Women’s Empowerment: What do Men have to do with it?

Representations of men as perpetrator and patriarch have profoundly shaped the terms of gender and development’s engagement with masculinities discourse and practice. Many of those working in the field have remained hesitant, tentative, often hostile to the notion that men might be potential allies in the struggle for gender justice. Even feminists broadly sympathetic to the principle of working with men tend to set out from the notion that all men everywhere are inherently part of the problem. And so efforts have focused on involving men, engaging men, inviting men in – usually on our terms. This is a women’s issue, we say, but there may be a little space for you here.

Yet, in another corner of the international development world, it has come to feel as if there has never been so much attention paid to men. Men’s engagement is sought as the key to addressing men’s violent and abusive behaviour, and galvanizing changes in their personal and inter-personal relationships. As interest in men and masculinities has proliferated, so too has ambivalence amongst feminists about what this ‘men agenda’ is all about. For some, it’s a diversion from the real task of working with women to enable them to gain greater voice, agency and resources. For others, it’s a nuisance and a threat, draining away vital funding and attention from women’s rights. For others still, it’s a fashion without political substance.

Critics point at the extent that for all the initiatives aimed at challenging men’s physical and sexual abuse of women – important as they are – there’s a virtual silence and little visible action to address inequities in the private sphere, such as the domestic division of labour, or in politics, the economy or other areas of public life. Skeptical feminists rightly ask: Why are so few of the organizations working with men for gender justice talking about equal pay, about men doing an equal share of the housework, about addressing the masculinism in the political arena that makes it so difficult for women to get elected or to be taken seriously when they are? Why does so little work by men with men focus on confronting and changing the social, economic and political institutions that sustain inequitable gender orders?

Certainly the way in which work with men has been taken up by development institutions has often been lacking in ambition and devoid of political intent, preoccupied with creating more equitable men, rather than galvanizing men’s activism for a more equal world. This is not for want of sophisticated feminist research and theorizing. In some respects, it is an extension of the depoliticizing effects of absorption into the development industry that have been observed more broadly for gender and development. Much of the women’s empowerment industry is itself a throwback to the earlier Women in Development (WID) approach rather than taking its tone from the focus in Gender and Development on structural dimensions of power. As ‘men and masculinities’ has been rolled out by development agencies, it too has been depoliticized in the process, softening the very real concern about the ‘harder’ power issues at stake. In the process, we have lost the critical insights which characterized early debates around masculinities, and which held such promise for injecting new possibilities into a narrow gender agenda.

It was pro-feminist men working on masculinities in the late 1970s who opened up this radical seam of analysis and practice. They highlighted that in every society there are different ways of being a man. Australian theorists Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1985) offered us the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ as a way of making sense of the hold that certain ideas about being a man had over men – and women – and the power that came to be associated with those forms of masculine identity. Recognition that there wasn’t a single masculinity but multiple masculinities, many of which were subordinated by dominant ideals and practices, forced open spaces for greater recognition of the fluidity and diversity of men’s social identities. This set the scene for initiatives that sought out these alternative ways of being a man, and expanded possibilities for fashioning more inclusive alliances between pro-feminist men and women working for gender justice.

Thirty years on, it is proving harder than many of us had hoped for gender and development policy and practice to move beyond familiar stereotypes – women as abject victims or splendid heroines, men as all-powerful perpetrators. Development literature is infused with generalizations that valorize women and naturalize a particular, and limiting, understanding of gender relations. Axioms abound: ‘women are the poorest of the poor’, ‘women give more priority to others – men invest more resources in themselves’, ‘women live in a more sustainable way than men and cause less climate change’, ‘women are the antidote to the financial crisis’. This paragraph from the website of one international NGO captures a narrative that pervades the development industry:

Men’s power over women often costs women their lives. Women are more vulnerable to HIV infection because they are not able to insist on protected sex, even when they know their partner is infected. Men often use physical violence to reinforce their power over women and girls. Yet despite all this women, women are powerful forces for change, amazingly determined and resourceful in their fight to achieve a better future. Every time a family has good food to eat and clear water to drink, every day that a child arrives at school or a sick person makes it to the clinic, it’s usually a woman who has fought for this small, daily victory over adversity.

These representations cannot be too readily dismissed – they are themselves a product of the fragile struggle to articulate the complexities of gender-based oppression in a way that resonates in more technocratic policy-making circles. Nor can they be spurned as ‘untruths’. While they may have been sapped of their meaning through repeated telling and re-telling, they reflect concerns which are not unfounded. Yet they hinder as much as they help, being inserted into policy documents by policy-makers keen to tick the gender box, but who have little understanding or intention of ‘walking the talk’.

But there is something else going here that’s troubling. Gender myths told and retold in policies and pronouncements on women’s empowerment gain a familiarity that makes them almost unquestionable. Representations of men are limited and limiting. The ready association of the words “men” and “masculinity” with brute force, brash competitiveness and brazen prerogative makes those on the receiving end of the exercise of masculine power decisively female. Female masculinities fall out of the frame; and the damaging effects of patriarchy on men’s lives and expectations are barely possible to countenance.

