The Role Of Men

Last year Jude Kelly mentioned that she felt the WOW Festival could do more to encourage men to attend, and to involve men in the discussions taking place there. She felt that it was important that we, as women and feminists, engage with men more to see how they could help us. This year, that definitely seems to have become a focus on the programme as several of the sessions sought to bring men into the conversation.

The need to involve men actually arose early on Friday in the panel on International Activism. Valerie Amos (UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief coordinator on the Millennium Development Goals) was speaking about violence against women and girls and how this was a major barrier to the Millennium Goals being achieved. She clearly stated that men needed to raise their voices on this issue, not just to show support for women, but to lead other men in change. Jude Kelly agreed, admitting she finds herself ‘baffled’ when hearing about some violence against women, having a moment where she wonders if men do hate women (just a moment – it’s clear that she doesn’t). Although most men would never commit such acts, it’s important that they speak out against those that do. When women speak out on these issues it’s assumed to be important to them because they’re women. It needs to be important to all of us.

This point that men need to speak out came up time and again throughout other sessions on Friday and Saturday. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism session saw Michael Kaufman (co-author of the book of the same name and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign) pick this up. He clearly stated that violence against women is an issue for men. It happens to women they love – mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – and this should be something that they care about. He worries that violence against women makes some women suspicious of all men and his anecdote of women crossing the street late at night to avoid him sounded familiar to me. Crucially however, he said that men look to other guys to define what being a man is. All men must speak out as silence could give the impression that they’re okay with what’s happening. In fact one of the stated aims of the White Ribbon Campaign is that silence allows violence to continue. This must end.

Kaufman did admit that since most men broadly support equality (even if they wouldn’t call themselves feminists) they don’t speak out or engage in it. Another of the WRC’s aims raises the point that collective responsibility is required, but that it’s not about guilt; it’s not about men feeling guilt as men because of the violence that exists against women. It is, however, about men taking the opportunities presented to them to speak out and create change; men need to accept that responsibility.

Kaufman had a number of other interesting points to make in the Guy’s Guide to Feminism session. While funny and light (reading extracts from the book that set the tone) it’s clear that he feels very strongly about campaigning for change. He also spoke about the use of language and how it can be used to make women ‘disappear’. Describing women as ‘my lovely assistant’ (rather than capable for example) or using terms such as cavemen, mankind, chairman or postman – even when referring to women – just erases women completely. Women are diminished by being referred to as girls or chicks, especially in workplaces. Being aware of this may stop men from using these terms.

He also, interestingly, discussed the opportunities that feminism brings for men to transform themselves. He feels that the ‘macho’ culture is damaging to men and is something that feminism directly challenges. From birth, boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be male and are openly humiliated if they don’t live up to this – boys don’t cry, don’t throw like a girl, play through the pain. However, these ideals are impossible to live up to. All people need love, nurture and connection but men cannot admit this. Men are left with massive internal conflict in trying to live up to these images.

When women challenge these ideals, as feminists do, it can leave men confused and angry. If this behaviour isn’t what it means to be a man, then what is it that still makes them men? Some men however can and do embrace this as an opportunity and a positive move towards transforming men’s lives.

Kaufman brought some of these points with him into the Conversation Between the Sexes panel, which was at times entertaining and at times somewhat uncomfortable to watch (Jon Snow and Shami Chakrabarti seemed to particularly butt heads, even when agreeing with each other). Jude Kelly did ask why more men don’t speak out about other men’s behaviour. Kaufman replied that he felt it was out of fear of appearing as if they are not a ‘real man’. He was optimistic that this was changing though. Jon Snow also commented that men could learn a lot from a festival like WOW as he couldn’t imagine men gathering to address issues in this way. It’s interesting to note that Jude did announce that Southbank Centre will be holding a Festival of Masculinity in January 2014 (that should be interesting!).

Kaufman’s last point, about what men need from women in order to change, did feed back into something I also heard in a few sessions over the weekend (so far). He noted that the nature versus nurture debate is shifting and that gender is something we learn. Our brains are shaped by our families, and we become gendered. He felt that men needed encouragement to reshape what it means to be men by transforming fatherhood. Increased parental leave would help but we also need to recast ideas of motherhood. Women need to accept that men can also nurture and allow them to fulfill this role.

