“Gender equality has not been achieved in Norway, and we don’t have a gender equal ‘we’ versus a non-gender equal group of ‘others’,” said Professor Øystein Gullvåg Holter in his opening remarks at the fifth Nordic conference on men and masculinities studies held in Oslo recently.
Gender equality counteracts violence
Holter is referring to new figures from a large international survey that shows a clear correlation between the level of gender equality and the frequency of violence in a family. The study was first conducted in Norway on commission from the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion.
Holter and his colleagues designed a detailed questionnaire with hundreds of questions about gender and gender equality. Among these, the respondents answered questions about the conditions in the homes they grew up in.
The international survey is based partly on the Norwegian study.
“Both of these studies show that when the level of gender equality in the childhood home is high, the level of physical violence is low. This applies to violence against children as well as to violence between partners,” says Holter.
When the researchers presented their findings, the comment they heard time and again was “we already knew that!”
”But no, we didn’t know that before it was investigated. On the contrary, there has been an assumption in international research in particular that a demand for gender equality can increase the level of violence because men feel that they lose their power.”
"When the level of gender equality in the childhood home is high, the level of physical violence is low."
“And the finding is dramatic: Gender equality in the home reduces the risk of violence against children by almost two-thirds. There is a clear, strong correlation across other variables such as level of education, divorce and bullying. Moreover, the correlation is just as strong among the young respondents as among the older ones,” the professor emphasizes.
Unknown for violence researchers
The study also shows that it appears violence mainly follows power – that is, the person in the family who takes the decisions is also the one who perpetrates the violence. In other words, it appears that violence is usually not caused because a person feels that he or she is not being heard.
“This means that if it is the mother who takes decisions in the home, it is the mother who is the main perpetrator of violence. This is why we need more knowledge about both male power and female power,” says Holter.
The study shows that being the victim of, or being a witness to, violence in the childhood home causes long-term negative effects with regard to a person’s health and to violence in a person’s current intimate relationship.
“Nonetheless, violence researchers know very little about the correlation between violence and gender equality, and there is a lack of research about this correlation except for our questionnaire,” Holter points out.
Things work better in gender equal families
“There is a widespread belief that gender equality involves attitudes, but gender equality also has to do with practice. If you ask people about gender equality, many would answer yes, they want to have it. If you ask more concretely and pointedly, you get a clearer picture of how people live.”
The study shows that many people feel more positive towards gender equality in the family and private life when it is a personal choice than to government policies on gender equality, such as quotas in the boardroom and parental leaves.
“We think it has to do with experience. Things work better when we are gender equal. Our figures show that respondents who were not very satisfied with gender equality in the home considered ending their relationship much more often. Surprisingly, this applies to both men and women.”
Men who feel “enough is enough” are also represented in the survey.
"We also need a critical spotlight on women’s power and women’s contribution."
“It’s usually the same men who believe that there is ‘enough gender equality’, that there is ‘enough immigration’, and that the government is too involved in people’s lives. These three attitudes are closely linked. We have looked more closely at the men who feel like this. We didn’t find that they had any especially strong patriarchal profile, but we clearly saw that these men come from environments with a low level of education,” says the researcher.
Male power and female power
“I think we need to move away from the male-centred perspective that has pervaded masculinities research. There has been a belief that masculinity determines the degree of gender equality. We don’t know whether this is the case, and we should be careful about making that assumption.”
“We also need a critical spotlight on women’s power and women’s contribution, in addition to the studies of men’s power. I think this will lead to better theory and method development, and the field can then better participate in other broad discussions about democracy and welfare. And we need a more critical spotlight on gender equality as an ideology,” Holter concludes.
Translated by Connie Stultz
The fifth Nordic conference on men and masculinities studies – Masculinities in Motion – Men, Gender Equality and Quality of Life – was held in Oslo on 31 May-1 June 2012. The conference was opened by Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Inga Marte Thorkildsen.
Øystein Gullvåg Holter is a professor at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo.