Good male allies for women make good Americans, and I strive to be both for my young daughters.
That’s why I can’t think of anything more American than wanting equitable systems in the United States that afford my daughters the same “unalienable rights” as men for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As our nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification and remembers the legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we men must become more engaged in the journey toward gender equality. We must be part of the debates and part of the solutions, and we don’t have to be perfect to do it. It all starts with rejecting frameworks that dismiss women’s inherent human dignity or agency over their lives. Anything less betrays the values of a free society.
A July 2020 Pew Research Center survey shows that majorities of American men and women believe there’s still work to do to advance gender equality. However, there are noticeable gaps between the sexes on where improvement is most needed.
The three issues with the greatest divergences are “women not having the same legal rights as men,” “different expectations society has for men and women,” and “not enough women in positions of power.” All have serious implications for the status of women and girls in society. And for each of these issues, there’s at least a 14 percentage-point gap between women and men in believing greater change is needed.
Moreover, a United Nations Development Program study found that 91% of men globally harbor some bias against gender equality, whether that be believing males are better suited for political leadership or more worthy of university education or more deserving of jobs than women.
Addressing these perception gaps and biases starts with men reaffirming that women are valued human beings who desire and deserve respect. That exercise may seem trite, but it’s a foundational level-set for our brains. Do we frequently talk over women? Do we try re-explaining (mansplaining) something they just stated? Do we dismiss what they say as being overly “emotional?” Do we describe them as “shrill” or “bossy?” We can’t empathize with the struggles of women (and consequently become better allies) without accounting for our own actions, what they reveal about our potential biases, and how they’re perceived.
Empathy, in turn, enhances our capacity to listen, affirm and advocate for the women and girls in our lives. This may take different forms.
Sometimes it’s setting a bold example such as when Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Marvel’s Dr. Strange, pledged to accept only roles when female co-stars are paid equally. Sometimes it’s a courageous act on behalf of women, such as when Harry T. Burn, a freshman state representative from Tennessee, cast the decisive vote that ensured the 19th Amendment’s ratification.
And sometimes it’s everyday acts that become routine.
At work or in civic groups, advocate for women by suggesting more intentional female recruitment policies, being more inclusive of women in decision-making processes, and respectfully challenging misogynistic views held by colleagues.
At home, reframe household and child care responsibilities as an interchangeable partnership and not things divided into baskets of “men’s work” and “women’s work.”
As a father or mentor, reinforce the worth and potential of girls. My 6-year-old daughter recently asked me, “can girls be president? There haven’t been any girl presidents.” That’s a serious question and should be treated as such. I answered, “yes, they can” and encouraged her to keep asking until we have a woman president.
Also, don’t misinterpret gender equality as an effort to displace men; it’s not. Studies have shown that men and women benefit from greater gender equality in the workplace. It leads to innovation and increased profits, but only when men are engaged partners.
It’s also about leveling the playing field so that women can compete fairly. For example, women in both the public and private sectors are being penalized for pregnancy by their employers. Consequences include being passed over for promotions or denied raises or even termination. That’s discriminatory and unfair, and it sends a terrible message to capable women who want families and careers.
We men won’t always be exemplary partners. We’re flawed like all people, but we should learn, grow and strive to be better. And that growth should be inspired by America’s founding ideals — freedom, fairness, opportunity — and a national story that moves toward expanding liberty, not denying it.
Christopher Walsh is senior program manager for the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.