None of this is to deny the very real differences in power and privilege experienced by women and men on the basis of gender. Or the abuse perpetrated by some men and the prerogative assumed by many. Or the more diffuse but no less harmful effects of patriarchal structures and institutions. But we do need more complex accounts of this power. This includes recognizing the effects that the exercise of patriarchal power may have on men, as well as acknowledging how patriarchal social arrangements can disadvantage men as well as women. We need to take more seriously the ways in which other systems of oppression intersect with gender to create diverse and fluid experiences of power and powerlessness. This could lever open spaces for a more honest discussion about the indignities and subordination that some men share with the women in their lives as a result of economic and social oppression. Most of all, we need to find ways of articulating all this without losing sight of structural inequities and injustices, and without glossing over men’s accountability for the ways in which they choose to act out their privilege.

Challenging the stark separation of women and men into discrete and profoundly oppositional categories can help bring into sight the potential commonalities that, as human beings, we might well share the points of mutual offense, outrage or indignity which can offer such a powerful basis for connection and solidarity. Take neo-liberal economic policies, which have such perverse and injurious effects on both women and men through the decimation of welfare states and deterioration of working conditions. Such profound injustices offer a powerful rallying point around which women and men can come together to wage common struggles. Mobilising men in pro-justice movements to take on gender inequities as part of their broader political work in turn presents crucial opportunities for advancing the social transformatory goals of feminism.

And there’s much that men could do. Take the glaring gap that exists the world over in the representation of women and men in political institutions. Men’s groups and movements could mobilize men as voters sympathetic to the issue of equity – and vote female candidates whose agendas address issues of justice and equality into office. They could organize men to hold decision-makers to account for voting against gender-progressive legislation. They could work with male politicians to address their attitudes towards women and gender issues. What about equal pay and discrimination in the workplace and in relation to economic opportunities? There is much work to be done with trades unions, which have traditionally been bastions of male prerogative. There is also a lot to be done on a personal level – men can hold other men to account in their workplaces, their universities and on the streets, including refusing promotion if the women around them are not being promoted, questioning sexist jokes and condemning belittling comments made to women. As our colleague Henry Armas argues, taking a stand and saying things like ‘Hey, that’s not funny’ or ‘Why do you say that?’ helps make the exercise of male prerogative socially unacceptable. These everyday battles, these small acts, can add up to big change.

Why, then, as the masculinities agenda continues to make stride forwards, do we see so few men actually taking up these actions – even the men around us who declare themselves sympathetic allies? There’s a sense that there simply isn’t enough reflexivity amongst men engaged with gender work on their own accountability, as well as on their own positionality and power. And that’s something that will continue to frustrate feminists who will eye them with suspicion rather than regard them as potential allies in the struggle against inequality and injustice.

Andrea Cornwall (University of Sussex) and Emily Esplen (One World Action)


Carrigan, T., Connell, R. W. and Lee, J. (1985) ‘Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity’, Theory and Society, 14 (5): 551-604

2 thoughts on “Women’s Empowerment: What do Men have to do with it?

  • October 26, 2010 at 4:28 am

    As a woman and feminist who works with people in sex work the issue of men, masculinity, is always in the forefront. In my experience all clients are men and sex workers are mainly women, some men and some trans people.I have yet to meet a female client though I know they exist.

    VAMP members- the collective of women in sex work, I am associated with and members of MUSKAN – the group of Males who have sex with males [MSM] and Males and Trans people who are in sex work – share a wealth of knowledge and experience of Masculine behaviors that defies any one stereotype.

    That men will pay a lot of money `merely’ for sexual pleasure is always a discussion point. The interesting issue of female pleasure is acknowledged but always with a caveat. – the money is good, I need to take care of my family and other such practical reasons. Where as the members of MUSKAN who are in sex work only talk about pleasure while servicing a client. I am fascinated by this paradigm.

    On the other hand when discussing power dynamics – VAMP and MUSKAN members share stories of `trivialization of the phallus’, reduction of male sexual power’ to 100 Rupees or whatever the going rate is, as commonplace. That male sexual power – can be viewed as something to laugh at and even ridicule is fascinating in a world where that is one of the tools of oppression most commonly used to subjugate.

    SANGRAM, the NGO I work for also works with rural women who are not in sex work. Members of Maitrin [ female friend] the collective of rural women never ever talk of male sexual pleasure as something to laugh about. If at all it is a casual issue not requiring any need for discussion. The overwhelming issue in this collective is almost always violence and the power dynamic is expressed as a linear never changing male dominance. The use of male sexual power to subjugate is often discussed.

    If we could all learn to ridicule and laugh at the overpowering maleness in society and allow men to also experience the ridicule we feel in our heads and heart It would go a long way in helping men to adjust to a new world – I’m sure we could learn a thing or two from the people in sex work!

    Meena Saraswathi Seshu.

  • November 9, 2010 at 2:52 am

    We applaud the debate about what it means to directly talk about, to critically engage and politically advance on engaging men and masculinities in gender justice and social justice. Those of us working in the field of practice of engaging men in community activism – what we have come to call gender transformative approaches — are painfully aware of the limitations of our work. Which is precisely why we are also engaged in advocacy and, yes, in the politics of it.

