Sometimes it’s hard to be a man. No, honestly. Sometimes it really is, especially if you’re a certain sort of man; the sort for whom maleness would, a few decades ago, have been their biggest trump card.
It’s not as hard, obviously, as those busy portraying middle-aged men as an endangered species would have you believe. A British government reshuffle whose standout moment was a capable woman losing her cabinet job, while Boris Johnson kept his, is an odd sort of “massacre of the middle-aged men”, as the Daily Mail splashed it. (If there is a dodgy positive-discrimination scheme operating in politics now, it’s based not on gender, but on Brexit; the quota of Leavers in government must be preserved, and if you subtract the ones who can’t be allowed anywhere near power, the sky’s practically the limit for the rest.)
But that said, last week has not been great for men. It started with male actors taking a chastened back seat at the Golden Globes, while their female co-stars protested sexual harassment. It moved on into a debate about the fact that some men at the BBC probably earn too much — which is not the whole reason some BBC women earn too little, but is not wholly irrelevant either, and suggests pay cuts loom for some.
Shortly after that, Toby Young resigned from a university quango, after being accused of tweeting suspiciously often about breasts; and a reshuffle billed as propelling more women into government (if not actually into cabinet) brutally ended the careers of several obscure middle-rankers who hadn’t much troubled the scoreboard lately. Now there are only 82 poor, marginalised male ministers facing a whole 32 women.
And in a final blow to the self-appointed custodians of traditional masculinity, the army unveiled a new female-friendly recruitment campaign, suggesting it’s OK to cry and promising emotional support for soldiers.
There’s a reason, of course, that the armed forces describe themselves as a family. They’ve always offered a form of emotional support, a powerful sense of belonging and comradeship, and the army’s existing recruitment campaign already played on that by featuring soldiers describing how their mates helped them out in the tough early stages of training.
As for crying, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan left psychological scars as deep as the physical ones, and those long ago forced top brass to rethink their approach to combat stress. The case of Sgt Alexander Blackman — the marine jailed for killing a wounded Taliban insurgent on the battlefield, before having his murder conviction downgraded to manslaughter after further evidence on his state of mind — is a stark illustration of the risks.
Yet, the idea that repressing trauma in traditional manly fashion will make it magically go away, rather than seek darker outlets, persists among armchair generals. Cue a lot of men getting very emotional on Twitter about the dangers of soldiers showing emotion.
But like all fairytales, these fabled threats to masculinity itself do contain a kernel of truth. They have resonance for a reason. They speak to a broader fear that men will have to make sacrifices — changing their behaviour, or taking a financial hit — for women to achieve equality. And the unpalatable truth is that some men will.
It’s simply not possible to ditch a system that rewarded men unfairly at women’s expense without there being disagreeable consequences for at least some men. The mediocre ones, especially. The ones who would have thrived a generation ago when there was no real competition but are rightly worried now. There will be losers. How could there not be?
But just as advocates of social mobility shy away from explaining that it may not work out that happily for the dim but rich, women often don’t like to think there will be casualties from equality. We don’t want that to be the case, partly out of guilt, and concern for the men we love, but also for fear of the backlash.
One of the most powerful arguments made against equal pay half a century ago, and against paid work for women before that, was that men would lose out; that their salaries would be cut, rather than women’s ratcheted up, to achieve parity, and overall families would be worse off.
It didn’t happen that way, of course. One of the few things stopping low-income households being squeezed even tighter during the early 2000s was the rise in second earners going into work. Higher female employment is associated with rising GDP and the kind of economic growth that enables pay rises to happen, as well as generating more money for public services. Women don’t just take jobs, but create them.
Society has been ingenious, meanwhile, in finding ways to create more space at the top without forcing men down the ladder. University places expanded as more girls sought access, meaning the competition for boys didn’t become too intense. The status of attending cabinet but not actually being in it is a glorified job creation scheme for women, ensuring more female faces at the table without pushing men out.
But in organisations with finite budgets — such as the BBC — cutting men’s pay could be the only realistic way to close some of the ridiculously large gaps they have been allowed to open up. Why is John Humphrys paid so much more, not only than other Today presenters, but than most of the great and good he interviews? Does Huw Edwards really need that much money to read the news, even if he can do that thing he does with his eyebrows?
Meanwhile, pruning some decent but not exactly indispensable types is the only way to bring new people into the middle ranks of government, without expanding the payroll. Mediocre men who could once have expected to progress faster than good women in corporate life will lose out, and they will resent it. Even a meritocracy doesn’t feel fair to individuals judged lacking in merit.
And sometimes it may not actually be fair, because there is no such thing as perfect meritocracy. Employers will make mistakes. They’ll give leg-ups to people who don’t deserve it — as they always have — although the undeserving might look different in future. And disadvantaged or under-educated men risk losing out through no fault of their own, because they’ve had the bad luck to be born in an era where being male isn’t a saving grace.
As with technological advances that destroy traditional jobs, these painful changes will probably bring new opportunities, eventually. But that doesn’t mean everyone will benefit, or that individuals who lose out will transfer seamlessly into whatever’s next.
It’s hard to be honest about this when the other side is being rampantly dishonest, pretending every time a man loses out that it’s a conspiracy against all men. And it’s absolutely not a reason to retreat from the pursuit of equality.
But it’s the truth, and it has consequences for which we’re not preparing boys nearly well enough. Hiding from it won’t make it go away.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist.