Male-only spaces can foster candor and emotional honesty.
My first blog post on this topic, In Search of a Safe Port, about where and how men could do their best gender work has stimulated a lot of discussion and reflection. I asserted that men can’t fully build their gender awareness and skill by learning and working in contexts in which women set the norms for the work. For example, I wondered if an organization like Catalyst could effectively foster the dialogue and learning about gender that men need to undertake.
My experiences in the past month have reinforced my belief that while some gender work for men and women must be done in partnership, men also need their own “safe ports,” male led and male. These are places where they can have open, frank conversations in which they express themselves with candor and emotional honesty.
Last week, I worked with a group of men and women on gender in organizations. My colleagues and I split the room into all male and all female groups and let those same-sex groups talk together for a period of time before reconvening the groups for a plenary conversation. In facilitating the men’s conversation, the toughest moments came when some men talked about how they believed women intentionally manipulated men and that women really had no legitimate gender grievances. In fact, they argued, women were the ones who had the upper hand. These sexist perspectives, we later learned, mostly flowed from their personal experiences of injury in interactions and relationships with women. But as I cringed at some of the attitudes expressed, I realized two things. First, these men needed to express themselves in a gathering of men coming together to intentionally address gender (as opposed to talking off-handedly in a bar or at a gym). These sexist views did not need to be censored, but rather expressed and, hopefully, influenced to change.
Second, these men would never have spoken these perspectives if they had not been in a men’s safe space. As one man said, “We censor ourselves around women. It’s not that they are doing anything to us to make us clam up. We just won’t say these things when they are around because we don’t want to be seen as bad guys. But this stuff really is part of how we feel.”
Men’s space is important for another reason. Women’s presence in gender conversations often feels dangerous to men. In the situation I was in last week, some women would—justifiably—have been enraged by what those men said. Men’s sexist perspectives actively injure women on a day-by-day and minute-by-minute basis. That is the reality of gender oppression in our society. But this justifiable outrage does not diminish the value of men being able to express their perspectives. This opportunity for men to speak their truths and be constructively challenged is a valuable method for creating change.
I offer these observations as an entrée into my modest attempts to respond to the two questions I posed in my last post:
1) Where can men do their gender-focused work?
2) What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from woman-centered gender work?
I think the right spaces for men to do the best gender work will have the following characteristics:
- Men can have the opportunity to interact only with other men.
- These interactions are initiated and owned by men.
- Men have the opportunity to interact in mixed-sex groups with both men and women. These interactions may be sponsored by men or women AFTER the men have had their own space.
- Men are explicitly invited to explore what gender would mean if we were not talking about women at all.
All of these conversations include men who can ably facilitate learning productive ways for men to manage their identities and their relationships with women: These facilitators are self-aware and conversant about their experiences as men. And they have highly effective personal and professional relationships with women.
These two blog posts were stimulated by my simple insight that equality between men and women comes from empowering men and women. This empowerment means supporting them to speak their truths and thereby engage with others who may live different—even seemingly opposing—truths. My experience in my visit to Catalyst was one in which I did not feel fully empowered. It was not Catalyst’s fault. It was just that I needed—and I believe many men need—a different point of departure for their learning and development as men.
This post originally appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) website, May 23, 2013.