It’s not feminism that hurts men

Jo T examines a recent article supporting claims that men are "the new second sex" and finds it to be a highly misleading piece that fails to consider the role of patriarchal structures in men's suffering and instead opts to blame feminism

, 21 May 2012

There’s no denying that men are oppressed by certain cultural norms. These tell them that they shouldn’t openly express their feelings, that there is only a very limited way to perform masculinity in an ‘acceptable’ way and that disagreeing with dominant tropes about what is and isn’t ‘manly’ can lead to very unpleasant consequences. I read No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz and agree with a great deal of what is said there, about men, ‘manliness’ and the problems unique to men in a patriarchy. I also find Tony Porter’s TEDWomen speech on the pernicious and damaging “man box” to be moving, and accurate, and highly pertinent.

However, as the section of the men’s rights movement which hates women gains ground in online spaces, the recent Observer article by Elizabeth Day on the subject not only seems disingenuous but also potentially dangerous. Indeed, it all but concedes the vast majority of the anti-feminist talking points pushed by men’s rights activists (MRAs). Before I begin, I should point out that Melissa at Shakesville has done a superb job of explaining many of the article’s problematic aspects, not least that “it ain’t women who are the primary gatekeepers of that bullshit [i.e. patriarchy]. It’s other men.”

Society teaches boys that to be masculine is to be self-contained, to be in control of one’s emotions


The headline and standfirst of the article are bad enough: if women and girls were merely “lagging at school” and “the butt of cruel jokes”, rather than victims of systemic violence and inequality, we’d count ourselves damn lucky. The piece then begins by setting out the usual tedious MRA talking points about the “supar sekrit!” oppression of men, using arguments promulgated by Professor David Benatar and men’s rights author Warren Farrell. This is followed by a paragraph giving half a dozen examples of the oppression men supposedly face. In my opinion, these mislead the readers by omitting various highly relevant pieces of information and context. To highlight a few:

“…men [are] more likely to be conscripted into military service…”

Yes, because patriarchy teaches that women are weak, fragile and non-aggressive, and therefore unsuited to military roles. Women were, for many years, actively banned from active service in the armed forces. It is only recently, and by no means universally, that we see women allowed to take up certain frontline roles.

“…[men are more likely to] to be the victims of violence…”

Overwhelmingly, this happens at the hands of other men [PDF – see page 13]. And this formulation also elides and downplays the horrible reality of violence against women and girls.

“…[men are more likely to] lose custody of their children in the event of a divorce…”

This is because our patriarchal society deems child-rearing to be “women’s work”. And the picture is far more complicated than the publicity seekers at Fathers4Justice would have you believe, too.

“…Boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country.”

How is this the fault of women and/or feminists? I’d say the “man box” view of masculinity, combined with a culture which views reading as a “sissy” activity, has rather more to do with it than a conspiracy of women looking to give their daughters an educational boost.

“[Men] work longer hours, too…”

Was this statistic adjusted to take into account the fact that women, who are much more likely to be primary care-providers for children as well as for other relatives, tend to work part-time a lot more than men? Again, is this evidence of “sexism” against men – or of devaluing women in the workplace? By itself, it’s pretty much worthless.

“…men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women, on average..”

I really do struggle to see how this can be laid at the feet of women, or of “sexism” against men.

“…young men are three times more likely to commit suicide.”

This is an issue I feel especially strongly about, and it disgusts me that MRAs often cynically use it to back up their points. The thought that young men in severe emotional distress may feel unable to talk to others about their problems or to seek help should be of concern to everyone. But again, this is a consequence of patriarchy before anything else. “Boys don’t cry”, “stiff upper lip” and the “strong and silent type”: society teaches boys that to be masculine is to be self-contained, to be in control of one’s emotions. Talking about feeeeeelings is ‘girly’, right, and we all know that – for a boy – being called a “girl” is a terrible insult, yes? All this sounds like old-fashioned sexism (rather than MRA Bizarro World anti-male sexism) to me. Besides, all the talk of young men and suicide rather tends to obscure the fact that young women actually attempt suicide more frequently than young men, but the methods they tend to use are less effective, on the whole, which helps explain the discrepancy in completion rates.

Including ads – not exactly media known for their progressive view of gender roles – is a startling misstep

Benatar says this state of affairs for men is “a neglected form of sexism.” But who is perpetrating this “sexism”? Who punishes men for transgressing the boundaries of the “man box”? In many cases, it is other men.

Another point Day raises is about men being “increasingly the butt of jokes”. In the wake of the Unilad/”banter” episode/fiasco, and a rape culture where jokes about sexual violence are common, I’m having trouble taking this particular form of male “oppression” too seriously. The examples Day gives – Jo Brand saying she’d like to kill all men, and an oven-cleaner ad with the tagline, “So easy, even a man can do it” – aren’t exactly the strongest. I mean, I don’t find Brand’s joke especially funny, but clearly this is not a case where it can be said that the converse would be just as bad. Women who kill men are vanishingly rare; men who kill women are not. I wouldn’t make the same joke as Brand, and I don’t think it’s really defensible, but it does not support an oppressive and existent societal structure in the same way that a joke about killing all women would.

As for the oven ad, it is obvious that the tagline pokes fun at men in order to prop up an oppressive paradigm which says that women ought to be in charge of domestic ‘stuff’. “Ha ha, look at those silly men, thinking they should do some housework, ha ha ha, don’t they know that’s for the women to take care of!” Including ads – not exactly media known for their progressive view of gender roles – is a startling misstep.

