Nov. 13, 2019

What men need to champion gender equality

National Social Work study finds men need more connection, mentorship

Findings of a new national study conducted in the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work suggests that fighting against patriarchy can often be lonely, difficult work. The study, co-led by Lana Wells and Dr. Sarah Fotheringham, PhD, suggests that men who champion gender equality and fight against unhealthy gender norms need more support and mentorship to make a difference.

“We all benefit from gender equality,” says Wells, who is the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence, “therefore we’re looking to create the conditions where everyone can play a part in achieving that outcome.”

To support this goal, Wells and Fotheringham are recommending the creation of a new national network for men engaged in gender equality and violence prevention work to connect and learn from one another alongside feminist leaders. Wells suggests this kind of national infrastructure could have a big impact in advancing gender equality and reducing gender-based violence in Canada.

Wells’s study focused on the experiences of 33 male-identified gender equality advocates from across Canada. The men were identified as pro-feminists who were actively working toward gender equality and through a series of interviews, they revealed they needed more support and mentorship.

The research was funded by a $1.8 million commitment from the Government of Canada. As part of this initiative, Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence (Shift), led by Wells, entered the highly competitive bidding process by proposing a pivotal national study talking to men about the challenges they encounter championing gender equality. The team was successful in their bid and Wells, along with Fotheringham, co-led the study: "Tomorrow’s Men Today: Canadian Men’s Insights on Engaging Men and Boys in Creating a More Gender Equal Future."

“The study was incredibly valuable,” says Wells. “The participants basically told us how we can socialize and mobilize more men and boys to advance gender equality and stop gender-based violence. They helped us to better understand the role of men in the movement for gender equality in Canada.”

Wells’s research program has been recognized nationally and internationally for its forward-looking focus on engaging men and boys in ending domestic violence over the last decade. Research by Shift and others shows men who feel pressured to live up to traditional gender norms and ideas of masculinity such as emotional constraint and aggression often experience negative health effects.

To disrupt these unhealthy and violent norms, Wells says men need a supportive and inclusive environment where they have the opportunity to learn, heal and transform. Currently, only a few pro-feminist, male-led organizations exist in Canada, making it difficult to legitimize their work and secure funding and buy-in from companies, as well as other men. Many of the participants talked about feeling isolated and wanting to connect with others doing this work.

“This is why we made the creation of a national network a key priority,” says Wells. “The majority of the men we talked to expressed a need to connect with one another, to learn together to advance the field, and to build a network of allies across Canada.”

The men also expressed a clear need for more mentors and gender-equality champions to model positive behaviours. One approach is to create opportunities in settings where men naturally congregate like schools, sport events and workplaces. 

Wells and her research team are currently working with Next Gen Men to begin building a network of pro-feminist and feminist leaders across the country thanks to federal funding recently announced by Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE).

“A gender-equal future requires a large-scale, cultural overhaul of attitudes and behaviours, which can’t be accomplished by a handful of committed individuals or organizations,” says Wells. “Change of this magnitude needs to be co-ordinated between all leaders that are connected and able to share knowledge, and that is what we are aiming to do with Next Gen Men.”

The full results of the study will be revealed and discussed through a series of webinars this November.