Where Are the Wonder MEN?

photo credit:  Jonas Jacobsson/Unsplash

I see the invisible labor that women carry.
It is no longer invisible to me.

I am a white, cis-gender, straight male. I’m coming from a position of privilege where I can decide if this should matter to me. It does. Here's why:

Last year I attended the Women’s March in Philadelphia. With the energy for change swirling around the crowd, I could feel that I was bearing witness to a movement. It felt right to be there. We were connected to millions of people in dozens of marches organized simultaneously around the country and the world.

Every speaker and every sign made it clear what women need to do: step up, speak up, be counted. Get active in politics. Run for office.

I left the Women’s March energized and inspired.

When I got home, I thought long and hard about the importance of this movement. What can an advocate for gender equity, who happens to be a man, do?

Men in power make decisions that impact individuals, families, and the local economy. Often, even unconsciously, those decisions are flavored by the gender biases with which we were raised.

If I didn’t break it,
why do I have to fix it?

photo credit:  Jason Rosewell/Unsplash

If men, and institutions run by men, are perpetuating gender inequity, what should a conscientious man do? Sit on the sidelines and “let” change happen? Speak up? Take a more active role? Doing what, exactly?

If some men are in positions to perpetuate the problem, can men like me use our privilege to contribute to a solution?

As the balance of power shifts between men and women in the workplace, in politics, and in our homes, more women are stepping up into leadership roles.

At the same time, men in power have a problem. Women are flexing their voices and speaking up but men who were raised like me have a skill deficit. We were never taught to listen. And that has been the status quo for decades, even centuries.

For example, I recently got to watch myself on a video call with my friend and colleague Amanda. She was pouring her heart out, near tears as she described her partner’s lack of compassion. She admitted that she would consider moving out but… she doesn’t earn enough to live independently. Amanda has no easy choices. She is a working mom managing the full mental load of raising two kids and keeping her house together, cooking and cleaning. And she is at the end of her rope.

When I played the conversation back, I could see that I was distracted by the million thoughts she had triggered. I was taking in Amanda’s words but not totally reflecting the feelings embedded in them. From the outside, I might have seemed as if I wasn’t paying attention.

I showed Amanda sympathy but I wasn’t “in it” with her, feeling compassion for her pain and anger and frustration and helplessness. Looking back at the recording, I imagine a woman in my seat who shared the same experience, feeling true compassion for Amanda. She would resonate with Amanda’s story and share in her pain.

Are men the source of the problem?

I said “source” of the problem, not “cause.” As a man, I didn’t set out to oppress minorities or leave my wife holding the bulk of the invisible labor in my household. So why do I care about fixing something I didn’t break?

  1. it costs me very little to do something proactive

  2. I have compassion that the person with less power ends up having to clean up everyone’s messes

Amanda reminded me that the person with less power inherently has fewer resources to make a change to her situation (I used the pronoun “her” because the person in a power-down position is often, but not always, female-identifying).

If men don’t get better at listening, we provide more resistance than we even intend. This is a skill deficit that we can address.

So last year I began a call to raise more men who listen, I ran a workshop, and spoke on two popular podcasts. But then I left the idea behind. I turned my energy toward helping working moms. I built a program that empowers women to write their own chapter rather than choosing from the best of the worst options available.

Now I’m not so sure those are two separate paths. Thanks to enlightening conversations with three brilliant women last week, I have returned to my project to address the need for more men who listen.

My future vision is for men and women to sit down together. We need to find a way to have difficult conversations without getting triggered into old patterns. As Stephen Covey coined in his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” framework, we need to listen before we can be heard. His Habit 5 is “Seek First To Understand… Then Be Understood.”

Spouses and partners have been brainwashed to act as if they are in opposition to each other. My wife often said, “we need a wife” to handle all the stuff that we can’t get to. Too often couples start to blame each other when neither of them created the problem.

I see an untapped resource of energy if we can shake off this spell. We can become each other’s ally, not opponents, and support each other’s growth.

Stay tuned for more.

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Robert Zeitlin