Benatar then says, jumping from jokes to violence, that: “There have been lab experiments with both men and women where it has been shown that we have fewer inhibitions inflicting violence against men than women.” He doesn’t explain, and Day doesn’t ask him, why that is – why we associate violence with men. Could it be, hmm, another example of patriarchal attitudes at work? Could it be the “chivalric” idea, a form of so-called “benevolent” sexism which once again pushes the stereotype of women as fragile, in need of protection, delicate flowers who need men to look after them? And who benefits from “benevolent” sexism? Not women – not in the long run, most certainly.

I myself know precisely zero people, women or men, who are pushing for matriarchy

Benatar gives the game away when he says that ignorance of the “second sexism” stems from what he terms “partisan feminists”, who are interested only in the advancement of women’s rights, rather than true equality and co-operation between the sexes. Ah, so it is the feminists’ fault, after all – those awful “partisan feminists” who wish to turn the West into a matriarchy. Good thing there’s so many of them, and they’re so powerful. I myself know precisely zero people, women or men, (although I assume that Benatar’s mythical “partisan feminists” are an all-female category) who are pushing for that. I have never met a female supremacist. Perhaps they exist; perhaps, out there on the internet’s wilder fringes, they get together to plot the downfall of Stinky Men. Perhaps the Flat Earth Society is going to overcome the oppressive teachings of the round-planet theory-pushers any day now, too.

I just find it really hard to believe that, in a society whose upper echelons (politics, media and business) are absolutely dominated by men, these “partisan” feminists wield enough power to influence military policy, healthcare priorities, the criminal justice system and whatever on earth it is that Benatar thinks causes people to be happier seeing men as victims of violence, or any of his other laundry list of “oppressions” faced by men. Yet Day lets his outrageous statement pass without comment. In a long piece with only short statements from dissenting voices (Julie Bindel and Natasha Walter each get allocated a small space to reply), this failure to challenge Benatar is of great concern.

In the end, Day’s article is fatally flawed because it does not put forward a remotely believable explanation for the difficulties faced by some men under patriarchy. The only people who mention the p-word in the article are Walter and Bindel. “Facts” about the “second sexism” are brought up with no explanation, no context and no discussion. Sadly, the article will doubtless be used by MRAs as “proof” that their thin arguments are actually valid, when all the problems facing men which the article lists are offshoots of patriarchy – unintended consequences of a system which causes disproportionate harm to women and girls. Talk about missing the point.

patriarchy -ctrouper.jpg

First picture shows a male coded circle/top right arrow symbol in black on a white background. By Amit6.

Second picture shows the HTML for “end patriarchy” written in red pen across a white sheet that is placed on a pavement and tilted diagonally upwards into the top righthand corner. By ctrouper.

Both pictures shared under a creative commons licence.

Jo T lives in London. She likes writing angry emails to newspapers when she really ought to be getting on with her essay

Comments From You

IronFly // Posted 22 May 2012 at 12:24 pm

What I am desperate to know is, why are so many people so interested in battling it out to define who has it worse? Why is that more exciting to discuss in places like CIF, than trying to grapple with the root causes and come up with practical solutions?

It terrifies me that people always prefer to squabble than to sit together, politely, with no hint of ego, and find the threads that bind these sexist issues together and work it all out. No of course it’s not as simple as getting together to find a solution (I wish it were that easy!) but I just wonder why the discussion is so lop sided towards Oppression Olympics.

Justine Ossum // Posted 22 May 2012 at 12:31 pm

Re the stat that men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women. Obviously, heart disease often has genetic factors, and they types of heart diseases Benetar refers to is probably generalised to ‘all diseases of the heart’.

‘Real’ men eat a lot of meat – remember the Burger King ads? The old ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ trope? Despite most vegans being male, if I recall correctly. Foods marketed at men tend towards the red meat, high sat fats end of the scale, while salads and the like are derided as rabbit food and only suitable for women and effeminate men. So, at least in a percentage of cases, patriarchy causes that too.

nick // Posted 23 May 2012 at 8:39 am

I dont think feminism is to blame for men’s problems and I think men should stand up

and start making a difference to their lives themselves, which means we need a masculism movement . We have feminism . We need masculism.

We need masculism to tackle all the above , stopping rape, violence, suicide ,better education, unemployment etc, because men can reach out to other men in a way , I think, women cant.

I also think masculism needs to promote good things about men as well. We need to recognise and celebrate International Mens Day , November 19th , just as International

Womens Day is celebrated. I’d love to see Germain Greer or Annie Lennox wearing ‘ this is what a masculinist looks like’ T Shirt. I dont think it will ever happen , but one may dream.

Men need to complain and make issues about sexism against men, as women do when its sexism against women. Dont just sit there and be silent. Stand up, make a noise. We dont need to wait for women to do the work for us , we can do it ourselves . Masculism in action.

Last thing, if we get rid of patriarchy, will matriarchy replace it ? Will that be any better ?

Beverley B // Posted 23 May 2012 at 6:01 pm

This is very typical of what people who until recently have been the dominant group do when they find themselves having to compete: play the victim – claim they’re being persecuted. The Unionists of Northern Ireland did it, groups like the BNP blame everything on immigrants and claim white British people are being discriminated against. What people like Day are really saying is that men have got the right to be the dominant gender: that it’s not fair that they now have to compete with women.

