Posted tagged ‘women’

No future for men?

July 14, 2008

When I first started to take a professional interest in gender equality – back in the 1970s – the agenda was very clear indeed. We had only just left behind us the idea that it was lawful to pay men and women different rates of pay for the same job (outlawed only in 1974) and the notion that you could reserve posts for men or for women (outlawed in 1977). There were still large female ghettos and areas of male exclusivity: nurses and secretaries were all women, while engineers, senior managers, priests, architects – and frankly any other groups that had leadership status – were all men. The equality agenda was simple enough: get rid of all that disadvantage for women.

Thirty years on, some things have changed dramatically, others have not. The areas of apartheid are still there, though not necessarily the same areas, and while the glass ceiling has been broken for some women, it remains for others. But what has really changed is that we no longer have a clear consensus as to what the equality agenda now is. Alongside what I might call ‘traditional’ feminist concerns (with significant continuing validity) are now the male concerns – about loss of status and self-esteem, lack of parental rights, juvenile male under-achievement, anti-social conduct, and so forth. What is creeping in is the notion that women are on their way to being the privileged group, with men standing on the fringes hurling beer bottles at them on a Saturday night. Journalists and public commentators have made whole careers out of the call to soothe and caress these broken men so that they might feel respected again.

So what does it all mean? It certainly is not the case that women are now everywhere in key leadership positions. When I meet the other six Irish university Presidents there isn’t a woman in the room. If I look not just at those in leading positions in industry, the public service and education, but also at those one level below who will be the next generation of leaders, women are still wholly under-represented, and there isn’t even a trend in the opposite direction. On the other hand it is true that young men are woefully under-achieving in education, and in some professions – legal practice, for example – the next generation of superstars will be women.

An interesting analysis of all this was contained in yesterday’s Sunday Times, in an article by Sarah Carey (‘Safer jobs for ladies, higher risks and rewards for men‘). If I am summarising her position correctly, she states that the solution to our problems is not to make special provision for men (of a kind that we never made for women), but that we should relax and let nature take its course; we are unlikely to end up with a female-dominated society and a male underclass.

I agree with her assessment, by and large. I don’t believe we should allow law and policy to follow a half-though-out ‘male liberation’ agenda. However, if there is a problem the key to its solution lies in the environment we create for young people of either gender. There is the business about role models, and the difficulty in motivating young males when only women appear to be tackling their upbringing and education. There is the absence of a proper infrastructure for youth leisure; where are all the youth clubs and other meeting places today, that in the past would have taken juvenile males off streets corners and parks at night?

But in the end we cannot engineer equality for men any more than we succeeded in doing it for women. And more particularly, we should stop imagining that female equality of opportunity is no longer a priority subject because it has been achieved.


Sarah Carey also pursues some of these issues in her blog.