Partnership & Accountability blog series

Partnership & Accountability blog series

Accountability to the women´s and to social justice movements is crucial for building collaborative and equitable partnerships. Accountability requires the development of a receptive capacity in men and others who have been placed in positions of power and privilege, so that they can listen to the perspectives and needs of oppressed groups in order to become authentic allies. Accountability and partnership building also require us to engage in respectful dialogues, and a willingness to constantly address issues and concerns raised by our partners.

We hope that this blog series contributes to these ongoing conversations and serves as another platform to share useful information.

Blog posts are written by member and partners of MenEngage, for whom we provide a platform for dialogue. The opinions expressed in the posts do not necessarily represent those of the MenEngage Alliance.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The risks of men talking about gender

Sebastián Molano
Defying Gender Roles

For decades, women have been struggling relentlessly to fully enjoy the exercise of their rights. As a result of this, vast amounts of knowledge and an iterative critical reflection process have been essential to make visible the challenges that half of the population face for the mere fact of being women. Thanks to this, there are strong conceptual frameworks that help us to understand all matters related with women’s issues: politics, health, sex, violence and their role in society. As a result, the feminist movement has been able to develop a strong narrative supported by extensive research and discussion. As such, most of the feminist groups and the organizations that implement work to foster gender equality rely on a robust body of knowledge and a clear conceptual framework for their work. Women go to universities to be trained on gender issues (usually equated to women’s issues) and the majority of positions dealing with gender in multilateral and international organizations are filled by women.

This is not the case for men and for those who advocate to include men and boys as an integral part of the gender conversation. In the past, the study of men and masculinities has been scattered and it has been usually linked to matters related to mental health. Most of the men (including me) who have gotten involved in pushing for a holistic look at gender issues are self-taught, driven by an interest to bring an integrated vision into the struggle for gender equality. Many of us have learnt about gender issues through the lens of women’s issues, sometimes portrayed as the Other, the enemy or the oppressor. It has been only in recent years that we’ve seen how men and boys can be powerful allies in promoting gender equality. Nowadays, there is a more open discussion about what masculinity means and some wary enthusiasm about men getting involved in gender issues.

Currently, there are more initiatives and efforts to bring men into the gender table: inviting men to participate in gender conferences, including men as beneficiaries of development programs, and hiring men as gender experts. These kinds of initiatives bring new elements needed to nurture and foster a discussion on how to achieve the full exercise of rights for men and women. But they also bring risks that are essential to understand, prevent and mitigate.

To contribute to the needed conversation, here are two of such risks:

 • Lack of solid conceptual framework Many of the men (including me) working on gender issues are self-taught. We have arrived in the gender landscape as a result of different circumstances but rarely due to an ingrained interest. This is explained, typically, as men enjoying a series of privileges that do not push them to question the status quo. Many of us grew up in a household with a strong mother, a father who challenged traditional gender roles or underwent a series of events that marked our ‘before and after’ in terms of how men and women experience life differently. Due to this, men who work on gender issues do not tend to have a solid conceptual framework on gender issues, vis-à-vis women. This affects their credibility but most importantly, it is exposed when men who are working on these issues try to build bridges of collaboration with women’s organizations. In many instances, it is not possible to work together as men are not aware of the different ideological approaches and how to face them. If working with men and boys is an idea we want to sell, we need to know better the market, the products, the players and overall, the backlash.

 • Appropriation of speech: There is a proliferation of networks, organizations and initiatives that aim to include men in the gender discussion. In the rush to create structures that seem solid or consolidated, many men have started to get more comfortable with the language used to discuss rights, gender equality and elimination of violence. However, this is very risky and problematic. The main reason is that many of these men who are leading efforts on the ground, trying to generate momentum and bring people together for this cause, have learnt the speech but have not made it part of who they are. Imagine a music band that learns how to play a song but does not know the musical notes. This situation generates harmful consequences that undermine a purposeful inclusion of men and boys in the gender arena. Men leading workshops on masculinity unable to answer basic questions about what equality means in practice or saying “we do not talk about gay people, this is a network of men” are examples of such risk. The first step to create solid structures is to develop strong capacity among those who are part of it. Herein lays a tremendous challenge for the work with men.

As there are incredible opportunities for men and men’s organizations to work on gender issues, there are important risks that need to be understood. It is fundamental to reflect and examine the way in which some of the work is being implemented, especially at the grassroots level. Also, to determine clearly the degree of responsibility for organizations pushing to involve men in this line of work.


  1. Thank you Sebastian for your introspective piece. You have highlighted the important risk of mainstreaming without the development of the politics or what you have called the conceptual framework. Many of us, including I come from the position that you have mentioned - a deep personal commitment born out of life experiences. We then need the appropriate language and conceptual framework to articulate it. I think this is where we need to see this work that we are all engaged in to move beyond the 'development intervention' framework, into a 'personal- politics' framework or 'movement' framework. So there can be many conversations, a diversity which is marked by the location of the conversation and the people in it, but linked together by the strong commitment to equity and justice in relations; men and women and otherwise. These spaces should be small enough to share personal dilemmas in the change process and connected together for political/social action. Many of us are part of the overall MenEngage process because we seek to be both part of and developing such spaces and processes. Unfortunately we also work within the broader development paradigm and that brings its own risks and possibilities. In our work in India one way we have tried to build opportunities within the development framework is by keeping a close focus on women's empowerment parameters as intervention outcomes and collaborations with feminist activists within the operational plans as practical counterpoints for our reflective practice. We need to continually be vigilant that our reflective spaces and processes don't get compromised as we step on the development accelerator. Thanks once again for sharing these warning signals.
    Abhijit Das, India

  2. Long live the auto-didact! You are of course right about the risks, Sebastián, but as you point out, gender issues are not the same as women's issues. I believe there is a pressing need for men and others to examine and discuss how gendered regimes of power and social control impact on people other than cisgender women. Not all men benefit equally, and some men are as oppressed by hegemonic masculinity as women are - though perhaps in different ways. So it is vital for all men to think about, talk about, and challenge gender, no matter what the risks.

    We need to talk about kyriarchy... or else we reinforce the very inequalities we wish to deconstruct. Move beyond the gender binary, account for fluidity, sexuality and its spectrum... etc etc. Its not a competition each individual experiences privilege and oppression. Unite to understand how those oppressions come about.