November 19 is International Men’s Day: a time to promote male role models; to celebrate men’s contributions to society; to focus on men’s health and well being; to highlight discrimination against males; and to improve gender relations and promote gender equality.
As someone who wants both my son and my daughter to flourish across all areas of life, I am frequently reminded that our society and media do a particularly poor job of highlighting and addressing areas in which males face disadvantage. Thankfully we have women’s offices, ministries and NGOs working tirelessly to improve the areas in which women still fare poorly. This is not the case for men.
We seem to have a cultural blind spot around men and gender politics. When a man has a problem, it is frequently seen as his own fault, whereas women’s problems are more often attributed to others or to society. For example, we hear that men are to blame for their own poor health (“men don’t go to the doctor”), whereas young women’s high levels of eating disorders are blamed upon the cultural pressure to be thin.
The portrayals of men in modern day media are often negative – as violent murderers, wife bashers, sexual abusers, deadbeat dads, and bumbling idiots – even though, in reality, only a small proportion of men act out these roles and behaviours. This compounds the lack of compassion for men’s issues.
Our society often assumes that ‘men have it good’ and only women carry the burden of gender-based disadvantage. The evidence strongly contradicts this. Here are 13 areas in which men and boys need our help. I would ask that you picture an important male in your life as you read them – be it your son, brother, husband, best mate or father. Many thanks to Glen Poole from the Men’s Network in England for the idea for this article.
1) If we want everyone to live longer, healthier lives, we must address the appalling state of men’s health. Males have much higher illness, injury and death rates and die almost five years earlier than females, yet public research funding for male health is less than one-third of that for female health. National health expenditure is one third higher for females than for males. The problem is not that resources have preferentially gone to women, but that health service provision has been less than adequate at identifying and addressing the health needs of males. Health services in many instances serve women and children well but men poorly, in terms of access, availability, suitability of service delivery environments and service delivery methods (men are greeted and treated from a female model of service delivery). Health promotion messages aimed at males are poorly targeted and often demeaning or derogatory. Until 2010 Australia had no male health policy or longitudinal national male health study.
2) The health of boys also needs attention. After the first year of life boys have a death rate 35 percent higher than girls. In all areas of health status (death, disability, handicap and illness), boys fare worse than girls. Generally, more boys than girls have mental health problems, including conduct disorder, disruptive or antisocial behaviors. Young boys are the predominant reported victims of physical violence, emotional abuse and neglect from adults and carers. There is no secondary school testicular cancer self-examination component of sexual health education for boys despite the fact that incidence rates of testicular cancer for males aged 15 to 39 are more than double the rates of cervical cancer in females of the same age group. Up to one in seven boys experiences child sexual assault before the age of 16.
3) The male suicide rate is a national disgrace. 1,814 males killed themselves in 2010: more than the entire road toll. Divorced men are three times as likely to commit suicide as any other group.
4) Men are raised to be disposable. We socialise boys to take more risks and place a lesser value on their health and safety so that men will take on the dangerous but essential jobs: firefighting, logging, heavy trucking, construction, mining and the military. In a gender-equitable society we would raise both our sons and daughters to share this work. In Australia however, the most deadly, dangerous, unhealthy and risky work is carried out overwhelmingly by males, and the highest occupational health risks, mortality rates and disability levels are experienced by poorer men. More than twice as many males as females experience work-related injuries and illnesses, and over ninety percent of work-related deaths are males. Australia also remains a signatory to the international convention exempting “able bodied males” between 18 and 45 from the ban on forced labour. We hear a lot about the “glass ceiling” when it comes to women’s employment but very little about the “glass cellar” when it comes to men’s.
5) Men are more likely to be homeless. Males are one third more likely to be homeless compared to females, and twice as likely to be sleeping rough (homeless).
6) If we want everyone to live lives free from violence, we must address violence against men. The overwhelming burden of disease from violence worldwide is born by males. Men make up three-quarters of suicides, two-thirds of homicides and three-quarters of war-related deaths. In Australia, young men are three times as likely as young women to be victims of violence, however, there are no public health campaigns to address this serious issue. Men make up one third of victims of family violence, however there are barely any support services for these men, nor treatment services for abusive women. Some argue that because men are most often assaulted by other men, the violence they experience is somehow less important. However, it shouldn’t matter who the perpetrator is. Talking about the gender of the perpetrator diverts the conversation away from addressing the needs and experiences of male victims of violence. We don’t trivialise the experience of lesbian victims of domestic violence in this way by saying “but lesbians are most often assaulted by other lesbians.”
