Do men need to fail in order for women to succeed?

100 years after the suffragettes won their fight to see the Representation of the People Act passed in Britain, we ask whether true equality must see men fail.

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This year marks 100 years since the Suffragettes succeeded in pressuring the British government to grant some women the right to vote with the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act.  But in 2018, gender inequality remains one of the great political questions of our time: institutionalised sexual violence and the gender pay gap dominate headlines, while men remain overrepresented in government, business and the media.

So how can we speed up progress and level the playing field? Do more men need to embrace failure? Do we need to force men to fail, and miss out on top jobs and top pay, in order to ensure women rise to the top of all industries and lead institutional, structural change? Or is framing gender equality in terms of male failure misleading – as a more equal society benefits all?

As part of the New Statesman Debate at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday night, chaired by NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, six leading commentators debated the motion “This house believes that the only way for more women to succeed is for more men to fail”, incorporating issues of political representation, workplace discrimination, and sexual violence into their arguments.

“Well, obviously, I’ve come here because I want to organise a cull against men,” Suzanne Moore, New Statesman and Guardian writer and founding member of the Women’s Equality Party, joked as she began speaking for the motion, referencing the event description. “I wanted to talk about that word cull, because the minute we talk about getting near equality, it’s such a threat we actually describe murder. I generally find that speaking truth to power is divisive.”

Moore criticised those that insist feminism must be inclusive to men, and that gender equality benefits men as well as women. “We’ve actually gone backwards on women’s rights in all kinds of ways because we’ve been too way nice to men.”

She insisted that men have to actively give up power in order for equality to be achieved: “Power is not a possession. Power is a relationship. We have more or less power in relationship to each other.”

Speaking against the motion, Dr Jill Armstrong, a researcher for the Cambridge University “Collaborating with Men” project pointed out that the motion suggests “that there’s a finite number of jobs that we’re all competing for – and that’s clearly not right.” She argued that organisations with more women in leadership positions perform better, make more money, create more opportunities for growth, and more jobs for both men and women – and that men who took on more domestic duties were happier in their relationships and (according to one report) “had better sex”.

“Framing the debate in terms of gender wars – as it is so often done – seems to me to be a sure fire way to ensure that absolutely nothing changes.”

James Millar, political journalist and co-author of The Gender Agenda, disagreed. “There is one place where there is finite number of jobs – and that’s the House of Commons. There are only 650 seats, a vast majority occupied by men.”  He insisted that more men must “fail” to become MPs in order for true equality to be achieved.

Millar cited Justine Greening’s work as Secretary of State for Education as an example of the importance of female MPs. After a Women and Equalities Committee Report found that quality Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) had the potential to make the single biggest impact on all forms of sexual violence in this country, Greening made SRE compulsory in schools: this was later reversed by her male replacement Damian Hinds. “It’s not just some airy-fairy nice idea to have more women in parliament,” Millar argued. “It’s actually life and death.”

Like several of the debaters, Millar too argued that men must reject the idea that domestic work and childcare are a kind of failure in order for more women to achieve high level workplace success. “For more women to succeed it’s not just that more men must fail – they must embrace failure.”

“Hands up who here is not a Member of Parliament? Are you all failing? I don’t think so!” joked Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and author of Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen. Swinson sought to define success. “If you ask people, most people say they want to be happy. Greater equality drives greater happiness for all genders.”

Traditional ideals of masculine success don’t make men happy, she argued. “This requirement of the alpha male is something that does not suit very many men, it creates a huge amount of pressure on men . . . suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.” A more equal contribution to domestic labour and less pressure on men as breadwinners would help enrich men’s lives, she said.

“I’m not going to talk about the airwaves or the workplace or parliament,” insisted Julie Bindel, activist, author of books including The Pimping of Prostitution and co-founder of the law-reform group Justice for Women. “This is a really interesting conversation to have if we’re talking about the most privileged women hitting the glass ceiling. I have no interest in that whatsoever.”

“I want to talk about what unites all women, everywhere, all around the world. And there is only one thing. Whether you like it or not, every woman in the room knows what it is. It’s the fear and reality of sexual violence from men.”

She argued that while not all men commit acts of sexual violence, all men benefit from the structural power over women that the prevalence of sexual violence gives men at large. Bindel asked men to divest themselves of that power by committing themselves to fighting against sexual violence.

Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for north-west England, was responsible for prosecuting the Rochdale grooming gang in 2012 (he was played by the actor Ace Bhatti in the BBC drama Three Girls). Afzal cited his role in changing police attitudes towards victims of  sexual violence – from default disbelief to belief – as an example of how men can use their success for gender equality:  “There are many men like me who are allies.”

He described his efforts as Chief Executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners to have the Manchester terror attacks described as an attack specifically aimed at women and girls (who made up the vast majority of the audience at the Ariana Grande concert). His suggestion was rejected by his board, which included women, causing Afzal to quit his job. He concluded with the point that steps towards gender equality do not always only come from women.

“We have to work together: and that’s why I’m against this motion.”

Most audience questions and statements came from women supporting the motion, including a long-serving feminist who described being kept sane in her male-dominated career by consulting the quotation placed in her desk: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” But the audience as a whole in Cambridge eventually voted against the idea that for women to succeed, men must fail – ending on the hopeful note that gender equality can be a common and mutually beneficial goal.

The New Statesman is media partner to the Cambridge Literary Festival. The next event is Colm Toibin in conversation on 1 June