Models of fatherhood cannot be underestimated (where fathers are present). In the International Activism panel Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala Yousafzai, spoke about what he did as father that allowed Malala to be the girl she has become. In Pakistan, having sons is important – the birth of daughters is barely celebrated. Men are known by the achievements of their sons but he described himself as ‘lucky and fortunate’ to be a man who is known by his daughter. So what did he do differently to other fathers? He says he did nothing but honour her as a person and treat her with respect. He said for too long women have been happy to be the strength behind men (behind every great man is a great women) but we should be side-by-side. Crucially he said there are three things men should do for their daughters – honour them, trust them and educate them. Wise words that certainly seem to have worked with Malala.

In The Keys To The Castle talk, Angelique Kidjo picked this up in relation to her own childhood. Every year her extended family would come to her parents (well, her father – her mother was considered to have no say in the matter) and tell him that it was time for Angelique to marry. Every year her father would tell them that no-one would tell him what to do in his own home and would insist that Angelique continue in her education. Even as she began to perform and singing became her passion her father told her that she could only continue singing if she continued attending school. The difference that education can make in a girl’s life in Africa is well documented but not all fathers feel able to take such a strong line, or believe it’s right.

So is there a role for men in helping to bring change in women’s lives? It’s clear that there is. They don’t necessarily need to call themselves feminists or be on the streets with us protesting. They don’t even need to attend WOW with us! They just need to take steps in their own lives – how they speak about women, how they relate to other men, their example of what it means to be a man and how they raise their daughters (and sons).

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Too nice for self defence? No you’re not

Have you ever been followed home? Have you ever been shouted at on the street? Attacked? Raped?

I would have to say yes to some of these questions, and so would many women reading this, as the statistics show*. In all these cases, what happens is always the aggressor’s fault. That, I hope, goes without saying. There is no secret key which victims can turn to avoid these things happening.

Today’s session on self defence at the Women of the World festival was, however, a revelation.

It was led by Debi Steven – if you saw her walking down the street, the shortish South African might seem unassuming. You would be wrong – she’s an experienced martial artist, and fluent in what she calls ‘the dance of pain’. She runs an organisation called Premier Self-Defence in London. As it quickly turns out, that’s very apt – many of her techniques are about seeming unthreatening at first, but being able to tap into aggression and violence if necessary.

She asks us near to the start of the session, ‘Could you pick a brick up and smash it into another human’s face?’ Some in the audience are visibly shocked.

Most of the attendees of this session are younger women – that is no surprise. Even though women of all ages are harassed and attacked on the street and in their own home, there is a cluster of awfulness that young women tend to experience more, mostly from men. (Although, Steven says, it’s not impossible that you might be attacked on the streets by a teenage girl or a woman.)

Steven says that her aim is to ‘teach nice people to have no respect and go flat out’ – obviously, only in the worst scenario, if you can’t escape!

She has a number of practical tips: trust your intuition, if a situation feels threatening, it probably is so get away.

In a threatening confrontation on the street, don’t be confrontational back, don’t issue a command like ’go away’ – stroke the ego of the aggressor instead. If someone comes at you saying, ‘you looking at me?’, rather than say no, you might pretend you thought you recognised them from some realistic situation, like, for example, the gym. Say anything to get away and de-escalate the situation.

We ‘get to’ experience the trainers getting in our face, shouting at us, trying to intimidate us – it was actually quite scary, even though we knew it was an act.

Then we move on to a physical demonstration: as in trying out Debi’s defence techniques on four male volunteers. We do not, as a whole, really put much welly into, for example, slapping the volunteers on their carotid artery.

By the time we’ve worked through slapping, kicking, elbowing and screaming, however, it has changed. There’s no ladylike holding back – we are, as a group, unrecognisable. Seeing an elegantly dressed woman enthusiastically kneeing one of the trainers (he was holding a padded block!), I feel a little bit liberated. And that’s only after a taster session – the usual classes are about four hours long.

Feminists, many of us, are pretty pacifist. Women, all of us, are socialised to think of ourselves as weak and men as overwhelmingly strong.

One story that Debbie told stands out for me; she teaches a self defence class in a girls’ school to a group of 13 year olds. Every year, some of her make volunteers come away with broken ribs.

*I’m blogging this live so I trust you’ll Google if you’re not familiar with the dreadful numbers.

