Cathy Young: Gender bias a double-edged sword

November 20, 2013 

Did you know that Nov. 19 was International Men's Day?

Launched in Trinidad and Tobago in 1999 and now observed in 70 nations, including the United States, the United Nations-recognized event promotes awareness of men's health and wellness, as well as ways in which gender imbalances affect men and boys. It is a good occasion to look at the often-neglected male side of gender issues -- and to repair that neglect.

What men's issues, some would ask? After all, men are (presumably) the ones in power and women the ones held back by sexism.

But maybe the truth is that the stereotype of male power blinds us to the realities of male disadvantage. The fact that men earn more is treated as a cause for concern. However, another gender gap -- in workplace safety -- is almost universally ignored. Yet men account for 90 percent of on-the-job fatalities and nearly two-thirds of job-related injuries. While women's health activists have brought attention to inadequacies in medical care and research affecting women, evidence that men generally have more unmet health care needs is often overlooked. To take just one shocking statistic, men are three to four times more likely than women to commit suicide. One may debate the causes of this discrepancy, but there is little doubt that if it went the other way, it would be seen as a crisis.

The men's rights movement, which has gained new visibility in recent years thanks to the Internet, is often viewed as a lunatic fringe of women haters. Unfortunately, quite a few websites in the so-called "manosphere" do their best, or worst, to earn this reputation. But feminists (of both sexes) who rightly criticize misogynistic men's rights activists tend to either dismiss men's issues altogether or argue that the best remedy for male-specific problems is feminism itself -- since it challenges all sexism.

In theory, that may be true; quite a few feminists, including Betty Friedan in "The Feminine Mystique" 50 years ago, have argued that men should be freed from gender-role pressures. In practice, however, the women's movement has been mostly unsympathetic or hostile to claims of anti-male sexism (except on a few issues such as parental leave, where benefits for men directly benefit women).

Thus, women's groups, including the National Organization for Women, have opposed expanding the rights of divorced fathers, despite evidence that in this area, men tend to get the short end of the stick. When efforts to combat domestic violence have led to more arrests of female perpetrators, the typical feminist response has been to claim that battered women are getting arrested for defending themselves and to demand action to reduce arrests of women. Reports on gender bias in schools sponsored by groups such as the American Association of University Women have downplayed alarming trends of boys lagging behind in most areas of academic achievement.

No less important, while feminists denounce misogyny on the Internet, few have challenged anti-male hate speech from feminist blogs -- sometimes defended as a response to oppression.

Discussions of gender issues often degenerate into "who's the victim" oppression Olympics. The reality is that both women and men face some gender-specific barriers and biases. These problems are usually connected (when fathers are relegated to second-class parenthood, women face more pressure to be perfect parents). Perhaps what we need is not more feminism or more men's-rights activism, but a gender-equality movement that promotes fairness for both sexes.

Cathy Young, a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics, wrote this for Newsday; www.newsday.com.

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