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02 July 2018

Taking men and manhood seriously in the quest for gender equality

Gary Barker, President and CEO of Promundo

If we truly hope to achieve equality for women, men must be part of the change

Father and son
Father and son

Virtually every conversation, every blog, every report, every new women’s empowerment initiative starts this way, as it must: we present the gap between women’s situation and men’s. We discuss how long it will take it to achieve parity. And most of the time, we leave out a big piece: that if we truly hope to achieve equality for women, men must be part of the change. Not as an afterthought. Not as ‘champions’ coming to women’s rescue, but as part of the equation, with targeted goals and programming.

Let’s start with the headlines. In spite of major increases in women’s participation in the workplace, globally, women’s income is on average 20% less than men’s (with even larger, intersectional disparities). Part of the pay gap has to do with the fact that more men are in the upper echelons of employment.

Why men predominate in the C-suite is mostly due to the gender binary – the lingering legacy of women’s traditional caregiving roles. Even with major increases in women’s workforce participation, they continue to carry out on average three times the daily unpaid housework and childcare that men do. This is the largest single driver of their limited labour force participation. 

Feminist economists have for years rightly pushed the three Rs:

  • Recognition: figuring out a way to pay women for their time devoted to care work
  • Reduction: easier access to water, better cooking stoves, and the like
  • Redistribution: paid childcare, and getting men to do a greater share of the care work, as well as government support

These approaches work, but they have limitations. Even with paid childcare arrangements (often carried out by underpaid women), women still have a second – unpaid – shift to do when they come home from their paid job. The countries that have come closest to wage parity are those where men are doing more of the hands-on care work. Still, no country has achieved equality in the amount of time women spend on domestic work compared to men.

Furthermore, no country has even set of a goal of men doing on average 50% of the care and domestic work, and no such goal is included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

There’s also the issue of men’s use of violence against women. Whether carried out in the home, or in the form of harassment or assault in workplaces, schools or on the streets, efforts have mostly focused on providing support and services to female survivors of violence, and secondarily on holding perpetrators accountable – with far fewer efforts seeking to prevent the violence in the first place.

These approaches must continue, to be sure. But our research has found that around 30% of men report having used violence against a partner, although it varies widely by country setting, ranging from 17% to 45%, suggesting just how much context matters. In addition, in a recent study we did in the US, UK and Mexico, between 20% and 33% of men aged 18 to 30 had in some way verbally harassed a woman, including cyber-harassment, in the past month.

While we must continue to hold individual perpetrators accountable, we have to take primary prevention of men’s violence against women far more seriously, embedded in national policies and with separate funding streams that don’t take away from the much-needed and still inadequate support of female survivors of violence.

Our research and that of others has found that three key factors influence individual men’s use of violence against women: witnessing or experiencing violence growing up, holding inequitable attitudes about manhood (i.e. believing that men should be in charge and that violence against women is acceptable), and perceived impunity.

If we want to significantly reduce men’s violence against women, we must scale up evidence-based approaches that address these drivers. This means bystander intervention programmes, in which young men are part of the solution in calling out the violence of other men; school-based violence prevention initiatives; community norm-change approaches; and parent training to reduce use of corporal punishment. All of these have shown evidence of a positive impact in rigorous evaluation studies.

There is much to celebrate in terms of the impact of global advocacy on behalf of women. Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, created by Promundo with the International Center for Research on Women and carried out in more than 35 countries, confirm that many men agree with gender equality in principle, even though their behaviours continue to lag in terms of addressing the issues described above. 


It’s also important to recognise that most of these generational changes in men’s attitudes and practices have been as a result of changes in women’s lives. The global women’s rights agenda is having an impact on men as well as women. Younger cohorts of men in many parts of the world, used to seeing their sisters in school alongside them and their mothers working, are slowly accepting gender equality.

But specific, targeted programmes for men as well as national-level objectives can and must speed up the change. For more than 20 years, a growing number of nongovernmental organisations, including Promundo, have implemented evidence-based interventions to engage men in achieving gender equality, including through the prevention of violence against women, advancement of sexual and reproductive health, and promotion of women’s economic empowerment.

Evaluations of these approaches have affirmed that ‘gender-transformative’ interventions – those that focus on changing restrictive gender norms and inequitable ideas about manhood – in communities, schools, workplaces and in other areas, can change attitudes and behaviours (see Promundo’s 2007 evidence review carried out with the World Health Organization). But even where we have confirmed the effectiveness of such approaches, these programmes are generally small-scale and have yet to be incorporated in larger, existing women’s empowerment programming, systems, and structures.

Discussing the need to scale up gender-transformative work with men inevitably brings up the question of funding. Will such efforts take away funds from existing programmes to support and empower women and girls?

While there is always competition for funds, including within existing programmes for women, part of that question is misguided: gender-transformative, evidence-based initiatives that engage men and boys to reduce violence, engage them as reproductive health partners, promote their involvement in care work, and change their attitudes about women’s leadership do not compete with women’s empowerment initiatives.

When done thoughtfully and in partnership, they are women’s empowerment initiatives – and can enable existing women-focused efforts to achieve even more impact.  It’s high time to move beyond an approach that says women-focused or engaging men, and say: it’s both.