Working Girls

One of the themes that seems to have emerged in the schedule for this year’s WOW Festival is the importance of our working lives and the issues we face in the workplace as women. As with last year there are several speed mentoring opportunities (I was mentored last year and highly recommend it). However, there have also been new additions to the WOW programme, including panel discussions on Shyness in Networking, Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, Getting a Broad On The Board, What Is a Social Enterprise, and How to Start one and some practical clinics on Juggling Act: Work/Life Balance.

This pattern has come at an interesting time for me. I’m lucky to have a job I love and that challenges me, in an organisation whose values I share. I’ve been in the management role I do now for several years and am at a stage where the next set of challenges is on my mind. However, I am also six months pregnant, so am about to take a big step back for what I expect will be a full year’s maternity leave. As a result both the Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office panel and the Work/Life Balance seemed to reflect the somewhat conflicting stages I’m now at.

I’m reasonably happy with my Work/Life balance in general but decided this might be a good opportunity to think about how it’s going to change, and how I would like it to look in the future. The session was supportive and practical and was a great opportunity for some of us to ask questions of the other women there in terms of how they manage their lives (with or without children), but one question raised did resonate with several of us, and carried through to the following discussion on ‘nice girls’. One attendee found that they struggled to get recognition for their work, without being seen to brag. It may be a sweeping generalisation but women are perceived to find this difficult. We don’t like to be seen to go on about our achievements in the way that many men in the workplace tend to do. Is that a bad thing? Without recognition of the work we’re doing it’s possible we’ll get passed over for promotion, or worse be seen to be ineffective in our current roles. As a manager of others I frequently hold appraisals with staff who sometimes have very little to say in the ‘what are your strengths?’ part of the discussion – in spite of the fact that they definitely have many valuable skills. They often just feel uncomfortable raising them, and that’s within the confines of a one-to-one conversation specifically designed to invite them to.

The Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office panel carried this point through it in various guises. I’ve not read the book by Lois P Frankel but the subtitle of 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers probably tells you most of what you need to know – the book identifies ways of behaving that women have in the workplace that are barriers to progression and gives hints and tips to overcome them. Much of the discussion wondered if the book was necessary, or the right way to go. It could definitely be argued that if women want to succeed (get the corner office) in the corporate sector then this book could definitely identify behaviours that could help. But is that what we, as women, want? Is part of the reason there are so few women on boards partially because we don’t want to succeed in those kinds of male-dominated environments, where these games are played?

Part of the behaviour flagged up is the alleged tendency on the part of women to be the ‘nice girl’ – obedient, head-down, hard-working, doing what you’re told and thinking that this will be enough to get you promoted. In reality, you have to have the confidence to put yourself forward and take risks, ensuring that your work is recognised. We don’t like to brag. However, as the panel mentioned, does anyone really like the people who do show-boat and brag? And should we be worried about being liked anyway? There’s probably a balance to be struck here. Mildred Talabi, one of the panellists, mentioned that the behaviour she identified from the book’s self-assessment quiz was her ability to market herself. This surprised her as someone well experienced in marketing, but when it came to her own ‘brand’ in her workplace she agreed she wasn’t getting it right. She could do amazing things (making miracles) but when this was mentioned to her, she’d downplay and minimise her achievements as if these things had just magically happened. We need to learn to accept praise and admit we worked hard on something.

I can’t help but wonder if buying into these tips will just reinforce a corporate, male way of working that we shouldn’t have to conform to to succeed. Is this game-playing our way of doing things? At last year’s session on Women, Power and Change Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke out in favour of quotas on boards, with the reasoning that the current criteria board members are hired against are set by men who have those skills. More women on the boards may mean the criteria change to be equally effective but more recognisable to women who will become more likely to go for those positions in future. Similarly by buying into these 101 mistakes we’re just maintaining the status quo, but if we don’t then we won’t get the corner office and begin to effect change from the inside (a point made by panellist Hannah Philp, who had fascinating things to say about her experience of working in corporate culture in general).

I’d be interested in hearing if similar themes came up at today’s Getting A Broad on the Board session. The questions and comments from the floor at the panel I went to were incredibly animated and impassioned and went from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of agreeing with this book. There’s plenty more to be said and I hope the discussion continues at WOW 2013 and for a long time after.

Lori Halford