Where are all the men?

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It is a sentiment that we hear often in the Green and Healthy Frome network, which is supporting action on climate and health in our community. Why is it that so many of our [mostly voluntary] community activists and leaders are women. And why are men so absent?

Green and Healthy women

This perception is confirmed by survey responses from participants in the activities we have supported over the past three years. From more than 500 respondents, only 15% of those taking part in Green ConnectorsCycle Together or Future Shed (perhaps our most participatory initiatives) are men. More than 75% are women.  Meanwhile within our project team of 12, just four are men.

As the objective of the upcoming ‘International Women’s Day’ (March 8th) is gender equality, it should also be mentioned that a far smaller proportion still of our participants are non-binary, intersex, trans or other gender identity. But perhaps this and the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among our audiences are subjects for a later discussion.

This reality is challenging for a programme which aims to maximise diversity, inclusivity and accessibility in all its activities. And while we celebrate the role of women in leading our community towards a healthier future, we must also ask how responsibility might be shared more equally.

Gendered norms

A 2012 report by the Young Foundation attributed low male engagement with social projects to a range of factors, including: resistance to help-seeking behaviours; peer stigmatisation linked to notions of masculinity; lack of male role models in the social sector; and a lack of discourse around engaging men in social projects.

But there are also more fundamental and structural reasons for this situation.

Gendered norms around the respective roles and aptitudes of men and women in the workplace and the home mean that women are more likely to be a primary carer (for children or other dependent loved ones) and are therefore more likely to form social connections in their communities.

Structural inequities 

These norms are reinforced by the gender pay gap and the disparity between statutory provisions for maternity and paternity leave. Paternity leave in the UK comprises up to two weeks with pay of £172.48 per week. This is the least-generous offering in Europe, and a third of eligible men don’t take it.

Among new parents, the decision of whose job to prioritise because it pays the mortgage/rent/bills disproportionately favours the careers of men. Meanwhile, the physical and emotional labour of solo unwaged childcare is imposed upon women, often to the detriment of their own career prospects.

Juggling responsibilities

Supported by the Green and Healthy Frome programme, women are building a more climate and health-resilient community by (among many other things): working to enable greater public access to nature; transforming our relationships with food and clothing; providing support and advice on healthy homes and energy; supporting active travel and reducing short car journeys; and linking community health needs to practitioners and groups beyond conventional medication.

Nevertheless, the support that is available can only ever be partial. As was highlighted by several of our Future Shed network leaders in a recent workshop, the reality is that many women are juggling their passion for community projects with economic necessities, care responsibilities and the demands of everyday life.

Post-Covid shift

However, for many, the great pause of the Covid-19 pandemic stirred a new kind of consciousness: of time, what we do with it and the kind of lives we want to live. Perhaps, then, there is also a shift underway in gendered cultures around work and home life that will bring more men into the fold.

A 2023 study by University College London found that one in 14 babies in England aged nine months or under—seven per cent—have a male parent or guardian as their primary carer. Distinctly lop-sided, yes, but this compares with just 0.11 per cent, or one in 1,000, at the beginning of the 21st century—so progress, perhaps.

Spaces of care and persistence

On International Women’s Day, and particularly in this town, we appreciate the women who have (somehow) found the time to connect and hold open spaces of love and care, for each-other, the environment, and future generations. Moreover, we acknowledge their vigilance and their persistence in both identifying and responding to the dangers we face as a community.

That’s all very well, I hear women colleagues say. But how do we get more men involved?

Letting go of knowing and winning 

As a man, I wonder if the male aversion to seeking help is more a discomfort with not knowing, with not being the person with the right answers—to our own problems as much as anyone else’s. So much time spent in male-dominated competitive workplaces has oriented us in this way—that being right and assertive and making decisions is how we win. (Judith Butler has written influentially on this subject in her book Gender Trouble).

Yet many of us have also suffered in these environments, from bullying, abuse and exploitation. And in the process, we have been disconnected from our loved ones, our communities and from nature.

Might some relief be found, then, in reconnecting with our social selves within our communities and the environments in which we live, not with a view to knowing or winning? Rather, might we approach these spaces with a kind of naïve curiosity—with an openness to learning, caring and helping, even in just modest ways? It sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?

Written by Owen King, Climate Action Researcher

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