Dhruv // Posted 23 May 2012 at 9:13 pm

@nick “Last thing, if we get rid of patriarchy, will matriarchy replace it ? Will that be any better ?” Seriously, that bugs me. It’s the idea that there always has to be a dominant societal norm. I hope that there will be a day when that when patriarchal society is a thing of the past society will plane on equality, not swaying to either matriarchy or patriarchy. Maybe that’s an idealistic view but maybe when we move on from patriarchy we’ll move on from the idea of gender dominance.

Also, I don’t know if masculinism will work. I mean, it has to go up against the idea of masculinity, which is perpetuated by society itself. The hard thing is that masculinity sells. – @Justine Ossum ‘s point about red meat ads. Society likes the idea of the macho men, no matter how self-destructive to men it might be. But, maybe if feminism is challenging traditional female roles in society, maybe that’s what masculism should do as well.

Last point – I think challenging the idea of masculinity and patriarchy is not an easy prospect. But, seeing how feminism has advanced, maybe there’s some hope.

GroovyKitty // Posted 24 May 2012 at 12:47 am

Feminism IS “masculism.” We don’t need special movements separated by gender. Feminism is about equality for all and getting rid of the damaging societal effects of gender-based discrimination. I think Nick’s comment exemplifies a large problem, which is that many men can’t get over the word “feminism” and think it implies that it is only for and about women.

What the world needs isn’t a new thing about “masculism” it is more men and women working TOGETHER to overcome all of these problems, under one banner. It needs more male feminists, not a new group of “masculists.”

We all need to work together so that we can get to a place where men don’t feel that they can only listen to another man and to a place where we don’t need a men or women’s day, because every day will belong to everyone equally.

Holly Combe // Posted 24 May 2012 at 3:02 am

@GroovyKitty. [EDIT: apologies for writing this incorrectly before.] To be fair, I would say feminism does separate by gender. The point is surely that it needs to, by definition, because it starts from the premise that patriarchy positions women as the second sex and that this needs a movement to address and counter it. Women and men can embrace it as a philosophy and men stand to make gains too if they are liberated from the expectations of patriarchy but it isn’t masculism as far as my understanding goes. It’s been a while since I spoke to any masculists but the ones I debated with a few years ago seemed to have similar views to those of Benetar, flipping the premise of feminism on its head and viewing men as the true oppressed. (I heard the notion of masculinism being rejected on the basis that feminism is not known as femininism.)

Hear hear to this in the long term though:

We all need to work together so that we can get to a place where men don’t feel that they can only listen to another man and to a place where we don’t need a men or women’s day, because every day will belong to everyone equally.

Maggie // Posted 25 May 2012 at 7:54 am

Good article, although I think it’s a tiny bit lacking in intersectionality. For instance, a lot of those male problems are not UNINTENDED consequences of patriarchy any more than women’s problems are – how many of them disproportionately affect poor men, or non-white men, or etc? You cannot actually separate patriarchy from capitalist oppression or racism, because they prop each other up to keep rich white men at the top. When poor or black or otherwise oppressed men perform sexism against women, it’s because they think it will push them up, relatively speaking, but it really drags everyone down – and that’s as much part of the system as anything else. Although I don’t like to use words like “intended/unintended” etc because it’s not like anyone’s orchestrating this thing – it’s just a mindless status quo self-perpetuating via self-interest in the component parts.

Oh, you also probably shouldn’t put oppression in quote marks when referring to a list that includes BOTH trumped up trivial problems AND serious issues that just haven’t been attributed to the right causes, it muddies your argument a bit.

Also, to the commenters – there’s absolutely nothing stopping someone from being a feminist *and* a masculist, or a feminist *and* a humanist or whatever – they’re noncompeting philosophies.

Holly Combe // Posted 25 May 2012 at 2:50 pm

@Maggie. Really good points about intersectionality. I agree it’s important to separate trumped up men’s problems from the serious issues many men face and are genuinely connected to specific forms of oppression (for example, racism and classism). These considerations are inextricably woven into the specific impact of patriarchy itself on men. I sometimes catch myself being distracted by the familiar ruses that derail feminist debate and that seem to be motivated by an aim to keep the genders in their traditional places (apparently for the good of men’s health, wellbeing etc). There’s sometimes a risk that this completely understandable defence mechanism can make us dismissive of intersectional issues. That shouldn’t happen.

I still think the question of whether or not feminism and masculism are competing philosophies is up for debate. IMO, it’s a question of which definitions are being used. If we’re applying the definition of masculism as “the belief that equality between the sexes requires the recognition and redress of prejudice and discrimination against men as well as women”, I would agree there is space for a person to easily be both a feminist *and* a masculist. However, my (again, possibly out-of-date?) experience of talking to masculists online is that there are some who would define it as a direct counter-movement to feminism. Certainly, there are some masculists who seem to stand for “the advocacy of male superiority and dominance”. This would surely make the movement anti-feminist by definition and preclude the two philosophies from working together.

Hannah // Posted 26 May 2012 at 11:15 pm

Something about MRAs makes me inexplicably angry and uneasy. The ones I have come across seem to just want to blame women and feminism for all their problems, and also to deny that women face any problems whatsoever. I think what I find most objectionable about MRAs is that they demand that feminists listen to their problems whilst simultaneously refusing to listen to theirs. You’d think that feminists and MRAs could work together, both wanting to change gender stereotypes, but I have yet to come across a moderate MRA — militant seems to be the only option.

