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The Most Destructive Gender Binary

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Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in the United States, Brazil and Portugal and representatives in Rwanda and Burundi, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women.

We need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality

It was the latest setback for women’s empowerment. But you probably haven’t heard about it.

Part of the gender equality goal set to replace one of the U.N.’s soon-to-expire Millennium Development Goals didn’t make it through. The target left on the cutting room floor? Engaging men and boys around gender equality issues.

Why, exactly, is this is a setback for women’s equality? Because the fates of the two genders are intertwined; for women to thrive, men and boys must be part of the gender equality agenda. Why, then, in 2014, are we still addressing gender issues as a binary, girls vs. boys, women vs. men? And how can we get beyond it?

We asked that big question at a conference last week in Delhi — organized by the global MenEngage alliance ( full disclosure: I’m co-chair and co-founder of the alliance). Our answer – to get beyond the binary, and to achieve the promise of empowering women — we need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality.

Let’s start with violence. If you want to combat violence against women, you’ve got to understand, and address, violence against boys. Let me explain. Global data confirms that about one-third of the world’s women have experienced violence from a male partner. We have little evidence — with the possible exception of the U.S. and Norway — that any country has been able to reduce its overall rates of men’s violence against women. There are challenges with measuring violence, to be sure, but it’s far too early to claim that we have made real progress in reducing the daily threat to women and girls.

Why haven’t we moved the needle? Partly because we’ve been coming up with solutions for only half of the affected population. We know that men who witness violence growing up are nearly three times more likely to go on to use violence against female partners. Data also show that men who witness violence growing up are more likely to be depressed, contemplate suicide, and more likely to binge drink. In other words, men’s lives, too, are harmed by the violence of men. Ending violence against women must also mean ending violence against boys and men.

Unpaid care work is another area where we can see the same intertwined narrative playing out. Women do the majority of the unpaid care work in the world. And yet, studies show that when men take on those responsibilities, they’re happier, less likely to be depressed (and have better sex lives). According to one study in the U.S., we even live longer as men when we’re involved fathers. A study in Sweden finds that involved fathers are less likely to miss work, and are healthier. Not to mention all the data showing that children benefit when fathers are involved in caring for them.

Or consider this: a recent World Health Organization report confirmed that there are 800,000 deaths from suicides each year, about two-thirds of those are men. We know something about which men commit suicide: men who are socially isolated, who feel they can’t reach out for help, whose sense of identity was lost when they lost their livelihoods. Men who, in part at least, are stuck in outdated notions of manhood.

What’s more, entire economies benefit when women can devote more time to the paid workforce. If women’s participation in the workforce were equal to men’s, the U.S. GDP would be nine percent larger and India’s GDP would be 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars bigger. Yet right now, that disparity is arguably the single largest driver of women’s lower wages compared to men. Globally, 77 percent of men participate in the paid workforce, compared to just 50 percent of women—a proportion that has remained virtually unchanged for 25 years.

Even when women are in the workplace, they earn on average 18 percent less than men for the same work. Few countries outside of Scandinavia have created policy incentives to encourage men to do a near-equal share of unpaid care work. We know what it has taken in Scandinavia to push us closer toward equality in terms of care work: paid paternity leave. In other words, encouraging men to do a greater share of the care work.

Guess what? A little encouragement goes a long way. Today, with paid leave and “use-it-or-lose-it” leave for fathers only, the majority of men in Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Quebec (which has policies similar to the Nordic countries) are taking leave of six weeks or more. Iceland is the global leader: fathers there take an average of 103 days of paid paternity leave.

We’re stuck in a similar gender box when it comes to empowering women to control how many children they have. In 2005, women represented 75 percent of global contraceptive users and men 25 percent. In 2014, women represent 73 percent. Hardly numbers to celebrate and proclaim equality; indeed, that change does not even pass the confidence interval. Why does it matter? Well, last time I checked, reproduction involves both women and men. Anything less than 50-50 in terms of contraceptive use cannot be called equality. By not engaging men as equal partners in contraceptive use, we hold women back. This doesn’t mean giving men control over women’s bodies; it means engaging men to assume their share of reproduction as respectful, aware and supportive partners.

In terms of HIV/AIDS, the story is similar. We have made amazing strides in rolling out HIV testing and treatment. Treatment as prevention is working in many countries. One of the key remaining obstacles in reducing HIV rates and AIDS-related mortality rates even more is the fact that in much of the world, men are far less likely than women to seek HIV testing and treatment. The result is increased risk for women and higher AIDS-related mortality among men.

The arguments could go on. From economic empowerment for women to violence prevention, the evidence consistently affirms that engaging men as partners in gender equality is more effective than only tapping women. And the data is clear that men who support gender equality, are more supportive, democratic partners and get involved in their share of the care work are happier men.

