In early 2015, a subject heading caught my attention while I was scrolling through email. I clicked on the message to find an announcement for an international conference on masculinity being hosted that spring in New York City. The conference name, and the subject line, read Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality.
I am a long-term diversity consultant, having worked with organizations – primarily large corporations but also non-profits and educational institutions – to create more inclusive work cultures and to improve the mechanisms that distribute opportunity. I have done a great deal of work related to organizations developing and supporting women leaders, and it is typical for a company to have a male champion, often a senior leader, advocating for an organizational focus on gender diversity. But a whole conference devoted to men’s role? No. And use of the term gender equality, often perceived as highly-loaded? Seldom. How about including boys as part of the gender discussion? Never. A conference on engaging men and boys for gender equality? Sign me up!
I attended the conference where over 700 people from across the globe filled the sessions over several days. The gender ratio at the conference was one of the first things I noticed. Participants for the vast majority of events related to gender diversity strongly skew female and gender studies majors at U.S. colleges and universities are overwhelmingly populated by young women. Yet I sat at the conference on the first day eating lunch with five males and as I looked at tables across the room, women were similarly in the minority.
At the conference I met college-age men and men nearing retirement. I met men who had been part of the community supporting feminism and gender equality for decades and men who were newcomers. I met men from the U.S. and men from Africa and South America. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t believe there was all this amazing work going on so closely related, yet simultaneously so separate, from my work as a diversity practitioner for corporate America.
Fast forward 18 months and in June I attended the Healthy Men and Boys Summit which I learned about at the international men’s conference. The summit was hosted by MERGE for Equality, an organization with deep, deep roots in championing gender equality. The Men’s Resource Center (MRC), a predecessor to MERGE, was begun in the early 1980’s by a group of men who saw a need to create opportunities for men to come together and share their experiences. MRC reached out to a nearby women’s center indicating they wanted to be allies and asking how they could help. The response was not encouraging. The women’s center didn’t have the bandwidth to work with MRC, being at full capacity trying to support the women survivors of sexual assault. They did have one suggestion though: get the men to stop being violent. MRC launched groups for batterers as well as groups for men involved with women who had previously been assaulted.
By the early 2000’s MRC leaders codified all they had learned working with men for over 20 years. The educational program they developed focused on illuminating, assessing, and questioning male norms, and exploring the benefits, and costs, of masculinity as it was typically defined. The program sought to help individuals and groups work toward a new definition of masculinity that engendered greater health, happiness, and connection as well as mitigating the scourges of violence, inequality, and domination embedded in traditional masculinity. The training arm became Men’s Resource International (MRI) and worked in partnership with MRC. In 2016 MERGE for Equality became the official name of the combined entities.
An enormous strength of MERGE’s work is illuminating the paradox of traditionally-defined masculinity – the power and the privilege so intricately intertwined with the pain and the limitations. A key premise is that boys and men both benefit from, and are harmed by, masculinity norms. Yes men enjoy many benefits such as better professional opportunities and higher pay. But at the same time, men’s socialization all too often leaves them feeling isolated, disconnected and hurt with only anger – or numbing the pain – as acceptable responses.
At the summit MERGE for Equality shared their work across the globe. MERGE has worked with men and women in countries around the world – Nigeria, Albania, Rwanda – as well as places much closer to home – New London, Connecticut and Sturbridge, Massachusetts – in their efforts to catalyze change. These groups seek to support gender equality and to stem the violence and domination that harm so many. Through their consulting and training, MERGE helps individuals and organizations to draw new maps of manhood and to dismantle the gender binary whereby being a man means not being like women.
While the roots of MERGE’s work were anchored in violence prevention, supporting men in healing from their own experiences with violence and encouraging men as agents of change, MERGE has expanded to play a critical role in social change. MERGE is now focusing on expanding the conversation about the ways that boys and men are socialized to be masculine, including promoting roles in which men are major caregivers, especially as highly engaged fathers. Not only do men who are active in their children’s lives have better health and higher life satisfaction, they also allow women to flourish professionally by sharing the load. Perhaps most importantly, men’s involvement reinforces the value and importance of care work which is so woefully undervalued in our country and in our world.
As a diversity practitioner who has long espoused the importance of men in the gender discussion, I first reached out to MERGE to explore how their work could inform the goal of engaging men in support of gender equality in the workplace. MERGE is contemplating in what ways their deep understanding of masculinity relates to creating more inclusive work cultures and improving opportunities for women across the leadership hierarchy. The short answer is many. MERGE knows how to talk with men rather than at them and how to create safe spaces for men to talk openly about gender. They know how to separate the construct of traditional masculinity from the behavior of men. Perhaps most importantly, they know how to facilitate shifts in thinking and ultimately behavior.
Becoming aware of a robust community of men, many who have proactively supported gender equality for decades, has been so hopeful. I believe men and women working together to realize gender equality will make it so.