Will making women equal change anything?

The issue: Will making women equal change anything?

YES – Frank Donovan, Clinical Social Worker

NO – Leslie Cannold, Feminist Academic

Dear Leslie

Our aggressive, competitive marketplace is a reflection of men’s power and control, according to the women who want to break it down. How serious are they when, far from challenging the system, women are clambering to join it in their droves? And what will leading women do about opportunity advertising and sex-role stereotyping?

Toyworld’s brochure arrived in the junk mail yesterday: the boys wentto war with lasers, power figures,attack cycles, mutant marauders and muscle-bound soldiers complete with armor and weaponry. The girls were all prams, babies in bassinets, shopping trollies, dolls and a fantastic combination oven/cook-top/kitchen assembly complete with smiling girl cook.

Given the slaughter in East Timor, the brochure’s gender division of military versus mothering was poorly timed, or was it? The marketing gurus say that opportunity advertising and sex-role stereotyping actually work. Most television advertising and programming confirm it.

Yes, the male aggressive marketplace of dog-eat-dog thrives in business as in politics and sport; supported by more women than ever.

So, is it men’s aggression that has to change or just men?

Or should we just keep developing technology that does men out of jobs and gets women into them?

Confused, Frank

Dear Frank

There’s no doubt women are eager to participate in the public world of work. They need financial independence and want their share of public power.

Globalisation creates the insecurity that fuels productivity and demand. Will I land a job? Will I be able to do all I must to keep it and still find time to marry and have a family? These are the questions that preoccupy so many young people, male and female.

Perhaps it seems disingenuous for author Susan Faludi to call off the gender wars when men started fighting back. The fuel for change is palpable male distress and younger people’s search for non-gendered analysis and solutions.

Male aggression is real, and it is not acceptable. It does and should matter that women are heavily outnumbered in Australia’s boardrooms and parliaments. But acknowledging how the world has come to feel so oppressive to all of us is going to require a more sophisticated understanding of power and oppression than ``Women have it bad, so men as a gender must be responsible and have it better’’.


Dear Leslie

So, if ``the fuel for change is (partly) palpable male distress‘’, does that mean there might be gain from men’s pain? Well, that might make it all worthwhile after all. And if ``younger people’s search fornon-gendered analysis and solutions’’ means understanding how we got into this mess, and some non-aggressive ways out of it, a lot of us men might just be in that.

I especially like the bit about how we all need a more sophisticated understanding of power relations than the old ``Women have it bad, so men must have it better’’ argument. That will go down with some guys who aren’t feeling too flush about things. As for the gender wars, I think some of us men might still be struggling with the realisation that our old weapons (power, influence, money and control) might be emotional boomerangs. To put that another way, how much pain are we willing to endure to maintain our fragile hold on power?

My original question still stands, though: ``When there are equal numbers in the boardrooms, will women do it differently or will oppression and aggression still feel the same?’’

Encouraged, Frank

Dear Frank

That is a hard question. Joan (Kirner) and Moira (Rayner) think so, but there really is no hard evidence. So far, it looks as if putting a few or some women into the power hierarchy as it stands doesn’t change things.

I suspect that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – no exceptions made. Some studies suggest ``female’’ characteristics like intuition, good listening skills and non-aggression can be found among all oppressed minorities; essential skills for managing those in power.

Women’s long association with raising children may also explain their nurturing skills. But, as men increase their active participation in fathering their children, men’s skills in these areas will also increase.The values inherent in raising children – selflessness, sacrifice, interdependence – stand in stark contrast to those of the competitive market.

The inculcation of these values in both men and women is an important step in preparing men and women to face the real challenge of the next century: the destruction of individualist ``economically rationalist’’ values, policies and practices.

Here’s my question: do men do, should men do, fatherhood differently to the way women do motherhood?


Dear Leslie

Yes, I think so. Men have to model different ways of being. Men have to model ways of being whole (emotionally and rationally) that many of us still have not come to terms with yet – especially when it comes to our sons.

I have never met Joan, though Moira might remember me from WA. But I have seen those characteristics of intuition, good listening skills and non-aggression among Aboriginal men and women in the north-west and Central Desert regions. Seemed to work for them, sort of … eventually.

And, in the light of your reminder about inherent child-raising values, I guess that takes us to the heart of the challenge. On Friday, I heard Sister Anne Forbes interviewed on ABC’s 7.30 Report after her evacuation from Dili. She said: ``I just pray we can learn to rule the world with our hearts instead of our heads.’’ By the time Sunday Age readers see our debate, the people she spent the last days with may well be dead.

I guess our challenge is how to reconnect ``the heart’’ with the head on equal terms. Could men and women join forces, maybe?

Cautiously, Frank

Dear Frank

I’m still not sure what different ways of being you would like to see men model for their sons, although my own two boys leave me in no doubt that it is to their fathers that boys look for a role model. Are you saying that women are naturally society’s ``hearts‘’ and men its ``heads’’? In Victoria, middle-aged women are less supportive of the Premier, Jeff Kennett, than middle-aged men, but I don’t think femaleness accounts for this. Rather, it is that mothers are usually more involved in their children’s lives than fathers, and so notice and care more when hospitals and schools deteriorate.

I agree that society needs to cultivate and value virtues associated with women such as nurture and compassion. But these value aren’t really female any more than their opposites are intrinsically male. We value what we know, and what we know comes from our experience. As men and women have more of the same experiences in the paid workforce and at home, they will come to know and value more of the same things.

These shared experiences, knowledges and values are the basis of the joint assault force you propose. To achieve it, we must continue to work towards a society in which women and men work as equals and in equal proportions outside and inside the home. Equality is the basis of the human liberation both men and women seek, and from which both men and women will benefit. Ironically, it is only when women and men achieve social equality that we will finally know whether and what sorts of natural differences exist between the sexes.

Anger specialist, Vietnam veteran and former ``rebel’’ Labor MP Frank Donovan has been around anger and violence most of his life. His book, Dealing with Anger: Self-help solutions for men (Finch Publishing), was released last month and is in bookshops at $19.95.