasons not to support the advancement of women.’ But to someone who is confused and is trying figure things out, we listen to their concerns and do our best to provide some good answers.”
Q. Then there’s the whole conversation around the #MeToo movement causing men to feel like they’re under attack. Is that legitimate?
“The #MeToo movement hasn’t attacked men. It’s attacked harassing and predatory behaviour by some men. The persistence of harassing behaviour and of sexual assault is the problem, not the courageous voices who seek to end this behaviour. Rather than blaming the messenger and saying that they are riling things up, we say that those men who commit harassment or sexual, physical and emotional abuse should no longer get away with it.
For women and some men to come forward and start talking about the abuse they experienced, that’s a daring and heroic thing to do. The impact is immense. It is changing our society’s conversation. It’s saying, ‘As a society, we’re not going to be silent anymore.’
Of course, ending silence makes some people feel uncomfortable. But remember, the majority of men don’t harass or commit violence. However, one of the big problems is that, until now, the majority of men have been silent about violence. And through that silence, we’ve allowed the violence to continue.
For some men, the silence gave them permission to continue their abuse. Ending the silence is sending a strong message to those who are using violence in their relationships or who have committed violence in the past. It is saying, simply and clearly, ‘You cannot do this any longer.’
For many men who never would harass or commit violence, the old silence was comfortable. They didn’t have to deal with these awful truths. They could go on like there wasn’t a problem. For those men, this is really an important and positive awakening.
As much as I celebrate #MeToo, it’s also true that for my half of the species, it’s a challenging time. You don’t change 8000 years of male-dominated societies without shaking things up. But it’s also an exciting and important time because this is creating healthier and stronger workplaces; healthier and stronger families; healthier and stronger communities. You can’t create any of that without hard work. #MeToo is laying the foundation for a strong and just future.”
"But remember, the majority of men don’t harass or commit violence. However, one of the big problems is that, until now, the majority of men have been silent about violence. And through that silence, we’ve allowed the violence to continue."
Q. Was there a turning point for you that prompted you to address this issue with such passion?
“Often when I’m interviewed, the interviewer assumes I have some terrible abusive family. It’s actually the opposite. I grew up in a family with great respect for women, not just that abstract of ‘Of course, we respect women’ but very strong beliefs in equality. Yes, it was a pretty traditional in terms of a North American family in the ’50s and ’60s, but it was also a family where it was assumed that my sisters would have professions, which wasn’t usual at the time. I never grew up feeling I was better than my sisters.
My beliefs in equality didn’t start around gender equality but anti-racism. In 1960, my family moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to Durham North Carolina, right into the heartland of racial segregation. My parents had a very clear rule: we didn’t go to segregated theatres or restaurants. Basically, we didn’t go out much. I was a little boy and I’m thinking ‘Why can’t I go to the movies with my friends?’ My parents replied, ‘As long as everyone doesn’t have the right to go to that theatre, we’re not going to go.’ I got beat up for that as a little boy, for expressing those views.”
Q. Let’s get to the first part of your book title, ‘The Time Has Come’. Why has the time come? Is this a result of the #MeToo movement?
“It’s broader than that. We’ve seen several decades of movement towards gender equality, of movement towards redefining our relations and challenging men’s power, of movement toward rethinking not only what it means to be a woman and women’s place in the world but also redefining what it means be a man and men’s place in the world. All this has been pioneered by courageous women.
Things now have definitely come to a head. On issues of ending violence against women, women have been working hard for decades to provide services for women, push for new laws and build greater awareness. Over those years, small groups of men worked as allies with women to encourage our brothers to end our silence on violence against women. But definitely with #MeToo it has exploded into a broader awareness. In that sense, yes, this is a dramatic new moment.
‘The Time Has Come’ is also about the transformation of fatherhood. Ultimately this comes from the huge re-entry of women into the workforce starting in the 1970s. Women started saying to men ‘You’ve got to do your share of the housework, your share of child care.’ Women pushed for changes, but what we’re now seeing is that men are realising that this demand is actually an invitation to positive change in men’s lives. Men’s ‘yes’ to this is not only critical for equality in the home and for women’s ability to pursue jobs, careers and education, and as the number one way we will achieve equal pay; it’s also an utterly positive change for men.
When it comes to solidifying this transformation, the time has come for society to take action. Fathers now want parental leave and greater work/life balance. In a growing number of countries, there are solid parental leave policies. Sadly, the U.S. is one of three countries (along with the tiny countries of Papua New Guinea and Lesotho) that doesn’t have paid parental leave available to all. The time definitely has come for changes in our laws and supportive action in our workplaces.
