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The crisis of masculinity - is there the need for a men's movement?

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The Crisis of Masculinity -is there the need for a men’s movement?

Speech delivered by Pru Goward, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, as part of the Oz Prospects Lecture Series, State Library of Victoria, 20 April, 2004.

● Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the honour of being invited to speak to you tonight

about the crisis of masculinity and the need for a men’s movement. ● Let’s put aside the need for a men’s movement for the moment and begin with the latest political fashion

statement, the crisis of masculinity. ● Curiously, it is not a term I often hear defined by those who use it. The phrase itself is presumably meant to

convey the drama of its meaning without need for explanation; that is, without rationale, or evidence. Is it meant to tap into latent fears lurking deep within our troubled souls, to offer some explanation for everything that worries us, from the greenhouse effect to illicit drug use, but can’t quite put our fingers on? It would not be the first time that pop sociology has played this role. ● Yet the term is resonating, it’s echoing something, even if only very faintly and often times distorted.

● So what does it mean?

● Let me start with the facts about men, many taken from the report of the House of Representatives Standing

Committee on Education and Training’s Inquiry into the education of boys, released in October 2002. ● Fact 1: Men are more likely to commit suicide than women, though women are apparently more likely to try.

● Fact 2: Men are more likely to be murdered than women- double the numbers. They also commit 85% of

murder and manslaughter. The ratio of male to female juvenile offenders in custody is nine to one, similar to the adult rates. ● Fact 3: Men do have specific health problems, such as prostate cancer, which are only belatedly receiving

attention ● Fact 4: Men live on average four years fewer than women.

● Fact 5: By aged nine, while there are no real differences in numeracy, Australian boys are clearly behind girls

in the literacy stakes. In 2000, the difference was 4.4% - a year earlier it had been even greater, at 5%. ● Fact 6: By the time students are 14, according to a 1995 study, the literacy gap between boys and girls is 8%,

an increase from 3% in 1975. ● Fact 7: Two thirds of those in reading recovery programmes are boys.

● Fact 8: 80% of students suspended or expelled are boys.

● Fact 9: Overall girls achieve better academic results than boys at Year 12 level. In New South Wales, for

example, there is now a gap of 19 marks out of 100 between the male and female average Tertiary Entrance Scores, the widest gap in Australia. ● Fact 10: In 2001 the Year 12 retention rate gap between girls and boys for was 11%. Before 1976, boys were

much more likely to finish Year 12 than girls. ● Fact 11: 56% of university graduates today are women, 44% are men.

● So far, this confirms the picture of the male underachiever. We should be pleased that young women have

become better educated, but bothered that young men have not kept pace and continue to put themselves at risk. ● But there are also a few counter-facts, in particular that many of these facts were much the same thirty or forty

years ago, yet nobody talked about a crisis of masculinity. ● Boys in catholic schools, for example, often did not see a male teacher until their later years.

● During the war years many boys grew up with absent fathers and, if their fathers were killed, permanently

without a father figure. Boys have always been the ones to play hookey from school and girls have been avid readers since they were first allowed to read. In the days before no-fault divorce, there is no evidence that families were happier or more connected with their children. ● Suicide, murder, prison and risk taking behaviour have long been more prevalent among men.

● Women’s greater literacy skills have long been recognized. In the UK for example, there were once equal

male and female quotas set for the 11Plus examinations that determined selection for secondary school. British educators apparently recognized decades ago that if there were no quotas, girls would dominate in their entry to the academic stream- at the expense of boys. Since boys and girls did equally well at their O levels six years later, British educators believed they were reflecting the need to accommodate the different development rates of males and females. Thus the quotas. ● According to the Parliamentary enquiry’s report, boys are more likely to have auditory and laterality focus

difficulties (which affect ability to read from left to right). These delay or impair reading skills. I will return to laterality focus a little later. ● I repeat, it needs to be recognized that none of the so called problems that men and boys face today are new.

● When we look at the adult work force, we see a different picture again.

● Men are, despite their educational deficit, still more likely to take leadership positions, be chief executives,

senior managers and board members. ● Women make up only 26% of our federal parliamentarians.

