Safe spaces for men: the opportunity for employers to be a force for good

group of boys

Caitlin Moran, Sunday Times columnist and one of the most well-known feminist voices in the UK, is shining a light on the topic of male identity and shame, and the struggle young boys in particular are currently facing, in her newly published book ‘What About Men?’. As our features editor Suzy Bashford discusses here, who is mother to two boys, we need to keep this conversation going, and employers could play a key role in turning the situation around…

My youngest son (11) recently gleefully told me that he ‘loved’ social media personality Andrew Tate, who has been charged with rape and human trafficking. His glee was due to the fact he knows I’m a feminist and that this comment would provoke me. It did.

My gut reaction was to shut him down. To make him feel ashamed of being drawn to such a toxic role model.

Men are not feeling seen, heard or validated

Then it crossed my mind that the very reason that so many young men are turning to unhelpful role models is exactly because they are not feeling seen, heard or validated by the mainstream. That’s how extremism flourishes.

So I remembered a parenting book I’d once read that had good advice for all of us who are interested in trying to embrace difference and conflicting views, no matter how uncomfortable:

‘Be curious not furious’.

I took a deep breath and summoned my best Bafta worthy acting skills and tried to sound blasé when I replied:

‘Oh, ok, tell me about that, why do you like him so much?’

What’s wrong with boy power?

Turned out that he didn’t know too much about him, or really understand the word misogyny, but said Tate seemed ‘funny, strong and likeable’ on the videos he’d watched on Tik Tok. And then quipped that I was always ‘going on’ about girl power, so what’s wrong with boy power?

Good question.

Because boy power definitely has an image problem in 2023. I felt this first hand when trying to garner interviewees for this recent piece I wrote on empowering advice for young men navigating the workplace with their wellbeing in tact.

It was much easier to find interviewees for the equivalent piece about female empowerment; we are clearly much less comfortable with the idea of male empowerment, despite the fact we know that many males struggle hugely with their identity too.

Suicide rates speak for themselves

The suicide rates – three times that of women – speak for themselves. That’s why I was very glad to read Moran’s new book – What About Men? – identifying many of the double standards feminism can apply to men and the way, sometimes, girl power can make boys feel powerless.

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Instead of supporting boys equally, especially when they display vulnerability or make mistakes, we are often stigmatising men and making them feel bad about their gender in the way we tackle female empowerment.

An example of this happened to my older son (15) recently at school.

My son’s ‘misogyny meeting’

The girls in his year apparently went to the teachers to complain about the boys’ misogyny, armed with a long list of examples. My highly empathetic son came home with a concerned, confused look on his face when he spoke to me about it.

He’s tall and looks older than his age, and often gets mistaken for late teens. He worried whether he’d inadvertently intimidated girls with his size, because physicality was mentioned. 

Feeling accused and angry

Even though I have never seen him display any hint of misogyny, and he is one of the most encouraging males in my life, he felt accused, pigeon-holed and, understandably, angry. ‘I bet there’s not going to be a meeting about the awful way girls today treat boys sometimes!’ he said.

Or how women, can, and do, use their physicality to gain power over males, I wondered to myself, feeling a rising sense of injustice within me.

Our empowerment of females should not do this; disempower, disconnect with and make our males defensive. This will lead to an increasingly divisive culture where we will lose the allyship of good men who could be a real force for change in gender equality.

Of course we need to create a safe world for our daughters

I know my son. He dislikes making others feel uncomfortable or angry, and I worry that being treated this way will cause him to retreat in situations where, otherwise, he might speak up for others.

Yes of course we need to create a world which is safe for our daughters. And of course it’s heart-breaking how in 2023 women still don’t feel safe in so many public and private spaces.

And that there’s still so few women in leadership effecting meaningful change, when we know they make more empathetic decisions when it comes to matters like climate change.

And yes, I think it’s deeply depressing that there’s still so many women taking on a crippling burden of emotional labour.  I could go on (and often do in conversation with both my sons…).

We can’t stigmatise and alienate our sons

I’m 100 per cent behind addressing these injustices. But not by stigmatising and alienating our sons and husbands and fathers and brothers. That is the behaviour that will turn them towards extreme validating voices like those of Tate. That is why we need to create safe spaces for them to talk, share and be listened to.

Employers can play a vital role here in not only helping male employees themselves but through the ripple effect on society;  in creating better, more emotionally intelligent role models for sons by supporting their dads (and some already are, see this case study of Grundon Waste Management and this of BAM UK & Ireland).

Arguably, given men struggle more with the vocabulary of emotions and expressing how they feel (something that came out strongly in the advice article I wrote) they need these spaces more than women. Women naturally seem to have the vocabulary, and they’re also very good at creating their own safe spaces to connect genuinely outside work.

Fear of male empowerment

Yet, due to the fear of ‘male empowerment’ and the hangover from the old boys’ clubs, most employers will have a women’s network but not a men’s.

I love what Sally Pritchett, Chief Executive of agency Something Big, which won our award for most psychologically safe employer, said in response to my LinkedIn post about this. She said we need to move towards a “calling in” culture instead of a “calling out” or cancelling one.

‘I know there’s a lot that’s wrong in the world, but big change-makers like Martin Luther King used kindness to make change not anger,’ she added.

‘If we make people feel like they might have to apologise all the time, they might stop speaking up then we’re silencing the very voices that were trying to make things better. If we want equality it needs to be for all. Until we ditch the stereotypes for both genders, we’re 100% complicit in stigma.’

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