The problem(s) of men
And why leadership training may be a surprising solution
Warning. I’m about to say something that’s politically and socially charged: We need to pay more attention to men.
In every period of adult life today, it is men, not women, who carry most of the crisis stories. Take early adulthood, for example: Low achievement. High school dropout. College unpreparedness. Unemployment. High-risk sexual and social behavior. Inability to regulate emotion. Alcohol and substance abuse. Suicide. Victims of violence (except sexual abuse). Imprisonment. The list goes on.
There is his life, and there is hers. And on a wide range of indicators, her life looks a lot better.
And yet, to even talk about “his” life or “hers” is problematic, given the extraordinary differences and inequalities among men and among women.
Women are not the only ones to live in the shadows of men. Many men do too: Poor and working-class men. Minority. Unemployed. Incarcerated. Being a man, even a white man, doesn’t necessarily ease or override these disadvantages in a culture that judges men by the resources they have.
The premiums our culture places on youth, beauty and sexual desirability are burdensome for women. But they also take a toll on men: Old men. Disabled, weak, sick, obese. Gay. These and other kinds of men are similarly burdened by cultural expectations that reward good looks, strength and stamina, sexual prowess and traditional masculine behavior.
Men also live in the shadows of women
Men also live in the shadows of women—not only in education and increasingly at work, but also in family life, where the default social and legal assumptions continue to be that this is ultimately the domain of women and mothers (particularly when parental roles and rights are contested). Many men, even when they have been good husbands and fathers, feel powerless or victimized.
The point is: We cannot assume that all men have privilege by default or that they have it uniformly. The presumably positive effect of being a man is often undone once we account for other dimensions—especially social class, race and ethnicity, and age.
Women and men are not homogenous as groups—even if they do have the sex of their bodies in common and are, therefore, subject to similar cultural expectations. Our view must be more nuanced and sensitive to various combinations of age, race, class and gender statuses. Being a young, white, middle-class woman, for example, surely trumps being a young, black, poor man. Indeed, new social-science research is revealing that the effects of social class often matter more in determining life outcomes in our society than gender and race.
All of this has me thinking about how much boys and men have to gain—and how much the people they are attached to and our society have to gain—if we were to make greater investments in them as leaders.
This stance rubs up against the view that men have had their time and that it is women in whom we should now invest. The scenario does not need to be set up as a zero-sum proposition. Many men have not had leadership training and opportunities either.
The five competency areas of the Ford Institute Leadership Program are skills that many men desperately need: 1) understanding community; 2) working in groups; 3) project management; 4) networking (relationships); and 5) communication.
There seems to be a parallel between the potentials of leadership skills for men and some of what family science has taught us about the benefits of involved fathering (and, to some extent, the benefits of higher education, which is highly correlated with involved fathering).
That is, leadership training might foster men’s psychological growth—in teaching them to be less self-centered and more giving, in providing direction and setting goals, in becoming more responsible and mature, and in tempering risk-taking.
Leadership skills might transfer to other realms, such as the family, by helping men become a better spouse or father. These skills might improve social relationships all around, serving as a mechanism for making and maintaining stronger attachments to members of extended families, schools, neighborhoods and communities.
Other articles in this issue of Community Vitality offer clues as to why men are missing in the Institute’s programs, such as whether they are unavailable because of other responsibilities or they mistakenly assume that they know how to lead.
So when we ask “Where are the men?” we must also ask: Have we made a place for them? Have we sought out the men who are hardest to reach and have the most to benefit? Have we been sensitive in our marketing and scheduling? Have we helped them see why leadership matters and provided a compelling case that any costs to family or work are worth it?
In needing to be providers and in wanting to be involved fathers, men are struggling. The claims on men today as they balance work, family and other pursuits are not unlike those of women.
There is no better time than now to cultivate the leadership of men, which may be one of the most important, and surprising, solutions to addressing the problems of men in our society. Gender equality is not just about closing the gap between women and men, though the primary things still on the table for women (pay, promotions and professions) are serious. The exclusive focus on these things, however, is short-sighted.
In the bigger picture, many men have it bad. This is not a song of sorrow for or a defense of men. But it is a call to action. And in my view, that means that we might try harder to get men’s lives to look more like women’s than to get women’s to look more like men’s.