I do think that Jo Brand’s joke quoted in that article is entirely defendable, and funny, as this blog post points out: “One of these is Jo Brand parodying the stereotype of what a feminist is, and the other is a parody of a genuine advert for Oven Pride, except that originally it was “even a woman can do it” and it was meant seriously.” ( She is using her usual self-deprecating style of humour and often jokes about being a feminist, pretending that she burns bras and hates men. She uses the stereotypes of feminists and twists them to make jokes. Also, haven’t feminists always been dismissed as humourless? It puzzles me that MRAs who would have no qualms calling feminists humourless could be offended at Brand’s joke.

I did come across another article on that book ‘The Second Sexism’, which seemed to suggest that it wasn’t quite as bad as it appeared from the Guardian article:

Ryley // Posted 29 May 2012 at 9:42 pm

Just a side note, with the exception of rape (and even still the forced to penetrate numbers are pretty even) men are disproportionately the victims of all forms of violence. So yes men too worry about “systemic” violence.

Holly Combe // Posted 31 May 2012 at 2:56 pm

@Ryley. I’m not sure what stats you’re referring to so it’s hard to make a fair comment but a 2006 Home Office report shows that 4.4% of women and 0.4% of men in 04/05

said they had been raped since the age of 16. I’m not a statistician and it’s been a while since I studied quantitative research methods but this difference -while closer than many would expect- seems to me to be more than “pretty even”. Of course, there may be difference in terms of willingness to report but I’d say that would be unlikely to account for such a large difference.

I take your point about men suffering systemic violence but, as Jo points out in the article, the disproportional amount of violence coming from other men surely points to patriarchy as the problematic system in question. I’d suggest the mode of masculinity that sees some men physically dominating other men for status points is inherently patriarchal.

Eric Q Austerjaunty // Posted 1 June 2012 at 5:08 am

The problem I have with both you and Shakesville’s interpretation of this article is that you’re taking the line “… the “second sexism” stems from what he terms “partisan feminists”, who are interested only in the advancement of women’s rights, rather than true equality and co-operation between the sexes.”

And leave off the “our ignorance of…” that comes right before it. They never said feminists were to blame for all those issues, just that the reason we generally don’t know about them is because feminists tend to be partisan. If you want to tear apart the argument that gender partisanship in feminism is the result of ignorance towards men’s issues, go right ahead. But all you’ve done with this article is dismiss a bunch of serious issues by saying “Well geeze, WE didn’t do it” as if the fact that a person holding me down and punching me in the liver has the gender identity that I do somehow makes it better for me.

The article never blamed women or feminists for these problems. It just pointed out that they existed and that nobody seems to care and then blame the fact that nobody notices or seems to care on partisan feminists.

Holly Combe // Posted 2 June 2012 at 9:14 am

I don’t think Jo dismissed any serious issues affecting men, seeing as she 1) said she agrees with much of what the “No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz” site has to say and 2) said the issue of young men being three times as likely to commit suicide is one she feels especially strongly about. (With the latter statement being followed by a whole paragraph discussing the “stiff upper lip” problem.)

It seems to me that a large portion of the acceptance of violence towards men at the hands of other men comes down to traditional ideas about masculinity. Men are expected to “man up” (an awful cringe-worthy phrase IMO). Now, I’m not saying feminists are somehow immune to such thinking but I don’t think we’re the main people perpetuating such an inherently patriarchal idea. Many of us are part of the push to challenge it.

Daniel Holiday // Posted 8 June 2012 at 7:08 pm

Whenever I read articles like this I think to myself, “Can’t we just let people do as they like?”

Some women would like to be houswives. Some women would like to be CEOs. Some women seem to cry all the time. Some don’t. The same could be said for men. Add to this the fact that one’s gender identity is really a single point on a spectrum of possiblity – I think we should just try to get along and stop finger pointing.

When someone/organization is being a jerk, male or female in regards to gender identity and/or sexual orientation, just refuse to interact/do business with them and point out the offending party to others.

Basically, let’s be as “Ghandi” as possible. I think that is the most optimal way to bring about social change.

Holly Combe // Posted 9 June 2012 at 12:14 pm

The idea of this simple approach bringing about social change is a nice thought and I think it can sometimes work on a micro level. However, I’d suggest that you can’t really tackle wider inequalities in any meaningful way when you fail to name a structural problem. That’s not “finger-pointing” at anyone personally or failing to let people follow their genuine personal preferences in terms of personal identity or how they make decisions about their own lives. It’s recognising that some people and some preferences are better facilitated than others and then looking at why that might be and how we can actively address this inequality.

Sarah // Posted 20 June 2012 at 5:21 pm

“…Boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country.”

How is this the fault of women and/or feminists? I’d say the “man box” view of masculinity, combined with a culture which views reading as a “sissy” activity, has rather more to do with it than a conspiracy of women looking to give their daughters an educational boost.

Actually it’s because boys and girls (being biologically different) generally have different learning styles and the education system is set up in a way that favours the learning style of girls. In general more feminine attributes are seen as positive and valuable by our society and this is reflected in our education system- children who learn by sitting quietly and listening are favoured more than children who learn through play.

No doubt your mods won’t post this though- my last comment that disagreed with you never even made it to public viewing- you feminists hate to be disagreed with.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 June 2012 at 1:45 pm

Hi Sarah. We don’t delete unpublished comments (just the one mod per post btw!) but, having searched your ID, I can’t find any others from you so I assume you used a different identity before.