Twenty years after one of the largest events to promote women’s equality in Beijing — where Hillary Clinton made her famous proclamation that “women’s rights are human rights” — the conclusion is this: we won’t achieve full equality for women until we move beyond binary us-versus-them, women-versus-men thinking. We must commit to ending patriarchy in the lives of women and in the lives of men. As men, we must acknowledge that we have an equal stake in gender equality. In fact, let’s acknowledge this: our lives get better when we embrace it.

Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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TIME Education

The Crisis of Minority Boys

Young men and boys of color are trailing minority girls and white boys in education, and their job prospects are getting worse.

If we’re to believe this Axe body spray ad, young men are incapable of controlling themselves around attractive women. Before that we had the Huggies ad campaign, ‘The Dad Test,’ which featured the all-too familiar “bumbling dad” character. That one said: We don’t even know how to change a diaper. The predecessor to that gem was a Docker’s ad that lamented the fall of old-fashioned manhood, enjoining us to heed the “Call of Manhood” and “wear the pants.” In other words, according to these ads, we need to go back to simpler times when men were men and women were women. Yet today, at a time when young men, and boys of color are falling behind, we urgently need to rethink our outdated definition of masculinity, and create new definitions of success.

This month, President Obama announced the expansion of his new My Brother’s Keeper program – a public-private effort to give minority boys access to more educational and employment opportunities. It’s an overdue national-level response to an urgent problem: young men and boys of color are trailing minority girls and white boys in high school graduation rates and reading scores, and are more likely to be suspended than white students. And their job market prospects are limited and, by nearly all measures, getting worse.

On top of that, the discussion about what low-income boys need to succeed in school, work and family life is outdated. As those ads all too clearly testify, the airwaves are full of simplistic and often unfounded assumptions about men and about gender differences. We seldom talk intelligently about just how it is that we socialize boys and men in the U.S. – and how that can affect them – and the people around them, for the rest of their lives. Though many of the challenges that minority boys and young men face in this country are structural – the result of lack of access to quality education, stable caregiving environments, and exclusion from the workplace – they are also about how we raise boys of all ethnic groups.

For years, we’ve been debating about the “problem with boys,” and why girls are speeding ahead of them. Too often, conversations are focused on the idea that boys are inherently different from girls and need to be taught to be more masculine, or that there is a “masculine” way of learning. That boys need books with stories involving explosions and guns, superheroes, rugged individualism and survival skills while girls need the social skills to juggle work and family.

Then there are those (including apparently those who wrote the Dockers ads) who argue that feminism has disempowered boys – that girls, female teachers, feminine curricula, feminists, mothers, and female politicians are to blame for the faltering men. We are trying to turn our boys into girls, according to claims from a newly emerging “male studies” movement and a recent conference in Detroit.

Campaigns and movements like these are causing big problems. Data from the United States and the rest of the world suggest that the problems of suicide, poor educational achievement, delinquency, crime, violence (both against other men and against women), and poor physical health lie in part at least with boys and men trying to live up to exaggerated, straight-jacket definition of what it means to be a man. Indeed, rather than trying to encourage boys and men to be stereotypically male – physically tough at all costs, emotionally stoic, and autonomous – we need to help them understand and appreciate that close relationships, empathy and the ability to get along with others are key to their survival. We need to raise them to be boys and men who seek help when they need it, who provide help when needed, who connect to each other, and who can feel masculine without using violence or dominating others.

This can be even more challenging for low-income boys of color. We know that low-income young men in many parts of the world sometimes find a sense of identity and respect in gangs and similar groups when they don’t find it in school or the workplace. With multiple variations around the world, we see that being tough, aggressive, belonging to a gang or violent group, having lots of sexual partners and no commitment to their children is a way to project a version of “real manhood” when other ways – work and education – are cut off. This doesn’t excuse the behavior of angry young men. It explains it.

Take a young man I interviewed in favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro. “Work isn’t everything but it’s almost everything,” he told me. “If you have work, everybody leaves you alone and you’re cool. No, work, man, and you’ll do anything.”

We know what the “anything” is and the harm it brings. Globally young men ages 15-24 are the group most likely to carry out lethal violence and to be victims of it. Nearly 30 percent of men of color will have some encounter with the justice sector, and many of those will spend time in jail or prison. And we know that education and meaningful work must be the centerpiece of efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to end the harm.

But let’s not forget about the boyhood behind the boys. Let’s think about the brotherhood in My Brothers Keeper. The media bombard boys of all backgrounds with versions of aggressive, sex, money and power-at-all-costs images on the internet, in music, in our homes, and on our playing fields.

As we think about minority boys, we must also engage the media, parents and schools in teaching new versions of manhood – versions not based in violence and success-at-any-cost but based in respect, non-violence, connection and caring. This can include programs like “Gender Matters” in Austin, Texas, in which boys and girls question harmful ways we’re taught to be women and men as part of a summer youth employment training program. Or “Coaching Boys into Men”, in which coaches teach boys that manhood is not about disrespecting women or bullying their teammates. As we empower girls and women to succeed in education and the workplace, let’s think about the kinds of men we want our boys to become.

Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in the United States, Brazil and Portugal and representatives in Rwanda and Burundi, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women.

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