Engaging boys and young men
In order to create a more equal society in which young people of all genders can thrive, it is important to include and engage boys and men as allies and as a key part of the solution.
So how can we do this?
Have open and honest discussions about the nature of gender inequality
Ask them questions about the differences in the ways that society treats girls and boys, and men and women. Encourage them to consider the different experiences that different genders have - for example in the home, at school, in intimate relationships, in the workplace.
This helps to focus things at the societal level – making clear it’s not about saying that boys and girls are fundamentally different, or that individual boys are responsible for the problems of gender inequality.
The aim is not for boys to feel ashamed, rather it’s about encouraging them to critically explore society’s gendered expectations and supporting them to understand the links between these expectations and gender inequality.
Support boys and young men to identify ways in which gender roles and stereotypes create inequalities and power imbalances
For example, boys are often encouraged to take risks and embrace leadership qualities, while girls have more often learned to be compliant or conscious of meeting other people’s needs or expectations. Boys may have greater use of shared space (eg. using playgrounds for sports) and boys’ sports often gain more attention than girls’. When it comes to sexual behaviour and relationships boys are often expected to adopt a more dominant role and are generally afforded more freedom, while girls are often expected to be more passive, with their sexual behaviour closely monitored. In the adult world, men are more likely to be in senior positions, earn higher pay, have more political power and gain greater attention for their achievements.
Unfortunately sometimes boys and men are encouraged to put girls and women down, or treat them as sexual objects, as a way to demonstrate their masculinity. In a school context, this may include making sexualised comments towards female members of staff, sharing intimate images of girls without their consent or making hurtful comments about girls’ bodies or sexual ‘performance’ to peers following sexual activity.
Concerningly, some young men are also drawn into online forums where women are explicitly reviled and where there is incitement to violence, or to avoid and disengage from women altogether. Such extreme misogyny often comes hand-in-hand with racism and homophobic ideas and although numbers of forum members and viewers are very high, is it often much less recognised than other forms of online extremism.
Build empathy, understanding and more positive relationships among boys
Work with boys and young men to push back against harmful gendered expectations which have a negative impact on girls and wider society, as well as on boys and men themselves. Boys and men face harmful and unrealistic expectations about what it means to be a man - for example the need to appear to always be OK, in control, never vulnerable. This creates pressures and constraints which can be particularly exacting for adolescent boys and young men.
Boys can also face consequences if they are seen to deviate from what a man ‘should’ be – for example if they are (or are perceived to be) gay, or questioning their gender.
Encouraging boys and young men to be critical of gender roles and to build empathy with one another can therefore help boys and young men to feel less constricted and more able to develop positive relationships among themselves and with girls and young women.
Be role models for equality
Male staff in particular have a key role to play to support boys to develop healthier masculinities and more equal relationships with girls and women – through their actions as well as how they talk to boys about gender. Male staff can act as role models for boys and young men, demonstrating that gender equality is their business too, and they have an active role to play in partnership with girls and women to improve society for everyone.
The below organisations and projects specifically aim to engage boys and men: