The dawn of male equality in Europe

A fumbling men’s movement is dawning in Europe, there is a widespread concern about boys’ academic performance in school, and child custody and breakups are controversial issues.

“It was surprising to see that the discussion concerning boys’ role as academic losers in school was found in all the countries covered by this study,” says Elli Scambor who is one of the near forty scholars who have participated in the EU report The role of men in gender equality.

“And the school as a feminised institution was identified as the main problem.”

Although research shows that more boys than girls drop out of school and that their academic performance is slightly poorer than the girls’, it also shows that class and migration background is as important as gender when one tries to explain these differences.

Men as gender

The report was assigned by the European Commission, and it forms the basis for a number of policy recommendations. The study has collected and compared statistics, research and the political development concerning men and equality in 27 EU countries and the four EFTA countries – among them Norway.

“Homophobia, child custody and violence were all controversial themes. It was much easier to talk about work, health and active fathers,” says Scambor.

“The EU commissioners come from a long tradition in which equality work during the last decades have first and foremost been focussing on women. They had to get used to the idea that men is also a gender.”

For instance, the commissioners had to be reminded by the researchers of the fact that violence does not only mean men’s violence against women, but also violence executed between and against men. And the fact that one cannot carry out research on masculinity without addressing homophobia.

“Some controversial themes were not fully addressed,” says Øystein Gullvåg Holter, who is responsible for the Norwegian contribution to the report. He would like to see more research on child custody following breakups, among other things.

However, this is the first time that men's situation has been summarised on such a wide basis, especially in terms of work, family, care and health. The fact that this has been put on the agenda in Europe is both new and important.

See also: Boys more affected by gay insults and Boys more exposed to relational bullying

Europe divided

One of the things that surprised Holter was the variation in terms of men's participation in unpaid care services and housework.

Øystein Gullvåg Holter. (Photo: University of Oslo)

“It is almost like a divided Europe where the north and west have reached the furthest and the east and south are lagging behind,” says the researcher.

By way of example, men from Northern and Western Europe are twice as involved in housework compared to men from Southern and Eastern Europe.

But Holter was also surprised to see that many of the political measures that we regard as being Norwegian or Nordic here in Norway – such as the paternity leave – may be found in several European countries.

“What used to be called a Norwegian or Nordic model is now gradually turning into a European model,” claims Holter.

See also: Scandinavian views on the gender equal university

Male movements

The report concludes that men in general are not particularly involved in gender equality work. Those who are involved in this kind of work are termed pioneers in the report.

And here, too, there are geographical divisions: the Northern and Western European countries have a longer tradition when it comes to gender equality work; they have taken more institutional measures such as men's panels or men's directorates which consequently makes more men involved in this sort of work.

However, the researchers found signs of dawning male movements in all the 31 countries which have been examined; England and Sweden are in the lead, each having 24 male organisations.

“Many of them focus on child custody after breakups, on boys as losers in the education system and on the influence of feminism on men,” says Scambor.

The pros and cons of masculinity

The researchers have applied the American sociologist Michael Alan Messner's triangle model as their theoretical approach for evaluating male policy. According to Messner, a male organisation has to cover all three angles in the triangle in order to be progressive: variations between men, men's privileges, and men's disadvantages.

Elli Scambor (Photo: private)

“The most unbalanced organisations were in Eastern Europe,” says Scambor.

Progressive men in these countries were often involved in feminist organisations.

“But not all the organisations which work for fathers’ rights are unbalanced,” says the researcher.

“We found organisations working for fathers’ rights in many countries and they vary from being highly progressive to being very misogynous and anti-feminist.

From provider to father

According to the report, the man as provider is no longer the dominating ideal in Europe. The idea of the man as a caring father is in the wind, however, and the researchers are preoccupied with what they call “caring masculinities”.

But employers are not always aware of this development, and the report concludes that formal rights and regulations are necessary in order for men to be active fathers.

Another important point is that differences between men are often overlooked.

“Many men are being characterised as losers. Very few reach the top of the social ladder,” says Scambor.

“If we just say that boys as a group perform badly in school, we ignore the fact that this problem concerns boys from the lower social classes and boys from minority background.”

Equality means quality of life

The report implies that increased gender equality means increased well-being and quality of life for men, which is also confirmed by Holter’s current research.

In a forthcoming study, Holter has found a strong connection between gender equality and men’s health.

There is less violence, depression and suicide among men in countries with a high degree of gender equality. The research material also considers American states, which shows the same tendency.

“The general rule that more men than women commit suicide is particularly valid in countries with a low degree of gender equality. This is thought provoking, especially since it is the opposite of what some anti-feminists have claimed,” says Holter.

“Having said that, I can't claim that men are happier in countries with a high degree of gender equality, but I can claim that these factors are closely connected.”

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro.

The researchers

Øystein Gullvåg Holter is Professor at Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo.

Elli Scambor is a sociologist who works at the Research Institute at Men's Counselling Centre in Graz, Austria.

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