Getting The Act Together


Women Speak
Author Bettina Arndt

In this edited excerpt from an article that first appeared in Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, social commentator Bettina Arndt asks why it is that the men's movement hasn't gained more momentum. As you'll read, she believes it has something to do with the blokes at the top not being willing to change.

The tall well-dressed man was in his element at a glitzy fund-raiser, chatting to the room full of high-fliers. Graeme Galt is a corporate veteran with a string of past chairmanships to his name, including the Sydney Swans AFL club and the Sydney Dance Company.

So it came as a surprise to discover that this smooth operator was keen to talk to me about the latest book he'd been reading Steve Biddulph's Manhood. How intriguing to hear a corporate achiever enthusing over Biddulph's talk of men and relationships, fatherhood and passionate masculinity.

Soon after our conversation Galt was asked to speak on future changes in the work world to a group of successful businessmen and their partners. It proved a seminar with a difference. The fast-track men were startled to hear Galt's prediction that one of the social changes most likely to affect work was of all things the men's movement.

He suggested that, in the future, there may be other options to the traditional masculine road. “It may not necessarily be: get an education, get a job, have a career, look after your wife, send your kids to private school, retire, play golf and drop dead,” he told them. His message was that men are just starting out to explore other choices and the men's movement is leading the way.

And how did they react? Well, many of the wives were very interested, he told me. But the men? Most were unmoved. “Most of the blokes it just doesn't register,” Galt said. “They are making a lot of money, working extremely hard. The concept that men can have choices in their lives is threatening.”

Men in power protect their turf. They are the beneficiaries of what Bob Connell, in his book Masculinities (Allen and Unwin 1995), calls the “patriarchal dividend” that flows to successful men who conform to the masculine ideal. “Men gain a dividend from patriarchy in terms of honour, prestige and the right to command,” says Connell. Plus there are the considerable material benefits that accrue to positions of authority and the good life which follows.

Men's interest in maintaining their position is formidable, warns Connell. Hence the lack of momentum in the men's movement. Connell's assessment is damning, “The project of transforming masculinity has almost no political weight at all no leverage on public policy, no organisation resources, no population base and no presence in mass culture.”

So here is the bottom line. Why would the men at the top want to mess with the model of masculinity that put them where they are? In health departments around Australia, the decision-makers, the men in suits, are still circling, trying to decide whether to take men's health policies seriously.

They know the stoic bravado, the risk-taking behaviour that endangers some men's health was a model that suited them well enough and contributed to their own success.

The macho strutting which puts boys in detention, out of class and in trouble, also gives boys the drive and authority to push their way to the top despite girls' superior test results. Are male education bureaucrats willing to tinker with that? And look at the decision-makers, the judges and policy specialists, who determine changes in family law or paternity leave, the bosses who must decide whether involved fathers can make the grade. One wonders how many of these men did a good job in their role as fathers to their children. They reaped their rewards elsewhere - in power and status. What chance of persuading them to change the rules for other men unless they conclude their own lives were a failure? There's a mighty long road ahead for the men's movement.

Perhaps the place to start is to slowly enlist powerful men in the process of consciousness-raising, seeking to persuade them of rewards other than those offered by patriarchy. But the fact that feminists are scrambling so hard to beat men at their own game can hardly help.

If there is one lesson that men must learn from progress so far, it's an old one a lesson about the enemy within.

This article reprinted with permission from John Fairfax Holdings.

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