● Although more girls than boys have been finishing year 12 since 1976, we have never had a female prime

minister and only one ever female high court judge. ● Although more women now graduate in law from university than men, less than ten years out from graduation,

men are more likely to have remained lawyers and more likely to have been promoted. ● The earnings gap between men and women in full time work is significant- women earn 84 cents of the male

dollar. When part timers and casuals are included, women earn 66 cents in the male dollar and by the time we get to old age, according to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, NATSEM, women are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty. ● These too, are facts. What interests me as a student of social change and of the role of gender, is how we

explain these apparent contradictions and the emergence of a new crisis from old facts? ● The answer, as always, appears to lie in the detail.

● Fact: According to the same parliamentary inquiry and just about every submission to it of consequence, the

gap between boys’ and girls’ literacy is much more marked for boys of low socio-economic status families than for middle and upper status families. ● The federal Department of Education, in its submission to that inquiry, says, for example,

● “the differences between levels of literacy for males and females are greater among students from manual and

unskilled occupations than among children from other socio-economic groups. The gender gap is larger for the lower groups.” ● Fact: The shift to a knowledge based economy along with new management techniques mean that computers

are fast replacing the need for high levels of numeracy but there is an increasing need for high standard verbal communication between people. ● Employment and earnings outcomes for boys who complete Year 12 are excellent. Ironically, even 19 year old

men with low literacy in full time work earn more than 19 year old women with high literacy in full time work. ● Fact: The availability of unskilled or manual work suitable for boys without Year 12 has declined in the course

of the last twenty years. Agriculture and manufacturing now account for only 19% of all employment; in 1966 it was almost half of all employment. Unskilled blue collar workers, of whatever age, are vulnerable to unemployment and marginalization. They are overwhelmingly male and economic, not social reform, has done this to them. ● Fact: Reading is no longer entertainment for boys. Computer games for example are overwhelmingly played

by boys. As observed by the Parliamentary Inquiry, this is at the expense of reading. A majority of boys report doing most of their reading at school, whereas girls say they do most of their reading as leisure. ● In other words, girls read a lot and boys are no longer being forced to get practice doing something they don’t

find as easy to do. Not surprisingly there is a skills gap by aged nine. ● Fact: low socio-economic boys are the most likely to consider they must be the main breadwinner and

conform to traditional family structures. ● Fact: Low socio economic boys are the most likely to play truant, be disciplined at school and to commit crime.

Middle and high status boys are much less likely to experience these problems. ● Fact: By age 24, men who have not completed Year 12 expect to have 1.6 children- the lowest number for any

age male group and even among other 24 year old men. ● Fact: According to the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey in Australia of June 2002, HILDA,

this fertility gap is very different for older age groups. Among men aged 40 to 55 for instance, men with year 11 or less education expect to have, on average, slightly more children than those with tertiary education. They have 2.24 children, graduates have 2.21. ● Fact: Overall the more men earn the more children they now have- men earning more than $70,000 a year for

example, expect 2.12 children compared with men on low incomes, who expect around 1.83 children. ● And who can blame them if according to traditional family values, they don’t have the income to support a

family. ● If anyone is suffering a crisis of masculinity, it is this group. Younger men with low educational levels.


● This, I suggest, is the new fact.

● Whereas once low educational levels, mucking up at school or preferring footy to reading did not deny men

the capacity to have children or to work for forty years and head a household, this is no longer the case. And the downwards spiral of expectations begins earlier and earlier. ● If a boy or girl is struggling with reading and school work at thirteen or fourteen today, doesn’t everyone from

mum, dad, the teacher, careers advisor and family friend tell them they will end up on the scrap heap, without any prospects? Not surprisingly, truancy, dropping out, inattentiveness and under-achievement soon follow. ● Paraphrasing the Jesuits, show me the boy school leaver at fifteen, and I will show you the unemployed and

childless man at thirty. ● A man who feels disconnected from our two great social institutions, work and family.

● Surely, a man in crisis.

