July 27, 2018

Rethinking gender relationships in a time of #MeToo

Werklund School’s Dr. Michael Kehler outlines a role for men, parents
Dr. Michael Kehler, PhD, is the research professor in Masculinities Sstudies at the Werklund School.

Despite some encouraging progress toward gender equality, approximately every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Women and girls continue to live at risk of gender-based violence, with Indigenous women being six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women.

Dr. Michael Kehler, PhD, who is the research professor in masculinities studies at the Werklund School of Education, is quick to acknowledge men’s role in the systematic injustice that has perpetuated inequalities between genders, as well as the part women are playing in upending it. In a recent panel discussion, Kehler offered some thoughts on the current context of #MeToo, and the greater role that men and parents could be playing in changing gender relations.

1) What’s significant about the current climate of #MeToo and the broader socio political context that makes gender relations particularly rich in this historical moment?
The current climate of #MeToo has unsettled not only men but some women, too. It’s a challenging time in gender relations because the norms of day to day interactions are being scrutinized in many places – in offices, staff rooms, playgrounds. The disruption to gender relations is understood as a challenge to masculinity when in fact it’s not only a challenge to masculinity but to traditional gender relations, as well. Men and women are challenged by the current movement because it forces us all to think differently about what we accept as normative gender relations.

2) What advice can you share with men who are looking for ways forward?
Men need to remember that the public outcry against the assaults, the sexism, these are not an outcry against men, but an outcry against injustice, inequities, and power imbalances. This is not outrage at men per se but outrage at systemic sexism. The outcry is a response to a system of injustice which in this historical moment is rooted in gender dynamics. Some men have and continue to participate in relations that degrade, dominate and manipulate women. Systemic abuse of power that oppresses, objectifies and marginalizes women is not new but what is new is the manner in which power has been mobilized by women, for women and among women to push back on patriarchal oppression. The unifying force, while provoked by the abuse of some men, has erupted as an international wave of gender disruption. Both men and women are collectively engaged in rethinking gender interactions.  

3) What insights do you have for helping, supporting, inviting children to think differently about gender stereotypes? 
Children don’t need “help” in rethinking masculinity or gender, they need opportunities. It’s usually adults who need the “help”. Many adults are so rigid, restricted often time in how they think about gender and how they are able to dislodge themselves from the binaristic thinking that they grew up with as children. The work for many of us is to provide openness and supportive ways to rethink gender relationships. Kids have it sorted in many ways but it’s the parents that put on blinders, rely on the tried and true and fall back to what they grew up with. Invite conversation, open up dialogue and consider possibilities with children rather than slipping into the trap of expectations and dated gender configurations.  Push your own boundaries as adults. Embody, demonstrate for children an openness to think differently. The day to day interactions are powerful and subtle ways that men and women express the norms, the rules of engagement. The direct conversations about gender, sexualities can be challenging indeed but when parents start to fully embody gender fluidity and respectful gender relations then the climate starts changing, the feel of the everyday changes and so does the outlook of children. Our role as parents is to create safe contexts for the conversation, for the safety to speak, to inquire, to be uncertain. Rigid rules and traditional norms within gender relations and conversations send strong messages to children that there are few options, few ways of being different from or richer than in how we conduct ourselves. Until we, adults, start showing, embracing, and expressing gender in a less restrictive manner, children will continue to participate in normative gender relations that rely on stereotypes, the rules of unevenness, superiority-submissive, bigger than, stronger than, more powerful than, the rules of anything that isn’t a real man isn’t real at all.

4) How can men and women work together in addressing toxic masculinities?
There are ways that men and women can work together in addressing toxic masculinities. My excitement turns on the shifting culture around gender relations more broadly. There is an increasing openness to engage in dialogue that crosses gender boundaries. It doesn’t mean the conversation is any easier now but it does mean that there are more people that are talking publicly. Change won’t come about without welcoming dialogue and creating spaces that can be respectful to challenge what has for too long gone unspoken and accepted. There are women’s groups, like the Canadian Women’s Foundation, who represent a powerful voice and force from within which to develop rich and compelling conversations that extend outward to push against patriarchy, to unsettle power arrangements routed in outdated assumptions. The notion that men are allies can be reflected through discussions that invite conversation and intentionally set the course for rethinking gender relations. Working together we can powerfully chart a course for not only developing ways for rethinking gender and ways forward but for signaling a shift in what was once thought to be a woman’s issue only. Issues of equity and workplace culture are a gender issue that affects us all.