I think there may be some truth in the idea that children who learn through play, rather than sitting quietly and listening, sometimes get a raw deal. I would assume things are perhaps better now more generally than they were at my first junior school (where any kind of exuberance tended to be punished, as I unfortunately discovered when I failed to fit in with convention myself) but the barriers that children with ADHD sometimes face seem to be a more ongoing example of this problem. However, my understanding is that gender differences in learning styles are small on average, with any differences being strongly influenced by the contrasting ways in which boys and girls tend to be treated and rewarded. This means I’m not persuaded by your argument that learning style bias automatically explains boys’ underperformance. What about girls who don’t conform to the sensible, quiet “good girl” expectation? At least boys who are cast as “disruptive” in a restrictive and authoritarian learning environment have the “boys will be boys” stereotype to fall back on! (I’m reading up on this. Does anyone else have links to relevant studies they could share?)

You use very decisive language when you say “Actually it’s because boys and girls (being biologically different) generally have different learning styles.” Can you point to any studies backing up the idea that biological difference and learning style are inextricably linked? After all, stereotyping in the media is very quick to tell us “Men are from Mars” etc and claim this is somehow just common sense, so we can’t discount the idea that such teaching might actually encourage difference.

There’s much more to be explored here but my comment is already quite long so I’ll leave it there for now.

On a different note and for future reference, saying you don’t think your comment will be posted is normally a reliable way to make sure it isn’t. However, I’ve made an exception on this occasion, as I think the issue of learning styles brings up some interesting questions about the different ways in which girls and boys tend to be nurtured. Thanks for commenting!

Sarah // Posted 21 June 2012 at 8:03 pm

Okay well it was a while ago now and maybe it was just a tech issue so sorry for assuming it was deliberate- I guess my recent attempts to talk rationally with a bunch of immature feminists on facebook may have coloured my view which is very silly, but also a little human of me.

The study that you posted a link to suggesting that the gender differences in learning styles are small on average was done on adult not child learners. My understanding is that yes the difference is not massive but it does exist, however that gap, with good teaching will narrow with age for two reasons- first off we can learn skills that don’t come as naturally to us as others- a preference in learning style or an aptitude in one area does not necessarily mean a barrier to learning or succeeding and secondly, some of it is down to the different way our brains grow and develop, by adulthood they will have finished growing and sort of “caught up” with each other, if that makes sense. So a study on adults is not really adequate for assessing the needs of children.

I don’t have a primary source, I’m an arty type, I’m not that into reading scientific studies, I’d much rather read a secondary source who’s “dumbed it down for me” My secondary source is “Raising Boys” by Steve Biddulph, he explains the differences in the way our brains develop, and how this affects the way boys and girls learn and talks about what the education system could do differently to give boys a better start. He does quote his primary sources as well ;o) He also acknowledges that the differences are small and that they do not cause a barrier and that people who don’t take these two things into account are in danger of falling into the trap of developing sexist attitudes such as “boys aren’t very good at reading” and “girls can’t become engineers”

I accept that some of those differences could be caused by the different way boys and girls are treated in schools- however, in this circumstance it’s still boys who are losing out by that attitude, not girls, in addition, having three sons and attended many a baby group I can tell you from watching the way very young children play that there is a difference in the behaviour patterns of boys and girls before nurture (which I am SURE also makes a difference) has had the opportunity to have THAT much affect.

I agree that girls who “learn through play” also miss out through our education system, however because generally speaking there will be more boys who learn this way than girls, the majority of kids who lose out will be boys, hence the statistical difference between the academic success of boys and girls…. in other words, saying “girls are more successful than boys at school” does not mean that EVERY girl is a success and EVERY boy is a failure.

Finally you say that Boys who are disruptive have the “boys will be boys” excuse- yes they do, but is this a good thing? When a boy behaves in that way the teacher is more likely to ignore the issue and not have any higher expectations of him, thus he will continue to fail, however when a girl behaves in a disruptive way the behaviour is more likely to be addressed and dealt with and thus changed and improved so the child can then learn. In addition many boys with conditions such as ADD, ADHD and autism are not picked up because the teachers view them as “just boys being boys” and so they slip through the net. This may well be through societies sexist views or it may be through biological differences, or a bit of both, but whatever the reason boys are still failing at school because the education system fails them and favours girls, I am not sure I wholeheartedly blame feminism for this but I certainly don’t think it’s helped.

Holly Combe // Posted 22 June 2012 at 12:26 am

I see your point that general differences in learning styles between adults may differ from those between children. Still, as you say, nurture surely makes a difference. Indeed, it has been suggested that gender expectations may have become more pronounced due to awareness of the results of studies that took place a long time ago. Here, it’s worth noting that Psychologist Joshua Altschule says “other research suggests that [Maths discrepancies are] more the result of a student’s confidence rather than biology.” (I’d be interested to look at this research but haven’t been able to track it down yet.)

Re: Biddulph. On the basis of what I’ve read, I’d have to say I’m not keen on him. His approach places importance on women not stepping onto manly territory and seems very traditional, albeit with a more palatable touchy-feely coating that at least acknowledges the emotions of boys. (Clare Gould explains it better than I am here!)

On boys not excelling, I still agree with what Jo says in the article. Also, there seems to be something rather backhanded about the compliment that girls are better at sitting quietly to learn. Meanwhile, I’ve seen boys who get into scrapes attract admiring comments from adults about their apparent impulsiveness and boisterousness. They are also positively encouraged to reject “sissy” behaviours by peers. Sure, you might get a few teachers who favour girls on the basis of prissy ideas about femininity but that doesn’t translate into some kind of matriarchy overall. Men still go on to hold the majority of the power.