And that takes me to the third major theme of my book: the transformation of our workplaces. As a society, we’re putting our heads together and saying, ‘How can we work together to make sure our offices and factories from top to bottom are places of not just equal opportunity but equal impact, equal representation of women and men, equal pay?’ There’s a lot of talk about representation of women at the top. Sure, that’s important: we do want to see equal numbers of women on boards and in leadership positions. But sometimes that conversation ignores the critical issue around equal pay. The issues that affect the vast majority of working women isn’t whether they are going to be on a corporate board but whether they’re going to be paid equally and whether they’re going to have an equal chance to get that promotion.
It’s also about whether women and men and those who don’t define themselves either way are going to have a workplace that is free of harassment. And will they have workplaces that not just allow but encourage parental leave and support parents. It’s big agenda, isn’t it?”
Q. What’s your advice for the ‘every day man’ who wants to get involved in an authentic way?
“I’m glad you put it that way because if you speak to men and you run through women’s rights issues — should women be paid equally, should they be free of violence in their homes and workplaces, should they have autonomy and control their own bodies — the majority of men are believers in gender equality. They may not choose the word feminist but that’s where their views increasingly lie.
You raise the critical question, ‘What should these men do?’ There are a lot of men who believe in equality, who care deeply about the lives of their daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, friends, and women far away who they will never ever know. But at an individual level they often don’t know what action they can take, what they can do.
That’s exactly why I wrote, ‘The Time Has Come.’ I wanted to say to my brothers, ‘First of all, here’s some of things you need to know and you need to think about because if we’re going to be on women’s side on this one, we better understand what’s going on.’
Understanding starts with listening. We’ve got to become better listeners. It doesn’t mean we agree with everything we hear. Different people have different opinions. But active listening is exactly how people who are part of a group that has more power, privilege or benefits, that’s how we learn about the problems. The first thing I’d say to all the good men out there is ‘we’ve got to listen, listen with respect.’
The second thing is, we’ve got to figure out how in our own lives we can become true champions for gender equality. That means making sure we’re doing half of the housework and half of the childcare. It means being workplace champions of gender equality, which requires understanding challenges and barriers women face. And then to say, ‘I’m going to be a champion for equal pay. I’m going to be a champion for women’s advancement. I’m going to be a champion against harassment. I’m going to be a champion for work life/balance.’
We must go beyond taking the easy road. You know, just saying, ‘Oh yeah, I agree with this stuff,’ and really learn to speak out and take action.
In terms of speaking out – this is a difficult one for most of us – it is learning to challenge sexist remarks or joke that helps create an environment in which sexism and violence have been excused. We need to figure out effective ways to do this, perhaps jumping in right then or perhaps taking that person aside.
But there’s a limitation to what I’m saying: A lot of times we think only about personal change. Sure, that’s important, but achieving gender equality is also about rebuilding our society, passing new laws and creating new priorities. Men need to speak out and actively work for the policies and laws, the institutional and organisational changes. We must actively back political candidates who will be strong supporters of women’s rights.
The bottom line is to have great faith in the capacity of men: to be caring, empathetic, and compassionate. When I saw the reaction against the Gillette ad (in January 2019), I thought that the people who are the real man haters are the people who reacted against a message like that, who just assume men are born to be abusive or hurtful. The agenda I have and feminist women have always had, is a strongly pro-male. It truly believes in the best of men.
When I talk about men as nurturers and caregivers and men doing half the parenting it’s because I strongly believe in the goodness of men. I wouldn’t advocate that if I thought that men were just born to cause harm. I think it surprises people when they hear me speak: They say, ‘Wow, you’re so positive about men and the future and our capacity to live in harmony.’ I’m not naive. I’m not saying every man is doing that, but I believe in the capacity of men.
If we want to develop effective strategies for involving men in the gender equality revolution, we need positive messages. Not just about what men are doing wrong but about what men are doing right and what we can do to contribute to the achievements of gender equality.”
"If we want to develop effective strategies for involving men in the gender equality revolution, we need positive messages. Not just about what men are doing wrong but about what men are doing right and what we can do to contribute to the achievements of gender equality.”
Q. Are there things can women can be doing better in reaching men to help them in this gender equality work?
“In terms of reaching men, I put the responsibility on men’s shoulders. Because of truly heroic efforts by women over the past 40, 50 years, the male-dominated societies that go back 8 or 10,000 years have been challenged to the core. This is the most dramatic social change in human history.
It’s high time for men to step up to the plate and say, ‘OK, as men, let’s make sure we’re taking responsibility for our actions and our behaviours and for speaking out to other men.’
At the same time, I’ve already heard from a lot of women who are excited about my book. Women have said to me, ‘This book is good for me because I want the tools to more effectively reach the men around me.’ Some will say, ‘I want a book to buy my husband, my son, my boyfriend, my boss, my employees.’ But they also say, ‘I want to be as effective as possible in reaching the men around me and to understand men’s lives.’ I really moved to hear these things.