7) If we want to give every child the best possible start in life, we must look at the way schools are failing boys. Fifty percent more Australian females than males graduate from our universities each year. In NSW, the difference between boys’ and girls’ average Tertiary Admission Rank is almost 20 percent. Boys have significantly lower levels of achievement in literacy than girls, are significantly more disengaged with schooling, and drop out more often. They report significantly less positive experiences of schooling in terms of enjoyment of school, perceived curriculum usefulness and teacher responsiveness. Boys are subject to more disciplinary actions during schooling, are more likely to participate in subsequent delinquent behaviours, alcohol and substance abuse, and during adolescence, are 4–5 times more likely than girls to suffer from depression and commit suicide. Boys are nine times more likely to be referred to pediatricians for behavioral problems, including Attention-Deficit Disorder.
8) There is a critical lack of male teachers. The proportion of male teachers is at a record low and continues to fall. In 2011 just 30 percent of all full-time equivalent teachers were male: 19.3 percent in primary schools and 41.8 percent in secondary schools. Males make up 2 percent of preschool teachers and 4 percent of childcare workers. The lack of male teachers may be a strong factor behind the high dropout and low achievement rates of boys. With so few male role models and mentors it’s no wonder that boys disengage.
9) If we want to ensure that every child has the best possible relationship with both parents, we must remove the barriers separating fathers from their children. Fathers are removed from their children against their will and through no fault of their own. The majority of fathers are not granted reasonable access after contested legal proceedings costing thousands of dollars. Many fathers are advised not to proceed with custody applications in the first place. False accusations of domestic violence or child abuse are not infrequent in attempts to ensure custody of the children. Non-custodial parents, usually fathers, are then subjected to a system that forces them to pay “child support” without any system to make sure the money they pay for the benefit of their children is actually used for such. The system then refuses to enforce their ability to see their own children and the children’s ability to see their parent. Parental alienation, whereby children are taught to dislike or fear the non-custodial parent is also not uncommon.
10) There is an epidemic of fatherlessness. Of the five million children in 2009–10, 864,000 (17 percent) lived away from their father. Of these children, 48 percent saw their father at least once per fortnight, while 24 percent rarely saw their father (less than once per year or never). Almost half never stayed overnight with their father. In 2009–10, there were 366,030 non-resident fathers. Research from the USA shows that violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, teen pregnancy and suicide all correlate more strongly to fatherlessness than to any other factor. The majority of prisoners, juvenile detention inmates, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent murderers, and rapists all come from fatherless homes. The connection is so strong that controlling for fatherlessness erases the relationships between race and crime and between low income and crime.
11) If we want parents to be the best they can be, we must do more to support fatherhood. Until the 1970s dads weren’t allowed to be present at the birth of their own children. Since then the role of the Australian father has changed from sole breadwinner to sharing the hands-on parenting and earning roles with his partner. Fathers are more likely than ever to require time off work to look after their children’s needs but government legislation and workplace cultures haven’t followed suit. Men are still expected to put in long hours and not take time off for family responsibilities. Women may sometimes find it hard to find an employer that gives them the job flexibility to care for their young children, but most men find it almost impossible. Discrimination complaints by men because of their parental status have more than doubled in the past decade. The current inequitable parental leave schemes, favouring mothers, reinforce fathers in the traditional ‘breadwinner’ role rather than supporting them as being ‘hands-on’ dads (which the research shows gives better outcomes for children). Many fathers feel excluded by staff and services that appear to be focused solely upon the needs of mothers. Ante-natal courses for new fathers are currently run at only a handful of hospitals despite the fact that up to 10 percent of first-time dads suffer post-natal depression and in most cases their symptoms go untreated.
12) Males lack reproductive rights. Upon becoming pregnant, a woman can choose to have the baby, have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. A man has no legal right to choose whether to become a father or even to be notified that he has become a father, even if the pregnancy came about via deception (e.g. by falsely claiming to be on the pill or utilizing discarded or stored semen). Men also lack the range of contraceptive options available to women.
13) We need to do more to protect baby boys from infant circumcision. Each year almost 25,000 boys under the age of four are subjected to painful, sometimes dangerous and life altering surgery without their consent or medical cause. All six major medical societies of Australia have declared that circumcision of newborn males should not be routinely performed. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has expressed concern that neonatal circumcision may violate human rights. In their statement the ACP disclosed the traumatic nature of circumcision, recommending that parents should be given more complete facts about the procedure. Circumcision has serious risks including infection, hemorrhage, scarring, shock, penile disfigurement, penile amputation, and even occasional death. The complication rate for this unnecessary procedure is estimated to be 2-10 percent. Three Australian states and two territories have laws that protect little girls from this sort of procedure but there exists nothing to protect little boys.
Gender equity is not a zero-sum game: this International Men’s Day, let us remember that looking after men and boys does not take anything away from women and girls. If we want to create a world where each child can grow to fulfill their greatest potential, we must care equally about the needs and human rights of both genders.