Men and Gender Equality : What Can Men Gain?

Conference on Men and Gender Equality in the European Parliament, Brussels, 8 March 2001

Introduction by Mrs Maj Britt Theorin

Ladies and Gentlemen,  

Of all fathers in Sweden 61% fail to take out a single day of paternity leave. Only 2% of the private sector employers have taken steps to make it easier for male employees to combine work and family life. Fathers only stay home with sick children half as often as mothers.

Only men can change this situation.

Men must take responsibility for change and have a lot to gain from doing so. Also men pay a high price for our rigid sex roles - preventing men from showing emotions, spending time with their children and living longer. Many men not only want to father children, but want to be daddies. It is not too complicated to become a father. But, becoming a dad requires time and commitment.

Unfortunately, women see the child-rearing as their domain. To share the vacuum cleaner is one thing, but the children is a whole other ball game. The man is seen as an intruder in a traditionally female world.

Similarly, women have unintentionally pushed men away from embracing gender equality. They have rightly focused on male privilege, which has often been interpreted as if men were merely the enemy. While this "men as the enemy" approach has been largely effective in bringing women together, it alienated men.

Of course, the traditional feminist approach focusing on equality as a "women's issue" was essential because of the extent of women's under-privilege compared to men. It was necessary for the female suffragettes to struggle for the right to vote, and for feminists in the seventies to fight for the right to abortion.

The focus on the antagonism between the sexes has hidden the fact that men have a lot to gain from unlearning sexism. Many men therefore see the women's movement as a threat against their privileges, and see any gains women make as direct losses to men. But, men do not become slaves if women are freed.

It is impossible to reach gender equality merely by opening doors, which were previously closed to women. Having the right to vote, having laws on paper, and having access to higher education will not lead to equality by themselves.

Every man must take personal responsibility for promoting equality in his home, work and social life. Since most leaders and decision-makers are male, they have a great responsibility as role models. We can never achieve gender equality unless we have them on board. Political and business executives define cultural rules and must signal that equality is a key issue - not only for women, but also for men.

It is no longer acceptable that executives punish employees who seek to balance their work and family responsibilities. They must state that it is not only ok, but that it is expected that fathers take parental leave.

Today, on the international women's day 2001, we will initiate a discussion on men and gender equality. Together with some of our foremost experts on Men and Gender Equality Michael Kimmel and Lars Jalmert we will discuss issues such as: What happens to men when women gain power in the areas of working life and politics? Will men feel threatened and try to maintain the power structures in society, or will they take the chance to change the structures, creating a new role model as men?

Gender equality is not a "women's issue". It is a fundamental aspect of the struggle for democracy.

Equality can no longer be restricted to the issue of the conditions under which women live. Attention must be focused on the male role. Time is ripe for women feminists to integrate men into the struggle against sexism.

It is a pleasure for me to give the floor to Ms. Margareta Winberg, Swedish Minister for Gender Equality.

Maj Britt Theorin