Lean In: How Men Can Support Gender Equity

Editor's Note: This article is part of a blog series for Women's History Month featuring stories of men and women working to create a more equal and safe world. May we all continue to partner and pray together for gender justicedownload our free March 2015 Prayer Calendar.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how men can “lean in” and become better advocates for gender parity and reduce violence against women—all without falling into the two ditches on either side of the path: being patronizing or becoming a gender essentialist. Whatever our answers, they often derive from instructive scenes in our life—here are four from mine.

Scene 1: My best friend from elementary school days, “Amber,” visited her church pastor, whom I knew well, in a state of panic. Amber was pleading with the pastor for help after her husband broke her jaw during an argument in front of their 3 year old. The pastor counseled her to remain with her husband in the home to help him work through his anger and help determine what responsibility she might have had for his continued outbursts. I remember experiencing my own anger toward the minister, whose understanding of God, the Bible, and violence was as perverse as his pastoral care was incompetent. But I also experienced an unexpected rush of fear, as I wondered if I were capable of doing the same thing if I ever lost control of myself in an emotional argument with a spouse.

Scene 2: During my summer job in college clearing rocks on a Virginia horse farm, I would crank up the volume on my pickup truck radio as my favorite Focus on the Family host offered advice from a decidedly fundamentalist Christian moral perspective. With sweat dripping from my brow, I once heard the host respond to a woman whose husband was beating her. At first, I anticipated the host would head toward the traditional logic of my upbringing: “Stay. Save your marriage. Help him.” But he took a sharp turn and surprised me by saying to this woman across the airwaves, “First get out and get safe.” I don’t recall where it went from there, but that advice was such an unexpected shift that it brought me to tears. I’ve been tempted since to find that particular show in the radio archives to make sure I didn’t imagine it. This was not a message that was common or comforting to me as a young man dealing with what felt was natural, God-given testosterone-fueled anger. But this message has stuck with me since: “God does not condone abuse. Get out and get safe.”

Scene 3: I recently asked my teenage daughter her thoughts on how men could better address gender disparity and advocate for women. Her response revealed just how difficult it is for women and girls to be taken seriously these days: “I don’t see (the disparity) that often because when you’re younger it isn’t as obvious, but I do tire of boys jumping in while I’m trying to learn something to say ‘hey, that’s not how you do it, or here’s what you should do, or no that’s not right,’ when they probably don’t have much more of an idea than me but have loads of confidence.”

Scene 4: While writing this reflection, I was pleasantly interrupted by an inspiring visit from filmmaker Abigail Disney. Before we got down to business, I asked her what advice she had for me as a man in preventing violence against women and seeking women’s empowerment more generally. She didn’t blink and said “empathy.” Just put yourself in the shoes of a woman you know in determining your stance and perspective toward women. Have a question about what’s appropriate for your dealings with and hopes for women and girls across the planet or down the block? Just imagine it’s happening to your daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, niece, or grandmother. That’s a very helpful practice. It also would’ve been good advice to me as a kid when I was confused by the Bible verses battling it out on the subject in my Sunday School. (“There is neither male nor female vs. Women keep silent; Mary’s faithfulness vs. Peter denial” and so on.)

Then there’s the more recent pragmatic argument: you should want gender parity because of how it will help your own family, business, or city. In short, inequality and violence harms the women who are your partners and friends. Some suggest that it’s mighty convenient that men are ready to take a stand when we finally see how it benefits us. But one female friend advised me that men should ease up on themselves: “Just deliver gender parity, and we’ll gladly forget HOW exactly you got there. Deal?”

According to the Global Gender Gap Report released at the latest World Economic Forum, it will take 80 years to reach gender parity in pay, status, governance, etc. In the year 2095, my daughters would be approaching 100 years old, and my mother, wife, two sisters, aunts and so forth would be long dead along with me and all the women that I care about today. Why wait 80 more years? It’s time for all men to lean in and help cut that number in half (and then some).

I’ve joked before that having two older sisters is what every boy needs to make the world spin around more equitably. If not biological sisters, then let’s find older sisters for every boy. Hopefully with gender parity cut down to 20 years from 80, my 7-year-old son will need to work twice as hard to “get ahead,” since he’ll finally be competing fairly with the other half of the sky. May it be so.

Rob Wilson-Black is the CEO of Sojourners.

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