Men should celebrate, too

Observations on equality by <strong>Jack O'Sullivan</strong>

The government, say the usual suspects, has been hijacked by the women's lobby. There are threats, it is said, of quotas and all-women shortlists everywhere. But the proposal that public bodies should have a duty to promote gender equality could be just as important - perhaps more so - for men.

It is, after all, members of the male sex whom the public services often fail most spectacularly, whether they are boys struggling at school, prospective fathers, or men with prostate cancer.

Schools offer little help to boys who underperform because their friends say it isn't cool to study. Prostate cancer victims are often diagnosed late because they believe that real men don't go to the doctor. The National Health Service doesn't target information specifically at fathers-to-be, and often holds antenatal clinics while they are at work. There are solutions to these problems - mentoring for boys at school, for example, and clinics at workplaces and barbers' shops that men vulnerable to cancer might more readily attend - but they are still quite rare.

Much of the public sector is still stuck in the middle of the 20th century, assuming that men go to work while women look after the kids. In reality, according to research by the Equal Opportunities Commission, men in dual-earner families with children under the age of five now take on about a third of the childcare.

The new duty will challenge the public sector over flexible working benefits that typically discriminate against male employees with caring responsibilities. State institutions will likewise have to try to open up employment in early-years education to men, who currently make up about 2 per cent of the workforce.

There are plenty of blueprints for change available, some in the private sector. The proportion of male staff working flexible hours at BT, for example, is the same as the proportion of female staff. The Sheffield Children's Centre, in David Blunkett's constituency, has, for more than a decade, employed men and women in equal numbers as childcare workers. The Vale of Leven Academy in Scotland has a gender equality working group that has secured a significant improvement in boys' levels of attainment. But until now, there has been little pressure to make such best practice standard everywhere.

In truth, the new duty is simply further recognition that public services should be personalised, that one size does not fit all. A change that would improve lives - even save them - should not be written off as bureaucratic interference. It would not be a victory of women over men or vice versa, just a triumph for plain common sense.

Jack O'Sullivan is a co-founder of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood

j.osullivan@fathersdirect.com