A modest demand for male engagement

High angle view of a businessman standing amidst businesspeople

Looking on from the outside, the world of “gender studies” or related fields in gender-focused research, gender equality policy and programming, and the panoply of ethical questions regarding gender equity appear to take an almost ritualistic form: women talking to women about women.

Yes, there’s much to talk about, and such discourse is certainly not to be dismissed as superficial or trite – although that’s how our culture often casts women’s discourse. Our culture, and cultures around the world, predominantly reflect the values, priorities, and foibles of a “man’s world” framing. For those of us who hunger for an authentic place in which to be a person with full agency and opportunity, respect and resilience, it can be crushingly hard if we happen to be female or gender non-conforming. No surprise then that so many of us reach out for the healing, fortifying solidarity of women.

And men?

Where is men’s place in the gender discourse? They are seldom physically in such conversations, and probably many feel dissuaded or intimidated from participation given that such gatherings are so overwhelmingly “not male”.  Those men who consciously take on a formal role as a “gender advisor,” or some job-description variant thereof, are few – although generally much fêted by women.

For those of us who work on international human rights advocacy and international development, the dimension of “gender” has been kicked about for more than 40 years in a formal sense. As feminist thinking has evolved, and continues to do so, we’ve sought more effective ways to empower women to find our own pathways to lives of greater dignity, freedom, and choice. Throughout the Global South where traditional gendered social and economic roles are stubbornly resistant to change, and even in the more developed “progressive” societies of the Global North, the quest to break free from the glass ceilings, from objectification and commodification, and to push back firmly against misogyny and pervasively sexualized stereotypes continues with little fanfare. It’s what women and girls (and, more and more, those who are gender non-conforming) do. It’s “the way things are” for slightly more than half of humanity.

Let the women gather and talk…where’s the harm in it?

And the men? What’s their stake in this discourse, and in the pent-up demand for change that it represents? To what extent are conversations among men focused on equity, on universal human rights and dignity, on civil and political rights, specifically in the context of also embracing that half of humanity who are women, girls, and those who are gender non-conforming?

Barely at all…at least when viewed from this one transgender woman’s experience of five decades in male space. Hardly a statistically reliable sample to be sure, and as one who has been male-embodied but never truly male, I can claim no pretense of objectivity. But I – then presenting as Stephen – was at those tables, in those rooms, and a part of those conversations, more often than not among only men. Time and time again in those earnest and sometimes impassioned discussions on urgent challenges to dignity and freedom, the world was defaulted to the male. In those spaces women’s voices were absent, muted, or highly constrained. The plight of women simply didn’t come up. I doubt much has changed in the past nine years (since my transition to my authentic gender).

We’re not talking about changes at the margins. Make no mistake – the agenda of universal human dignity is comprehensively radical. Expecting the world to value, accommodate, and invite the perspective that comfortably has half its roots in female sensibilities, in which “feminine” is not equated (again, often by default) with weak, submissive, irrational, soft, or impulsive, is to expect social change at a scale never seen before in the history of our species. It will take time, and most women have internalized that lesson long ago. Women choose their battles…

Transgender women, in my experience, tend to be edgier. We were socialized to be assertive boys, after all, and most of us never internalized society’s negative litany of what it means to be female. By the time that we claimed our authentic gender identity and directly confronted the towering wall of discrimination and “yes dear” that women have wrestled with forever, we were unprepared. Where did that high wall suddenly come from?

What could prepare a “new” woman for such a world, when only being truly immersed in women-space finally makes its topography visible? While being within the sisterhood is life-sustaining and nurturing in ways that are indescribably fulfilling for me, this new world is full of unpleasant surprises. As transgender women who transitioned as adults, we’re a bit sheepish to admit (if we even will) that we never quite noticed it all before. It’s an admission that we can never be absolved from entirely – and among many feminists this fact forms the basis of attacks on the “male privilege” that many transgender women grew up to be socialized with as “normal”.

They’re right. That form of male privilege sets many transgender women apart from our cisgender sisters. It’s offset in large measure by the deep damage and sheer agony of years spent inhabiting the wrong body, but the male privilege happened. And for cisgender boys and men around the world, the privilege continues largely unabated and often completely unrecognized by them. It’s the way things are.

Women can and do share anecdotes – many quite humorous and perhaps at some level innocuous – of the masculine-dominant assumptions that the men and boys in our lives (and not infrequently in our hearts) carry with them as baggage. We are starting to poke and prod them into “unpacking” some of those suitcases and really looking at the contents, the values and assumptions and stereotypes that so profoundly disadvantage, diminish, and often humiliate women. It will be the work of decades more to come. But women are tough. We’ve lasted millennia, and we’ll doggedly persist until human dignity really does become universal and equity – fairness – is achieved.

But should we wait?

Should we be so sensitive to causing “unpleasant” disruption to the status quo? Should we sacrifice our full agency, our range of freedoms and opportunities, our claims to decency and respect, simply because it’ll make the guys squirm and wince? Oh yes, and react – often fiercely – as anyone who is familiar with the phenomenon of honor killings knows. Why would men be placid and nonchalant when our demands mean the end of patriarchy as we all know it? Why should they give up their privilege, other than for the reasons that it is morally indefensible and causes immense harm to the world? Yes, even to their half of it – but that’s another discussion.

When it comes to gender-based violence (GBV), violence against women and girls (VAWG), and violence against sexual minorities, disruption of the status quo is long overdue. The vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by men against women or against sexual minorities, and it is in everyone’s interest to stop it. Now. If you need facts and figures to motivate you, take a long hard look at the tabulation of statistics that UN Women publishes. Just sit for a while and ponder the immensity and intensity of human – female – suffering, indignities, diminishment, humiliation, and exploitation. This is not something we can calmly wait to “evolve out of” as a species. It has to stop, now. Men and boys need to share the task of making it stop.

In the world of gender-focused research and development, this is called “male engagement”. It’s a label that is ludicrous on the face of it, but there it is – we struggle mightily to get men to “engage” in the fight for universal human dignity. We’re making progress, but not fast enough in the face of such outrageous suffering.

Why should men and boys “engage” when women, girls, and female and gender non-conforming members of sexual minorities place this demand before them? (Gay and bisexual men also seek a non-violent, respectful response and decent engagement with straight cisgender men).  Is it because we as women and girls form vitally important elements in their own lives as grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces, and friends?


While the roles that we play, and the nurturing, care, love, and friendship that we offer to men and boys is not to be undervalued (although it is), our value does not come in relationship to men. We are valuable for being who we are – human beings.

Respect our humanity, recognize and respond to our inherent dignity, treat us with decency and care, and accept that when all people everywhere are valued as equally important, unique, and irreplaceable in our own ways, we all win. Humanity will only evolve to something far better once patriarchy is gone.

It’s a tough “male engagement” message, but a necessary one. Are you “man enough” to take up that challenge, guys?




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