    We are humbly aware that our “interventions” are the starting point and not the end, that the change we provoke at the individual and community level is not nearly enough to turn patriarchy on its head. We are aware that most of the time we are producing important, transformative changes for a few individuals but precious little change in the structures that shape the lives of millions of individuals. We are also reminded on a daily basis by the men we work with that many men are negatively affected by patriarchy, whether as men scarred by domestic violence they witnessed at home, by rapes they were forced to watch in situations of conflict and civil war or by the constant threat of violence faced by women they care about—their daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends, fellow activists, colleagues and congregants. We know from our work that these men are often eager to act on their convictions and take action to build a more just world but often don’t know where to start.

    Where should we then go with this work of “engaging men”? What to make of our campaigns and our efforts to build the skills of activists and outreach workers? We are keenly aware of the need to turn up the volume and to move the focus of actions on the structural. For more than 10 years, RW Connell has urged us to create an alliance of progressive feminists, civil rights organizations and the peace movement to debunk the systems and structures that produce gender inequalities. Even longer ago, Lynne Segal asserted in her influential and insightful book “Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men”:

    ‘State policy, and expansions and contraction of welfare, as well as patterns of paid employment for men and for women, affect the possibilities for change in men. The competitive, individualistic nature of modern life in the West exacerbates the gulf between what is seen as the feminine world of love and caring and the masculine world of the market-place – wherever individual men and women may find themselves. As some socialist feminists have always known, the difficulty of changing men is, in part, the difficulty of changing political and economic structures.’ (Segal, 1990, p. 309).

    Twenty years later the individualistic, competitive, unequal world and un- and underemployment and unequal concentration of wealth in the world and the dismantling of welfare policies (and the failure to enact them in many parts of the world) make our approaches of “engaging men” seem even more limited.

    Do we have examples to draw on? Have any countries or settings succeeded in achieving something close to gender equality? If we look at the countries ranked highest in gender equality – nearly all Scandinavian – we find a mixture of labor movements and women’s rights movements, two generations of social welfare policies, and small, wealthy, well-educated populations – conditions hardly generalizable to the global majority south, particularly the lowest income countries in the world.

    But what we can see and learn from the gender equality processes in the world’s wealthiest countries is that a “revolution” in women’s roles in societies required (or prodded) or was accompanied by changes in large numbers of men. Norway’s 2006 study on gender equality and quality of life found that both women and men reported that men are doing a nearly equal share of domestic work and that 70% of women and 80% of men are satisfied with the current division.

    Can we achieve gender equality – and engage men in the change – without the social development and wealth creation that happened in Scandinavia? In the rest of the world, women are doing 2 to 10 times the amount of care work done by men and on average globally, women earn some 22% less than what men earn. And change is not happening quickly on those indicators, not to mention on including more women in the echelons of economic and political power structures (and not to mention the violence at the hands of men that continues unabated in much of the world)..

    Because these gaps are so marked and because the systems and structures that underpin these inequalities are so large, the organizations we represent – Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, Promundo in Brazil and the Centre for Health and Social Justice in India – have always seen our work as political. In daily ways we seek to connect to the politics of gender justice and social justice and to ally with other women’s rights groups, with LGBT groups, with human rights groups of all kinds – with any and all allies whose actions and discourse we believe are aligned with ours.

    We are not interested in the “work with men”, or “engaging men” or “MenEngage” becoming development assistance fads or trends. We certainly do not think the men involved in such work deserve any special credit for doing what we do—although we do think that affirming and shining a light on those men who do step forward is a useful strategy for encouraging greater numbers of men to get off the fence and take action to end violence and promote equality. And we do not want work with men to be a separate field of activism separate from women’s rights activism. In fact, many of our organizations have made commitments to include on our boards of directors leaders of women’s rights organizations and make sure that our materials and strategies are reviewed and informed by our colleagues and comrades in women’s rights and LGBT organizations. We are painfully aware that we are immersed in the world of NGO funding politics, a world where “branding” and “impact evaluation” and the like too often get in the way of the true work and the true cause of social justice.

    We are interested and open to all constructive dialogue on this issue. Our work was born out of and strives to be part of the cause for women’s rights and equality, just as it is inspired by other social justice and human rights movements. We want what women’s rights activists want: to speed up the rate of change toward true equality. We challenge ourselves about what we can do to attract more men to the cause of gender equality. We debate about what we can learn from the abolitionist movements of the 19th century or the peace movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Gandhian approaches to nonviolence, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the return to democracy movements in Latin America, and labor and landless movements.

    When the student movements and Polish labor movement Solidarity – together with other civil society movements in Poland – succeeded in bringing down a closed, non-democratic and repressive regime using non-violent means, their leaders were surprised that it happened so quickly. “Quick” for them was 20 years. We’ve got some marching to do. And we welcome all who want to be part of engaging men in a process of true, far-reaching, rights-based, structural social change.

    Gary Barker, Dean Peacock, Marcos Nascimento and Abhijit Das


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