Re: baby group experiences. I could also offer anecdotes (about my baby niece’s rambunctious behaviour) but, of course, we’re all equally informed by own biases here and that surely influences what we notice. I’d also suggest it’s hard for the nurture aspect not to kick in pretty quickly. On balance, I really don’t think girls get the same level of positive reinforcement for boisterous behaviour in the social world, regardless of parental intentions.

I would agree that boys with certain conditions are neglected if the teachers view them as “just boys being boys”. However, I doubt if girls labelled as “disruptive” (i.e. whose behaviour is addressed with the view to changing it) fare any better. Or maybe it’s just a case of replacing neglect (in the boys’ case) with suppression and excessive intervention for girls? The usual patriarchal story of one gender being treated as disposable but given more autonomy, while the “other” is cherished but controlled.

Holly Combe // Posted 22 June 2012 at 8:57 am

Think I got a bit carried away last night! I’m going to be logged off for today so this is just a quick note to ask that any future commenters try to stay under 400 words. (I’ll try too in future!) Our word limit for blog posts is 800 words so we prefer comments to be much shorter still.

Sarah // Posted 22 June 2012 at 5:21 pm

Of course nurture plays a part in gender difference, never said it didn’t. But there is ALSO a biological difference, when they carry out MRI scans of male and female brains as they process tasks they give totally different images, they work differently- the male childs brain doesn’t have as many connections between the right and left as the female brain so they use more of their right brain whereas girls use both halves of their brain- since the left and right are responsible for different areas this means they approach problems differently and have different strengths, (and that’s not about one being better than the other, or “backhanded compliments” sitting quietly and listening isn’t “better” or “worse” than learning through play, it’s just different.) That doesn’t mean nurture plays no part in this, I’m a firm believer that the whole nature vs nurture argument in pretty much anything is daft and that they both play a role in what makes us the way we are.

However, what causes there to be a difference in learning styles isn’t really the point. The point is that there is, boys and girls are different by the time they reach school, whether it’s because they were born that way or because their parents bought them too many barbie dolls/cars isn’t really relevant to the fact that schools don’t acknowledge the difference in skillset but instead lean towards teaching to the female one which causes boys to not do as well. Something society as a whole is tending to do in a lot of areas, and many would argue it’s modern feminisms stance on equality equalling sameness and refusal to acknowledge the concept of equal AND different that’s at least partly to blame for this

Hope that was under 400 words, I’m not that good at being succinct ;o)

pendrive // Posted 23 June 2012 at 6:25 pm

“The thought that young men in severe emotional distress may feel unable to talk to others about their problems or to seek help should be of concern to everyone.”

The main problem is theres no one to turn to w emotional problems. When u try another male they say “take it! act like a man”. When u try a female usually they laughing cause they not appreciate “weak” guys due the fact that society still teaches women “males have to be strong and dominant”. Therefore i think till these gender stereotypes remains there is no real equality possible.

Holly Combe // Posted 23 June 2012 at 8:25 pm

@pendrive. It’s sad that so many men and women perpetuate such oppressive stereotypes. Hopefully this stifling standard of masculinity can be overturned if enough of us call bullshit on it.

@Sarah. I’ve been reading some material focused on questioning some of the boy crisis literature out there and will briefly comment on that later but, overall, I tend to agree with the view that the things seen by some as a matter of universal gender differences in brains often look a lot more like a complicated intersection including factors such as race and class oppression. I hear what you’re saying about believing in a mix of nature and nurture but also wonder if fixating on difference in brain scans and what actual lived differences (along with so-called “masculine” and “feminine” attributes) this might translate into is somewhat missing the point. For one thing it fuels the problematic conflation of sex with gender. For another, it seems to pigeon-hole children before they even get a chance to decide who they want to be. Surely a good education system should value all sorts of different learning styles anyway and not employ a one-size-fits-all approach?

I need to read further but the idea that girls do better in an environment that favours sitting quietly and listening while boys predominantly learn through play still doesn’t sit well with me. My understanding is that learning through play is a respected pedagogy that surely benefits children in general, regardless of gender. I don’t see that any gender has a lot to gain from a learning environment that only rewards those who sit quietly. It sounds frighteningly Victorian (“children should be seen and not heard”). Is this really the way that most classrooms are ruled these days? If so, I’d say we need to work to change this for the sake of all children.

IMO, treating children as individuals who are all equal but potentially different, rather than prototypes for their assigned genders is better for everyone in the long run.

Holly Combe // Posted 23 June 2012 at 8:46 pm

Going back to Jo T’s point about the “man box” view of masculinity and its possible influence on boys lagging behind, Amptoons has an interesting post referring to Michael Kimmel’s analysis of some common arguments about “the war against boys”. I’d highly recommend Kimmel’s essay criticising the idea that boys and girls are so fundamentally different that their learning styles and educational needs are too (suggesting its proponents “rely on small and often insignificant biological differences between males and females”). He also stresses the need to focus on “the ideology of masculinity as experienced and expressed by young boys”, arguing that this ideology is “the very dynamic that keeps boys disengaged with their educations”. Along with this, he is critical of the privileging of sex over gender.

(This goes slightly off-topic but, when considering wider debates about brain difference and abilities in certain disciplines, I’d recommend the work of Janet Hyde and Marcia Linn.)

[Please feel free to address this in a separate reply to break up comments into more digestible pieces!]