Central to this book is a look at the paradox at the heart of men’s lives, the paradox of men’s power. If we’re going to understand men’s lives and be best able to engage men to support women’s rights and make positive changes in our lives, we’ve got to understand this paradox. It’s true, in a male-dominated society men have many forms for power and privilege. But if I walk down any street and say to men, ‘Tell me all about your power,’ the men will look at me like I’m crazy. They’d say, ‘I don’t have power. What are you talking about?’ If we’re going to actually reach men, we’ve got to understand this incredible and pretty bizarre disconnect between our actual power in the world and this experience of not having power. That’s been the focus of a lot of my work over the past decades, both my theoretical work and my advocacy work.”
Q. Tell is what we need to know then about this “paradox”?
“The ways we have defined masculinity are impossible for any man to live up to: It’s not only that we say, ‘Men have to be strong and powerful and in control.’ We say, ‘You must always be strong and powerful and in control.’ The very ways we define strength and power are themselves impossible to live up to because we think that involves having no weakness, no fear and never backing down.
You start listing stuff like that and you begin to see that our ideals of manhood are unreal, unhealthy, unsustainable. They’re not only bad for women, but destructive to men. If you’ve been told from birth that you can’t show feelings and you’ve been taunted and teased and punished for crying or showing too many emotions, for not being a real man, you’re going to doubt your own credentials as a man. What do you do with that? Some men use violence as a tool to prove that they’re a real man. Far too many men commit violence against women or another man to prove that they are on top.
We also know that men are more likely to be addicted to alcohol and drugs, to be in prison, are less likely to get help, are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour and take their own life. In all this, we’re seeing the terrible impact on men the ways we have constructed men’s power.
All these things – some quite pathological – are not because of feminism as some claim. It’s because of patriarchy. And it is precisely why I say in the book that feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever had.
Feminism releases men from impossible expectations, from these burdens of how we’ve defined men’s power. And it gives us the opportunity to prioritise our relationships with children, with women and with men.
Think about this on a political level. One of the reasons we’re seeing the rise of populism and more men supporting the religious right and right-wing politicians is this sense of entitlement that men traditionally have but feel like the way things are working now, ‘I’m just not doing my job as a man. I’m not bringing home the bacon. I no longer feel number one.’ Partly, it’s not just at the individual level we see the problem but the way that sense of security as men gets translated into some big social problems.”
“The ways we have defined masculinity are impossible for any man to live up to: It’s not only that we say, ‘Men have to be strong, and powerful and in control.’ We say, ‘You must always be strong and powerful and in control.’ The very ways we define strength and power are themselves impossible to live up to because we think that involves having no weakness, no fear, and never backing down."
Q. Why do these populists or other politicians make men seem weak if they support women or women’s issues? Like here in the U.S, where certain men were making fun of the women who came forward challenging Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination?
“When some men attack or belittle men who support women’s rights, it’s actually a combination of sexism and homophobia. It’s saying to them, ‘You’re not a real man. You’re weak. You’re like a woman.’ In other words, they’re trying to shame men into toeing the patriarchal line. And this is successful in part because of the insecurity I spoke about earlier—that sense of not being able to live up to the demands of manhood.
When we think of a male dominant society, a patriarchy, our first thought is that it’s about men’s power over women. That’s true, but let’s not forgot it’s also a system where some men have power over other men. The truth is that most men don’t have much power. Most men are living in real fear of paying their next bill, real fear of not being able to be the provider they were told to be.
So when we see bullies, in the behaviour of someone like Trump or on the school playground, it’s boys or men using power over other men. They’re using humiliation to force boys or men to act a certain way, to make themselves feel powerful and to maintain their power over women or other groups of men.
It’s a sad business. It’s not good for any of us.”
Q. What will the impact be when we reach true gender equality? When we finally elect a woman president in America?
“It will change everything. We have these massive problems in the world but they’re often linked to gender inequality. Whether it’s issues around climate change or racism or sexual orientation, all of these are linked together, even politics.
But let’s think big here. For example, we assume we need to have one leader at the top. What a totally absurd idea, particularly in such a complex age. This idea come from early patriarchal societies based on the rule of the father. Literally, that’s what ‘patriarchy’ means. As patriarchal societies developed, we institutionalised that, so we had a monarch, usually a man, although occasionally a woman.
Now we live in large and incredibly complex societies. How absurd to think that any one person has the capacity to be a sole leader.
Until we evolve smarter and more responsive and participatory political systems, I’d definitely love to see a woman president – although it does depend on what her values and politics are.
Let me end with this: As I write in the book, you and I are lucky to be alive at this moment. This is a moment of human history that our great-, great-, great-grandchildren will be talking about: the gender equality revolution. This is our chance, all of us, to make history.”
*Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity
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