Men on the Menu

2011-04-18 Norway has done it, and now Iceland and Denmark are doing it: appointing special men’s panels with the aim of getting men onto the gender equality scene. But what issues should the Nordic men be focussing on?

When International Women’s Day was celebrated this year, on 8 March, the Danish Minister for Gender Equality Lykke Friis had some news up her sleeve. On the day before, she announced that she had appointed a men’s panel – the reason being that the minister wished to have both genders involved in the Danish debate on gender equality.

Lead photo: Former Minister for Gender Equality, Karita Bekkemellem, along with members of the Norweigian Men’s Panel, August 2007. Photo: Scanpix

“Today, only women discuss women with women”, as Lykke Friis put it in the newspaper Politiken.

Consisting only of men, the new men’s panel is the second one in Danish history. Its objective is to suggest new perspectives within the field of gender equality. Thus Denmark also joins a Nordic trend: men’s panels have returned in the 2000s, after their first appearance in the 1990s.

The Norwegian government appointed its second men’s panel four years ago. Iceland has recently set up a new men’s committee – also for the second time. Finland, for its part, has had a permanent men’s committee, within TANE, the Finnish Council for Gender Equality, for 23 years. Sweden has not had a specific men’s panel, but already in the eighties Lars Jalmert wrote the first Nordic book about masculinity, which was also published as a Swedish Government Official Report.

In other words, men are a high priority on the political gender equality agenda in the Nordic countries. But what are the gender equality issues that concern Nordic men? And what new perspectives are needed? There are no simple answers to this question.

Farewell to male ideals

A look at the work of the Norwegian Men’s Panel shows that there are more than enough issues to tackle. In 2008, the Panel presented 50 new gender equality suggestions, which ranged from a more equal division of parental leave and developments in women’s military service to improvements in men’s health.

Nevertheless, there was a strong common denominator. The 32 men in the Panel greatly emphasized the fact that the male ideals in Norwegian society must change, if gender equality is to improve for both men and women. It must be legitimate for men to be caring, vulnerable and concerned with close relationships. This is so, since gender stereotypes take their toll; for example, in the form of violence against women; poor health for men as they do not dare seek help; or men not being allowed to participate in the care of their children.

“Many men are ascribed a role that they don’t feel comfortable in. But breaking free from it would mean being effeminate. I’ve myself been called effeminate by my friends since I became chair of the Men’s Panel”, Arild Stokkan-Grande told the newspaper Aftenposten when the work of the Panel had been completed.

New perspectives wanted

It is too early to say whether the new Danish Men’s Panel will also embark on challenging gender stereotypes. The Panel will, however, as Lykke Friis pointed out in March, look at gender and gender equality with fresh eyes. That is why it consists of men who have an untraditional approach to the subject. The chair is editor-in-chief of the men’s magazine Euroman, and other members include a security researcher, a football coach and a number of top managers.

The only gender researcher on the Panel is Hans Bonde, professor at the University of Copenhagen Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences. However, he would like to see representatives of less privileged groups of men, such as the homeless, on the Panel, but otherwise welcomes the new voices in gender equality:

“The Danish gender equality debate is deficient, since for years the discussion has only taken place within the framework of classic and often struggling feminism. The Panel can bring more nuanced arguments to this debate”, he says.

Bonde identifies two areas which need particular attention:
“We must look at the gender equality problems of men and boys in the areas of health and education, where the gender statistics are very skewed.”

Male rights debated

The Danish Men’s Panel has been set up at a time when men and gender equality have seriously become a hot topic in public debate. The tone often being heated, several debaters find that men have now become the neglected sex, since the gender equality debate focuses on, for example, quotas for women on corporate boards.

In Sweden, too, the debate flourishes on the internet, among other places, where the outlines of a men’s movement are forming among various blogging men’s rights activists who have created a common virtual platform, Mansnätverket.org.

Some of the activists are critical towards feminists, but the growing men’s movement also includes men who are so called pro-feminists – both in Sweden and Denmark.

The situation is similar in Finland, says Anders Ahlbäck, researcher in history and masculinities at Åbo Akademi University.

“Male rights have experienced a renaissance in Finland over the last five years. Various activist groups have raised the issue and have received a lot of media attention. They have, for example, focussed on the lack of rights for the father during divorce proceedings and on the discrimination of men in the social system”, Anders Ahlbäck explains.

“To begin with, the men’s groups were strongly opposed to feminism; they felt that they weren’t being listened to, and they regarded the interests of men and those of women as contradictory. But this has somewhat changed, partly because the groups have been included in the political process”, he says.

Last year Finland published its first government report on gender equality, which included a separate chapter on the gender equality of men. The national action plan for gender equality has had a separate chapter on men and gender equality since 2004

Content Icelandic men

The life situation of men is also one of the subjects which Iceland’s new Men’s Committee will be exploring, but in Iceland, however, no bigger battles are discernible in the gender equality debate, says Ingólfur V. Gíslason, doctoral student in sociology at the University of Iceland.

Icelandic men have primarily organised themselves around parenthood and violence against women, says Ingólfur V. Gíslason. Photo: Anita Haslie

“Over the past few years Icelandic men have organised themselves around two issues. One is parenthood and children’s rights to contact with both their parents. The other is the struggle against violence against women”, he explains.

The Icelanders are very content with their world-famous parental leave, which earmarks equal parts of the leave for both parents. Nevertheless, some voices criticising masculinity were raised in the wake of the equally infamous Icelandic bank crash in 2008, where a majority of those involved were young men, and there was thus an attempt to link the crash to a certain form of masculinity.

Since the crash, unemployment in Iceland has soared and therefore the job situation of men will also be an area that the Men’s Committee is going to focus on, Ingólfur V. Gíslason speculates.

Motley research

Gender equality and men have, for several years, been a Nordic speciality, for example in international contexts such as the UN and the EU. But although this is a common Nordic theme, the image of the actual focus on men and gender equality in the Nordic countries is quite varied. Neither is there a uniform line of research on the subject.

“The short answer is that it is extremely varied. There is a very extensive differentiation pertaining to both the interests in and the availability of research on men and masculinities during the last few years”, says Steen Baagøe Nielsen, researcher on gender and education at Roskilde University and chair of the Nordic Society for Research on Men and Masculinities.

Some researchers explore the social life and experiences of men, while others study masculinity as a non-gendered phenomenon, and a further group focuses on men and masculinity within specific fields such as education, migration or sports.

In addition, the structures of the Nordic research environments are very varied. Both Norway and Sweden have permanent chairs in masculinity research, while the research environments in Iceland, Denmark and Finland are smaller, poorer and more fragmented.  This has certain consequences for the knowledge that is produced on men – and thus also for the gender equality debate, Steen Baagøe Nielsen points out.

“A weak research environment results in an uninformed debate, which is based more on common sense than on knowledge. This is very problematic – also for the political initiatives and projects which are developed in the field of gender equality”, he says.

By Ulrikke Moustgaard

Conference:

NIKK is one of the organizers behind the Nordic conference Masculinities in Motion – Men and (E)Quality of Life, held 31 May – 1 June 2012 at the University of Oslo.

The main part of the conference is research orientated with emphasis on a better integration of masculinity research into other disciplines.  A part dealing with policy issues is also offered at the conference, which illustrates practises and examples of development work using masculinity perspectives.

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