Helen // Posted 25 June 2012 at 1:50 pm

@Sarah, @Holly

I must say that I find Steve Biddulph’s ideas really essentialising and, for what it’s worth, they don’t match my personal experience of raising children who happen to be boys. For my money the clearest and most up to date text looking at these questions is Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine who is a neuroscientist and who can therefore write with authority on the claimed brain differences between boys and girls, men and women. It’s a great read. See also an interview with her in the Psychologist magazine,

Sarah // Posted 25 June 2012 at 2:20 pm

“Surely a good education system should value all sorts of different learning styles anyway and not employ a one-size-fits-all approach? …IMO, treating children as individuals who are all equal but potentially different, rather than prototypes for their assigned genders is better for everyone in the long run. ”

Absolutely, this is exactly how it should be, I’m not suggesting for one minute we sit all girls in a classroom in silence and dictate to them whilst chasing all boys round the playground and asking them what they think they’ve learned whilst running off steam ;o) Gender differences are general, they don’t account for kids with autism, adhd, ocd, dyslexia, rebellious kids or just plain weird kids. I’m simply pointing out that because gender differences DO exist (for whatever reason) and because schools DO employ a one size fits all approach those who fall outside that “fits all” category tend to suffer- and because the one size fits all approach tends towards the more feminine skill set, (as well as the fact that things like autism and adhd affect males more than females) more of these people will be male than female,. which is why boys lag behind at school, not simply because, as the article suggested, our “sexist” society teaches boys it’s wussy to read.

Holly Combe // Posted 25 June 2012 at 3:17 pm

Thanks for the reminder about Cordelia Fine, Helen! As she says, drawing a link between brain differences and social differences isn’t easy. Also this:

“Even if we assume that a sex difference in the brain is reliable -generally not a safe assumption to make- what does it mean? The sheer complexity of the brain, together with our assumptions about gender, lend themselves beautifully to over-interpretation and precipitous conclusions.”

@Sarah. Why the need to label certain attributes as a more “feminine” skill set? There could be a variety of structural reasons why girls currently tend to flourish more under whatever one-size-fits-all approach currently dominates (something neither of us have pinpointed specifically anyway), so I think it’s a bit a leap to use that to generalise about apparent “feminine” qualities.

We’ve agreed there should be respect for different learning styles anyway so why the need for a reifying emphasis on apparent general gender difference? If girls and boys alike are not expected to behave in particular specific ways, it matters very little how many of us do or don’t end up fulfilling an old stereotype. (In my view, feminism shouldn’t be about replacing old rules with new ones. It’s a collective effort, with some measured level of compromise for all at times, to help us to each become the people we truly are, regardless of gender.)

Conservatism only fights to preserve rigid gender roles because they’re under threat. I strongly believe that sweeping away all the bullshit and stereotyping will help us to see more clearly that women and men are more similar than different but, if that proves to be wrong, at least we’ll be able to see the truth of the matter more clearly and confidently.

(I realise you’re paraphrasing but I don’t think the article ever implied that boys are taught reading is “wussy.” I think masculine conditioning is a little more complex than that!)

Holly Combe // Posted 25 June 2012 at 3:23 pm

Re: reading and “wussiness”. I’ve looked back at the part you were referring to and, to be fair, Jo does directly make a comment about that. However, I don’t think she ever said it’s “simply” a matter of this!

Sarah // Posted 25 June 2012 at 7:41 pm

It’s not about labelling attributes, it’s a fact that men and women are different and have different skills. For example our muscle fibres are different, which is why the worlds strongest women would struggle to compete with amateur male powerlifters but is also why when we’re both in peak shape can out rep my 22 stone beefcake of a hubby- that’s not about labelling, it’s about science. And whilst brain chemistry might still allude mankind somewhat if we can prove beyond doubt that our muscular structure is different, lending us to different skills, why should it be so amazing, or offensive to suggest our brain chemistry might also be different leading to different skills? Unless of course our society values one set of skills more than another- but then the problem isn’t with us having different abilities, but with our attitudes to those abilities.

And whilst the education system and society in general shouldn’t force anyone into any stereotype and people should be free to do what they want to do, it should also accept, that because of the way we’re made up, there will always be more men in certain roles and more women in others and respect men and women’s choices in that as well as celebrating the very things that make us unique and distinct from one another, part of which is masculinity and femininty- these are not concepts we should be afraid of but concepts we should embrace- without of course forcing people into stereotypes ;o)

Sarah // Posted 25 June 2012 at 7:43 pm

@Helen, it’s funny because Steve Buddulph’s ideas DO match my experience of raising three boys (and living with a large one) and have been really useful in parenting them too- I guess our varying worldviews have probably coloured how we’ve viewed our children and his ideas ;o)

Holly Combe // Posted 26 June 2012 at 12:01 am

Difference in muscle fibres and how this translates into physical strength as a skill can be measured much more easily and conclusively than skills related to learning. It’s not amazing or offensive to suggest our brain chemistry “might also be different leading to different skills” (indeed it’s a popular conclusion to draw) but, as Cordelia Fine says “we are still at the beginning of the journey of understanding how the brain enables the mind. Even if we assume that a sex difference in the brain is reliable – generally not a safe assumption to make – what does it mean?” Also:

“Neurosexism affects social attitudes in a harmful way, and we need to start being less casual about it.”


“…neuroscientists don’t have control over how their findings are used (or abused) by popular writers… Marginal findings of sex difference can become the main focus of a published report.”