● An angry man who is more likely to have his marriage or partnership break down, his children leave him and

his connection with them severely limited by either his actions, their mother’s or their own. ● A man who continues to live on a diet of movies and tv sport shows that demonstrate traditional male values

and virtues. ● A man who was brought up not to learn the skill of communicating with others, who often failed to pick up the

signs of frustration and unhappiness in their partners, and then were shocked and astonished when they walked out. ● Yes, surely a man in crisis, a crisis even of masculinity. But not all men.

● This is not to say that social change, and in particular, the changing status of women, has not also put men, all

men, under pressure. ● But pressure of a different sort.

● Men have had to change their work culture, their social behaviour, accept women as bosses, women as

equals in the workplace and the women they love living under pressure at home. ● The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, HILDA, for example, finds 60% of mothers

in full time working couples do 11 or more hours of housework a week,. Only 12% of full time working fathers in couples do so. ● No wonder only 15% of these men felt taking care of their children was more work than pleasure, whereas

20% of the women did. ● A sense of unfairness also comes through in these results. Most men and women surveyed agreed that house-work should be shared equally if both are in paid work- only that’s not how it turns out in practice. ● You can be sure your average Australian woman will make her view of his shortcomings as housekeeper quite

clear to him one way or another. Life in the average family starts to resemble the Battle of the Somme, where a few concessions are gained during one row, only to be lost during the next. ● And let’s not kid ourselves about female gate-keeping here. Both with child care and housework. Women often

gate-keep as aggressively as men do. There’s also a chance that those same developmental shortcomings that made it harder for men to learn to read, like laterality focus for example, makes being the perfect housekeeper harder for them too. ● (You might think laterality focus, or the ability to scan from left to right, is only about reading. But it also helps

us sweep a room with our eyes from left to right and find every dirty sock, every piece of newspaper on the floor and every speck of dust that has been missed when HE did the tidying up, all in less time than it takes Wayne Carey to kick a goal). ● Forgive that aside- my point remains that the housework as well as the child care are the causes of many a

nasty fight, where she blasts him or gives him the silent treatment - he slams the door and rushes off into the arms of the friendly family computer. ● He can no longer go down to the pub and drink it off with his mates, drink-driving laws have put paid to that.

● ( I think we would all prefer it if he let off steam by mowing the lawn, but then there is only so much grass in

anyone’s back yard!) ● These are things young men and women didn’t see their parents fighting about, fights which puzzle and

infuriate both of them. No wonder she cries quietly into the ironing and he has his so called crisis of masculinity. Once she went and did a course in Feminist Studies and Political Economy at university- today she may write those courses. ● But this is not a crisis of masculinity; this is an opportunity for masculinity to grow.

● Although the lofty offices on the marbled floors of the executive levels are still dominated by male executives

and female assistants, news of the crisis of masculinity may well have reached here. ● They too, will be noticing that younger male executives are more child-focussed than they were, more likely to

have a career wife than they were and maybe even to wear exotic after-shave or enjoy cooking on the weekends. ● This is not to say that alternative masculinities, such as the much-vaunted metrosexuality, are wide spread. As

principals of boys-only schools observed in their submissions to the parliamentary inquiry, boys are much more likely to conform to a dominant form of masculinity than girls are to femininity- it seems to be more ok for girls to be different to each other. ● Is this a crisis anyway, or just a change?

● I suspect very often this so called crisis is in the eyes of their fathers and mothers rather than the young men

themselves. ● Young men might be enjoying this new found freedom from the tyranny of being sole provider.

● Take the case of a middle-aged friend of mine who runs a large motor service and repair business. In his life

time he has seen dozens of pimply youths with a love of cars and grease under their fingernails start out as apprentices and leave him for the challenge of a better job. Today, he says, they aren’t especially hungry for the overtime and, quote, ● “they aren’t as ambitious as we were”. “Young men used to say, “I want your job”- now they say “I like my life

the way it is thanks””. ● At this point my twenty something daughter interrupted him to say

❍ “no, that’s because they know we’ll go Dutch with them”

❍ that new-age habit of going halves in the price of a night out.

