Undressing patriarchy and redressing gender inequalities on International Men’s Day

19 November 2013

Achieving gender equality must be a central ambition of a post-2015 agenda. Yet debates on patriarchy have all but disappeared from gender and development discourse – debates that IDS and partners feel are crucial if we are to remove the underlying social and cultural attitudes, constraints and institutions that buttress gender inequalities. International Men’s Day 2013 is a highly pertinent time to reinvigorate those debates.

Business men. Image by KellyB cc on flickr

Working with Men and Boys for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment

In close collaboration with our partners, IDS has for over a decade been working on masculinities, men and boys in our efforts to create gender equal and less violent societies. Development interventions with men and boys have so far been mostly at pilot project level and have often had a narrow focus on changing the behaviour and attitudes of individuals. While working with men and boys at an individual level to change attitudes to gender equality is important, we must also look beyond changing hearts and minds to focus on the structures and social determinants that continue to shore up gender inequality.

Linking different perspectives

The feminist insistence on a focus on the subordination, discrimination and marginalisation of women, has brought attention not only to male supremacy and privilege, but also to an almost invisible and presumptive male-centeredness of public life and discourse. For example, the framings of development problems and solutions which have gained most currency have tended to be constructed from male perspectives, such as the overwhelming focus on economic growth over the hidden costs and dynamics of social reproduction. Progressive work on gender has also highlighted the notion of hegemonic masculinity which makes many other forms of masculinity subordinate. Queer Theory and work on sexual and reproductive rights has highlighted the role of heterosexist power relations and critiqued the idea of gender as a binary system. For example, it has identified how ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘heterosexism’ are integral to patriarchal power relations, alongside (or overlapping with) misogyny and racism. In men and masculinities work there has been progress in beginning to make men more visible within gender, to see masculinity as the multiple performances of being manly in different ways. 

In all these fields, a growing number of concerned voices of thinkers and activists are calling for greater attention to structures of power and structural constraints to equality. 

Conversations (about feminism, sexuality, men and masculinities, and broader social justice) need to be connected to contrast evolving perspectives and explore the links between  the patriarchal features of systems of power and other elements which constrain or facilitate equality for all genders. 

Exploring new thinking on patriarchy

To help facilitate the process of connecting these conversations, in September 2013 IDS hosted an international symposium, ‘Undressing Patriarchies, Redressing Inequalities’. One of the symposium’s key aims was to help revitalise and advance thinking about gender inequality in relation to patriarchy and to re-politicise ‘gender in development’. The event brought together researchers, activists, practitioners, and policy makers from a range of fields . 

It was an unlikely encounter of unusual suspects in unconventional debates; exploring not only how social constructions and policy discourses may limit our imagination and perpetuate or shift gender inequities, but also to explore how different systems of power interact to shape and re-shape patriarchal dynamics and constrain the realisation of equality for all. 

‘By the end of the Symposium I realised that patriarchy is not just synonymous with female oppression. It goes deeper than that and it takes many different forms. Patriarchy affects everyone. By that I mean it’s not only about gender - “race”, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, class, religion, and more all come into it. Even those in power who have to conform to a specific set of rules are affected by patriarchy’, said symposium participant, Zarah Nesbitt.

The symposium forms part of a larger body of work on gender, power and sexuality at IDS, including engaging men and boys for gender equity, pathways of women’s empowerment, sexuality and international development, and gender within social movements. The discussions, debates and disagreements within the symposium report build on earlier work, most notably the 2007 Politicizing Masculinities Symposium which is captured in the book Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities.

We will shortly publish an IDS Bulletin ‘Undressing Patriarchy, Men and Structural Violence‘ which will draw from papers submitted to the meeting and explore front-line approaches to work with men on masculinity and gender justice. It will examine how change can happen, identify structural constraints and point to new directions for engaging men in challenging patriarchy.

Engaging men and boys post-2015

Shortly after the Symposium, participants spoke at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) Development Talk on ‘Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality’. This was a debate with Sida staff and many others in the Scandinavian aid sector. They explored how best to formulate a sensible development approach to working with men and boys alongside policies, strategies and struggles for women’s empowerment. One of the key discussions focused how to frame post-2015 development goals which are more inclusive of all genders and support efforts to tackle patriarchal oppression.

One of the key recommendations from IDS and partners working with men and boys is to start treating the productive and the reproductive/care economies in a holistic and integrated way. This involves changing systemic discrimination and incentives, making visible and valuing care work, and reforming cultural norms and ideals around masculinities. Through this we hope all people will be able to take responsibility for caring roles, including men (including, even, ‘men in suits’).

Related Resources

Watch our short videos of Hard Talk Provocations from the Symposium:

Read our related blogs in the right-hand column of this page.

Image credit: KellyB creative commons on flickr