IMO, accepting that there will apparently “always be more men in certain roles and more women in others” because of the way we’re made up *is* a form of stereotyping. It’s one thing to observe difference but quite another to draw conclusions about what will “always be” because of them. It sounds distinctly like an excuse for discrimination to me.

Sarah // Posted 26 June 2012 at 9:41 am

How can “acceptance” sound like “discrimination”?

If we don’t accept that we are different, and we continue to insist we are all the same and therefore there MUST be a 50/50 gender split in all roles- that’s when we begin to force people into roles they don’t want to be in, that’s when we end up with women like Cherie Blair telling a massive proportion of women that THEIR career choice is not worthwhile, that their role is somehow lesser than others and there’s something wrong with being “just” a mum

That’s when we end up with women who WANT to be nurses told they don’t have enough ambition and “why don’t you want to be a doctor” and why most of the mums I used to work with hated working, WANTED to stay at home with their child but felt either financial or societal pressure to be more than “just” a mum….because they’d been told form an early age that they shouldn’t want to fulfill traditional “female” roles, that there’s something lesser about doing that and that any woman with any ambition wants to run a company, be a doctor or whatever.

We ought to be teaching children that they can be whatever they want to be, do whatever they want to do, and if what they CHOOSE to do fits a gender stereotype- so what!

Holly Combe // Posted 26 June 2012 at 4:10 pm

We ought to be teaching children that they can be whatever they want to be, do whatever they want to do, and if what they CHOOSE to do fits a gender stereotype- so what!

Exactly. As I said:

If girls and boys alike are not expected to behave in particular specific ways, it matters very little how many of us do or don’t end up fulfilling an old stereotype.

To clarify, it sounds like an excuse for discrimination to me when general tendencies reflecting social stereotypes are looked for, reported on (distorted if necessary) and then used to draw conclusions about what is apparently inevitable (i.e. accepting that there will apparently “always be more men in certain roles and more women in others”). Acceptance of people as individuals, regardless of gender roles (whether accepted or rejected) is a separate issue from uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Indeed, it’s interesting that you refer to *continuing* “to insist we are all the same” as if gender stereotyping is somehow a thing of the past and gender difference is a taboo concept. A look at the mainstream media and the common view that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” would suggest this is not the case.

Nobody in this thread has said there “MUST be a 50/50 gender split in all roles” or denigrated the ones traditionally thought of as female. Indeed, childcare and nursing are two examples of extremely valuable work so anyone who wishes to undertake either should be supported for doing so. Jo’s post did not suggest otherwise.

Mr. Rude Word // Posted 27 June 2012 at 7:03 pm

I saw an interesting documentary on youtube analysing gender equality. It was made by a Norwegian comedian. Apparently Norway is statistically the most “equal” country in the World in terms of gender representation in the workplace, however the same differences in terms of which professions attract more males/females still exist. The conclusion was that “in a free and equal society, men & women will become unequal because they have the opportunity to cultivate their particular interests”. In other words, freedom is about allowing people, regardless of their gender, to plough their own furrow.

It’s interesting to note that the apparently liberal-minded Norwegian gender researchers in the film were 100% resistant to the idea that biology had any role to play in the choices that males & females make, whereas the two English academics featured argued that both biology and society had a hand in deciding gender differences.

Holly Combe // Posted 27 June 2012 at 9:59 pm

I guess the question of whether the resistance of those Norwegian gender researchers meant they kept their liberal values intact very much depends on what definition of “liberal” one applies. Personally, I’d suggest they were on fairly safe ground, seeing as one definition of “liberal” is “Regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change”! The idea that biology definitely has some role to play is a traditional one that many people see as just “common sense” so I’d say it’s pretty healthy for it to be challenged completely and uncompromisingly. Of course, that’s not to say biology definitely doesn’t have a role to play but, as I said earlier in the thread, at least we’d be able to see the truth of the matter more clearly if stereotypes didn’t have a social hold.

I can’t really comment on the documentary, as I haven’t yet seen it, but chipping away at old power structures takes time so, unless it can be proved that Norway has never known gender inequality, I’d suggest we can’t draw hard and fast conclusions just yet.

I agree with what you say about freedom in general but, IMO, people are only truly free to plough those unique furrows, regardless of gender, if gender stereotypes are no longer enforced. At that point, differences would cease to matter.

Hildegerd // Posted 4 July 2012 at 10:52 pm

I do not believe for a second that there are so much difference in the brain of the two sexes that it makes it a disadvantage for the boys to stay and achieve in the modern school.

It is lazy science.

Tobi Jo // Posted 18 September 2013 at 5:23 pm

Last night we combined our girls and boys workshops and watched MissRepresentation. The discussion after was very heated, and several boys were on their defense. It is difficult to listen to and discuss boys/men being a part of the problem and solution when it comes to violence against women.

After class, one young man came up to me and said, “I understand this film, but What can I do?” And I told him how important it is when issues such as this speak to him, to speak out about it, state his opinion, how it affected him etc.. He said its very hard, as a boy to do this, because of the ridicule and criticism he would receive from the other guys for doing so. I had my son with me, and it had a huge impact on him, to see this brave young man talk to me about this.

I think most guys can relate to this fear, and unfortunately it is this fear that holds more men/boys back from speaking out against important issues and showing that they actually do care.

We need to see more men showing that they care. Speaking up in the face of fear, about things they care about.

What an honor to witness this young man take the first step toward doing this.

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