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Masculinity researchers call for political reforms

The role of men in the gender equality work has been discussed for many years, and several Nordic masculinity researchers now agree that the time is ripe for the politicians to act. Political reforms could increase men’s quality of life and change norms around masculinity, they say.

Foto: Colourbox

I think it’s dawning on most people that it’s a good idea to engage men in the gender equality work,’ says Norwegian masculinity researcher Jørgen Lorentzen.

Six years ago, he was a member of the Norwegian men’s panel tasked to spark debate about men and gender equality. The panel was initiated by the minister for gender equality and was the first panel of its kind in the Nordic region. It consisted of politicians, writers, representatives from business and industry and persons involved in the public debate.
‘It was a strange but exciting situation. It is very unusual that men from entirely different environments meet in a group to discuss gender equality. There is still this strong notion that gender equality is only a women’s issue,’ he says.
The panel talked about socialisation, fatherhood and violence, among many other topics. Lorentzen flips through the panel’s final report and is surprised over the great results.
‘We came up with some concrete and definitely feasible suggestions,’ he says. Unfortunately, however, he feels that the work of the panel did not yield any clear political effects.
‘It was our own initiative to write the final report, and our recommendations were never really addressed by the politicians,’ he says.

Presence of the Finnish men’s movement

Since the panel was dissolved in 2008, the role of men in the gender equality work has been the focus of several government-led initiatives in the Nordic countries. In 2011, a special working group was formed in Iceland. It presented its final report about a year ago. In Sweden, a government report following a commission on men and gender equality was recently published, and just a few days ago a progress report was presented for a similar Finnish initiative.

Anders Ahlbäck, masculinity researcher at Åbo Akademi University, concludes after a quick comparison that the Finnish and Swedish commissions have a lot in common. They focus on essentially the same themes, such as men’s opportunities to combine work and family life, boys’ performance in school, men’s violence, the gender-segregated labour market and men’s risk-taking. But there are differences as well, he says. The Finnish commission has a stronger focus on the labour market, whereas the Swedes give more attention to issues related to ethnicity and sexuality. Ahlbäck also feels that the Finnish commission has a stronger emphasis on men’s vulnerability to discrimination for example in healthcare and in connection with child custody cases.
‘I can sense the presence of the Finnish men’s movement,’ he says and tells us that the movement is rooted in the perception that there is a lack of awareness around issues of importance to men.

Initially, the movement probably emerged as a reaction against the feminist movement and the strong focus in gender equality work on women, Ahlbäck speculates. But in its current form, the movement cannot be blamed for being antifeminist.

‘That would be to oversimplify things. The movement has developed and matured. It is attracting a new group of activists who have realised that gender equality is of concern to them,’ he says.

Need of practical progress

Ahlbäck is following the work of the Finnish commission with great interest, but he also thinks that Finland and maybe all Nordic countries are in need of practical progress and political reforms.
‘Many people seem to feel that the gender equality work has stalled. There are discussions and studies, and that’s good, but we also need to actually get things done,’ he says.

He describes it as Sweden, Norway and Iceland leading the way in the gender equality work overall, and also with respect to issues concerning men and masculinities. Steen Baagøe Nielsen, researcher at Roskilde University, agrees.
‘Denmark has never launched a national commission on men, and that’s too bad. In Sweden and Norway, scientific studies have helped stimulate a knowledge-based debate on gender issues,’ he says.

Norms an obstacle in Denmark

Inspired by the Norwegian men’s panel, Denmark made a similar attempt. The government appointed a panel but did not include any gender researchers or scholars, which drew criticism from the academic community. Subsequently, a group of about 30 researchers took the initiative to form their own panel. It discussed subjects such as family life, paternal leave and boys in school.
‘We need a stronger debate, but it has to be based on research,’ says Baagøe Nielsen.

‘There is no debate on norm criticism in Denmark, and there is no broad understanding of structural inequality. There is no radicalness, and the fundamental knowledge about gender equality issues is weak,’ he continues.
He feels that the political will regarding gender equality is lacking in Denmark. He also says that many young men are tired of the restrictive masculinity norms, so it would be incorrect to say that nothing is happening.

 Steen Baagøe Nielsen

‘Many men want to take out more parental leave, but it’s not seen as legitimate in many workplaces. Nor is it legitimate for men to work in female-dominated occupations. Men who want to challenge the prevailing norms run into many obstacles, which calls for political initiatives,’ he says.
Baagøe Nielsen mentions the ‘anti-school’ culture among boys, the violence in men’s lives and relations, and fathers’ realistic opportunities to stay home with children as particularly important issues for politicians to tackle. These themes are emphasised as central by all researchers interviewed in this article.
‘Dads can’t be like satellites flying in and out of the home. Active and attentive fathering would increase the quality of life for both fathers and children,’ says Jørgen Lorentzen, who was on the Norwegian men’s panel.

He is convinced that both men and women have to act for the gender equality work to move forward.
‘It only makes sense, but it took us a long time to realise it,’ he says.

Updated 2 November 2022