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Being a male feminist

By Guest Editor Joe O’Brien

I’m a Trainee Health Psychologist based in Dublin, Ireland where I also run the Instagram page @headfirst0, to promote evidence-based health information. I primarily work with people on improving their relationship with food and addressing the mental health side of nutrition and physical health. I’ve previously posted about mental health issues in relation to feminism and masculinity, and I believe that it’s vital to understand inequality in order to be the best health professional I can be.

As a Trainee Psychologist, we learn a lot about how the society we live in impacts our health. I have always been intrigued by how much of a toll modern life takes – how things like our diets, our excessively busy lives and our social media use impacts us. Ironically, this is what brought The Female Lead to my attention, when they published research on how diversifying social media feeds with positive role models could improve our mental wellbeing. It’s well known in the psychological community that social factors such as inequality, are one of the most significant contributors to mental health difficulties. Speaking as a privileged, white, middle-class man, I will sadly admit that I was acutely unaware of the extent of these inequalities until my early 20s. I’m also glad to say that my eyes have been very much opened to these issues, but unfortunately, many men haven’t experienced the same insight.

It’s important for men to understand feminism

I’m someone who’s really taken a lot of interest in the topic of feminism, for multiple reasons. Firstly, the people I speak with in my job are often women, so in order to be the best health professional I can be, it’s important to understand the world from their perspective. I sometimes see similarities through the example of how ignorant the fitness industry can be. We have insta-famous personal trainers telling us in order to lose weight, we just need to “eat-less, move more”. The problem with this narrative is that every person has their own difficulties making it harder to eat less and move more. Some people have financial issues, work commitments, parenting, socioeconomic status and genetics to contend with. The list could go on. Some of the fitness industry undermine and trivialise the difficulties people have in life, the same way as many men undermine and trivialise the difficulties women have in today’s world.

Living in a patriarchal society can make being a woman a barrier to things like equal pay and job opportunities and failure to understand the world that women live in trivialises and undermines their potential difficulties, because women don’t experience the world the same way men do. Without understanding some of the issues that women experience, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. But even more importantly, I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the role of a supportive brother, a son, a partner or friend, to the women in my life. I wouldn’t fully understand the difficulties that face my sister, my mother, my partner or my friends. Without learning, I wouldn’t be able to understand the feeling of being unsafe walking home alone. I wouldn’t be able to understand the feeling of being treated as a subordinate at work. I wouldn’t know the feeling of my appearance taking the focus away from my achievements. And I still don’t know that feeling, nor will I ever truly know that feeling. But I try to recognise that it exists, and I try to appreciate, behave and advocate for women, in a way that reduces these inequalities. Unfortunately, not all men do the same.

Toxic Masculinity Perpetuates Inequality

One of the topics I hear a lot about online is that of toxic masculinity – where men adhere strictly to the traditional gender stereotypes, to the point where it’s damaging to both themselves and women. As a man, I wanted to speak on this, because I’ve experienced it first hand, and continue to experience it. I’m not going to speak from my high horse and pretend like I was never a part of it - I was. Unfortunately, it’s the society we grow up in (which is certainly not an excuse), but thankfully through the incredible women in my life, and people fighting for equality, I happily call myself a feminist. Unfortunately, toxic masculinity is still rampant and one of the many negative by-products of this is inequality. I posted about this a while ago on my Instagram. The main take-home points of the post were the results from “The Man Box Survey”, which was a study conducted on young men in Australia. Some of the quite terrifying results found that 24% of respondents believed that a real man would never say no to sex, and that 1 in 5 men should use violence to get respect if necessary. I think we can all agree these are terrifying statistics, especially considering the proportion of domestic and sexual violence that occurs against women. If that wasn’t enough, one of the comments under my post read “beta”, which is a term used to describe a “subordinate” man. If being a subordinate man means being one who can stand up against toxic masculinity, one who can stand up for women’s rights, one who can see people as equals, one who can express emotions, then I’m all for being “beta”. Some of these beliefs are so ingrained that it’s subconscious, blissfully unaware of their male privilege and misogyny. In fact, another comment read “…still waiting for my male privilege to kick in”, and I think that says a lot about where we stand as a male community. (These are real comments, you can go and read them right now on my page, they have not been deleted).

Where do we go from here?

What I hope this piece brings is the idea that we, as men, can do better. I want people to realise that it really is Not All Men. I want people to realise that not believing in feminism is not believing in equality. I want men to understand that we don’t appreciate the differences in the way women live in the world, but to work to understand. I want us to realise that autonomy and choice should be available to all, in any situation. I want us to understand that we have privileges that women don’t. I want us to use our privileged voices to fight for equality. I want “us” to someday become “we”, where it’s no longer us and them, men vs women, but where we’re included in the same conversations, we’re on the same playing field, and we’re on the same team. That can only be done through education and activism. Through understanding how it’s different for others, we can begin to change. Women have so many barriers that men often fail to consider – equal pay, objectification, an oppressive society, a sexist society – and what’s worse is that some men still don’t believe these issues exist. I’m hoping that these words will reach people and help support them in understanding and changing the world for the better.

What can we do?

We’ve seen recently during the black lives matter movement, that there are many things people can do to tackle inequality when it comes to gender inequality too, especially men.

The bystander effect problem

In psychology, there is a concept called the bystander effect, meaning that we often take the easy option by assuming “someone else will do it” and we don’t stand up for wrongdoing or injustice. We don’t step in assuming that it’s not your duty. Let me tell you that it is all of our duties. If an individual or a group is behaving in a way that is demeaning or derogatory towards another gender, be the person who stands up for what’s right, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. We hold responsibility. That might mean that at work you make sure you give women a voice to ensure they are heard, that they are represented and that they are treated equally.

Not adhering to gender stereotypes

I’ve grown up in a society that tells us that there are men’s roles and women’s roles in our day to lives, but there isn’t. There are no jobs that are just for a man or woman. One of the changes we can make is to stop buying into these old fashioned stereotypes that only further engrain inequalities. The idea that men don’t cook or clean because men are the “breadwinners” is incredibly problematic and reinforces that power dynamic that men should be considered superior. What that means in real terms is that if you are a man you should share domestic responsibility. Take on some new responsibilities while letting go of those old stereotypes, that only perpetuate the inequalities we see today.

Inequality (and equality) is learned

From a young age, we grow up learning the world is round. Everyone we know and trust tells us the world is round. If someone told us the world is flat, we wouldn’t believe them because that’s what we’ve learned since we were young. Unfortunately, what some people grow up learning are these outdated stereotypes. What we need is for equality to be taught and promoted from a young age, so when those children grow up, discriminating against someone would be as unfamiliar as people believing the world was flat. Children’s brains are like sponges, and if we teach them strong beliefs and values from a young age they’ll absorb it and it can be their normal. Not only can these beliefs and values be taught, but they can be changed. That means that even in schools and colleges, more could be done. It boggles my mind that I left school knowing about quadratic equations and types of rock, but I have never learned about equality and discrimination.

Take responsibility and educate yourself

Again, modelling from the recent issues around the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more people are trying to educate themselves on inequalities. This is important for men to do too, in relation to gender inequality. We can’t resign to being a product of our system and deem ourselves unwilling to change our ways. We have a responsibility to do better, and that starts with education. Some books which might be worth reading are “Men Explain Things To Me” by Rebecca Solnit; “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg; “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay and the book (or ted talk) titled “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

To contact Joe for any enquiries, please email

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