It took me over 30 years to muster some sympathy for men, but I got there in the end. It’s no coincidence that it was around the time I had my first child – a boy. Raising a man-to-be has given me an insight into the male world, and empathy for the opposite sex, that I had previously lacked. For sure, when it comes to money and power, men tend to hold all the cards. But individual boys and men suffer from limiting stereotypes in the same way as girls and women do.
"I just want my child to be happy," is a familiar parental refrain. Freedom is an essential part of happiness: the freedom to make your own choices and to be yourself. But the pressure to "act like a man" – even as a boy – erodes that freedom. As I’ve watched my son progress through nursery and then primary school, I’ve noticed the way in which his interests and behaviour – together with those of his male friends – have been pruned to reflect society’s one-size-fits-all idea of what a boy should be. Boys who would once walk hand-in-hand down the street, dress up in fairy wings or play with a tea set gradually become more self-conscious, censorious and confined. Some of this is simply down to growing up, but there is more to it. It is also about boys learning that they will be ridiculed and ostracised if they behave in certain ways – that care for others, whimsy and the domestic are not for them.
Before I began writing my new book, Man Up, I flattered myself that I was a fairly progressive parent who was careful not to reinforce stereotypes with either my son or my daughter. But, since then, I’ve learnt a thing or two about so-called "innocent socialisation": the countless, barely noticeable and often subconscious ways in which parents steer their children towards "gender compliant" behaviour. This will influence my son, for all the pink T-shirts and dance classes I’ve also sent his way. In any case, as he gets older, peers with firm views on how boys should behave will hold more sway than his ageing parents.
I’m as worried about the everyday challenges my son is more likely to encounter because he is a boy as I am about the well-documented perils that are more likely to affect my daughter
At the same time as witnessing what’s happening to boys, I’ve seen the fathers around me attempt to grapple with their desire to succeed at work while also devoting time to their families. This will sound a familiar juggle to many mothers. It’s tempting to think "Welcome to my world" and shrug it off. But it’s important to acknowledge the problems men face.
It seems to me that conforming to a macho ideal is just as harmful as the "feminine mystique" famously identified by the American feminist Betty Friedan in 1963 and that is still going strong. In the 1970s, social scientists nailed the unwritten rules of masculinity: be strong, take charge and don’t act like a girl. Having spoken to dozens of boys and men for my book, it is remarkable how little these rules have changed down the years. Even those who don’t conform are aware that they are flouting convention. In the same way that the "feminine mystique" damages women, the male rules hurt men. School exclusions, the prison population and suicides are all male dominated and linked to harmful notions of what it is to be a man. Play up, act like you don’t care, court trouble to impress your mates, don’t talk about how you feel – even if your life depends on it. Criminality and suicide are, thankfully, extreme and minority outcomes. But I’m as worried about the everyday challenges my son is more likely to encounter because he is a boy – losing interest in school, getting caught up in trouble on the street, driving too fast or, later down the line, if he becomes a dad, not being around for his children – as I am about the well-documented perils that are more likely to affect my daughter. Without downplaying the pressures and anxieties that many girls may face, let’s be honest about what boys go through, too.
This is the humane thing to do – and it is also in the interests of girls and women. The anthropologist Margaret Mead is credited with having declared, "Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man." She was right. And it works the other way as well. If we can free men from their belief that a real man is tough, competitive and unemotional, then we can create happier men – and better partners, friends, colleagues and fathers. I am a proud feminist. I also care about what happens to boys and men. I don’t think the two are incompatible. I’m all for HeForShe, but to achieve what we want for our sons and daughters we also need some SheForHe.