● And this is true. These boys have gone to co ed high schools with girl school captains, or competed against

them directly. They go out with young women who work from the time they are at school, and may now earn even more than they do; the finger-nail biting pressure for young men to achieve is relieved. They know that when they marry or partner, she will kick in as much as he, she will work part-time when the children are young, if they decide to have children, and she will provide for her own old age. ● He might even harbor a dream of working part time himself when the children need him. He might choose to

partner with someone who does want the boss’s job, while he becomes the principle parent and home-maker. ● What a blessed relief, young men might say.

● Is this group in crisis, or is it just struggling, along with women, to find new and relevant rules for relationships-

and no harm in that? ● For that other group, of low achieving males, there are different problems and solutions.

● We might need to change our approach to give marginalized teenage boys the chance of a real job suitable to

their skills while they sort themselves out. ● It might mean responding better to the cognitive development needs of boys.

● It might mean better partnering and relationships education, and development of communication skills.

● It certainly means better public policy.

● One contribution the women’s movement made to public policy cannot be denied - it now requires that gender

be factored in. Not always performed in practice, but certainly recognised as legitimate. ● For some individuals it may be about the need to downsize their lives, cut their long working hours, reducing

their need for more things and allowing more time for their children. For others it is about greater access to the world of work, to the goods and services, as well as the dignity and status, that it brings. ● So is the answer to any of this, a men’s movement? I think not.

● What we see of the so-called men’s movement today is often strident, often harking back to times lost rather

than working with the future. ● For example I have seen no coherent plan to address the educational needs of boys proposed by the men’s

movement, although this remains the major source of many male problems today. Interestingly, many boys-only schools are making huge strides in addressing educational deficits, but I have seen none describe themselves as part of the men’s movement. Many academics are focussing on this issue and doing great work, but again most of them would not subscribe to the tenets of the men’s movement. ● The question of whether or not we need a men’s movement to fix it does, I think, entirely miss the point. The

last thing men need if indeed they are experiencing a crisis of masculinity is another war with women. If we are successfully to address the crisis of masculinity- and, for that matter, the greater poverty, violence and earnings disparities suffered by women- then what we need is a partnership movement, not a men’s or a women’s movement that treats the other as the enemy. In the case of the advancement of women and its many battles, there have always been women determined to punish men, but also men equally determined that women should suffer for daring to demand equality. ● Similarly, a men’s movement would lead to more, not less, social division. Especially if it is driven by anger

and sadness for what has been lost, rather than hunger for a better future. Men and women are the two faces on the coin of humanity; to deface either of them is to devalue humanity. ● A partnership movement, by contrast, would be different - in tone, in approach. Naturally it would require a

different sort of leadership, both at the political and community levels. ● Inevitably it’s going to be more complicated and less spectacular than the glory and spoils of war, but it might

be the only real choice if we are to resolve these issues. Unless of course, we really prefer the fight and getting even. ● It also goes without saying that running a social change movement is often not much fun. Celebrity feminists

like Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan or Naomi Wolf tend to be the exception. There are many others in the women’s movement, for example, who have suffered gaol terms, close encounters with public railings, no jobs, broken marriages, endless letter writing over nights in other people’s kitchens on battered typewriters- all as part of a pitifully under-financed struggle taking up infinite amounts of available leisure time for years. ● The public thanks you get for it is to be called a man-hater, hairy legged, bitter, twisted, got no sense of fun

and no wonder your kids have turned out badly. I don’t know if men would want much of that, apart from the hairy legs. ● So rather than a men’s movement, this could be the Get a Life Movement.

● A movement to recognize and manage technical and social change in a way that enhances, not diminishes,

our happiness and contentment. ● It is about kindness and respect, as well as about merit and achievement.

● Perhaps most challenging, it is about real communication between men and women, both on day to day life

and on ideological issues. ● Ultimately it is about choice, real choice for men, as well as for women.

● It is all that women have ever wanted, and it should be enough for men.

© Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 23 April 2004.

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