This article was first published in The Independent on Saturday 8th July. However, it is behind a paywall so I wanted to also share it here for accessibility.
The work on men’s issues is happening, but who’s been listening?
“I had a call from the school, my son was having a mental health crisis and I had to go and pick him up. But I felt like I couldn’t tell my manager. In my workplace, there’s an unspoken rule that men don’t prioritise family. It’s work first. I picked up my son and joined my next meeting from the car while he was crying in the back seat. No-one was aware of what I was dealing with”.
This was from a dad I spoke to a couple of months ago. The common story of how conventional ideas of masculinity still hold strong.
And I can relate to this on a deeply personal level.
When my daughter was born, she was very unwell. She was lifeless and grey, and I’ll never forget the doctors sucking fluid out of her airwaves with a straw on one side of the room while my wife bled out heavily on the other side of the room. After the birth, we spent some time in Neo Natal Intensive Care and Special Care. After 2 weeks, we finally got the good news that we could go home from the hospital. My paternity leave had finished so after a weekend at home as a family and a few days of annual leave, I was back at work with a smile on my face.
But I was broken inside.
Having been through the most traumatic experience of my life, I felt it was my duty to get on with it, to show the world that I was OK and that everything was under control. But I was having panic attacks, insomnia and anxiety. I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
From that experience I learnt a lot about myself. I asked myself why I didn’t think it was OK to talk to my closest friends and family about what I was going through. And I reflected on what support is available to men and dads as they go through the challenges of life, as they live through this beautiful, but sometimes painful, experience that is the human existence.
So many of us have grown up in a world where to be successful as a man you can only be, and must always be, strong, stoic, a provider, a breadwinner and a protector. That you must prioritise work. That you must be mentally and physically dominant. That you can’t show emotion. That you must fix things. And that you must have all of the answers, all of the time.
These conventional ideas of masculinity are harmful to men. And moving away from them is not just a nice thing to do, it’s absolutely fundamental to our mental health, our physical health, our relationships, our friendships, our roles as fathers and our longevity.
Moving towards positive masculinity means that, as men, we can be strong and stoic, and we can also be sensitive and vulnerable. We can provide, and we can be provided for. We can protect, and we can be protected. We can be leaders, and we can be led.
This is what true gender equity looks like.
A society where women and men have the freedom to be themselves, to make decisions based on their personal desires rather than societal expectations, to be safe and to be successful at work and at home.
Gender equity is good for everybody.
For many years, this has gone unsaid and unnoticed in the mainstream media.
So I am encouraged to see the recent focus on men’s issues through the Guardian article and the newly published book ‘What About Men?’ from Caitlin Moran.
The article quite rightly highlights some of the gender inequalities that affect men and how conventional ideas of masculinity are harmful to all of us.
Dads are often treated and perceived as secondary parents, largely caused and compounded by the UK having one of the least generous paternity leave packages in the whole of Europe. 1 in 5 dads don’t take any paternity leave due to affordability and when in the workplace, fathers are twice less likely to have their flexible working requests approved than mums. In a recent YouGov survey, almost one in five (18%) of men said they have no close friends. Three out of every four suicides are men. One in five men die before the age of 65. 40% of men die before the age of 75. Men are 43% more likely to die from cancer.
Prostate Cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the UK and often, it’s diagnosed very late. A dad who came to one of our peer-to-peer sessions spoke about how he was urinating frequently in the night and having unusual pain for months. But he didn’t think it was right to ask for time off work to go to the doctors. He was eventually rushed to hospital and had emergency surgery for late-stage prostate cancer. He is still alive. He was lucky. Men not visiting the doctors for their emotional and physical pain is not new it’s been this way for generations.
In addition, men and boys are more likely to be homeless, under-achieve at school, be expelled from school, be murdered, lose custody of their children after divorce and become addicted to drugs, pornography and alcohol. And there’s so much more, the list goes on.
However, the Guardian article mentions that “there is no semi-organised, progressive movement that habitually raises, and then campaigns in support of, solutions for male problems.”
This is just simply not true.
There have been so many organisations working on men’s issues for many years. However, these issues, and the associated organisations, haven’t had the consistent mainstream attention they need. So the vast majority of the general public won’t know they exist.
It’s also debatable as to whether there has been the wider public appetite to have a productive discourse around men’s issues.
Talking about men’s issues can be met with resistance. And when presenting men’s issues to the wider public, it takes a considerable amount of care, compassion and nuance. Even in me writing this article, I am aware that it will trigger negative emotions for some people.
As men we are privileged in so many ways and we hold so much power. And yes, some men have been responsible for inflicting terrible pain and harm on others.
So, talking about the challenges men face can seem counter intuitive. At work, men are often only invited in the room to talk about inclusion from the position of them being better allies. And of course, those conversations need to continue, but we also need to find space for men to talk about the challenges in their own lives.
And we need to reframe allyship. In this context, men being allies to women, and practicing positive masculinity through, for example working flexibly and sharing childcare responsibilities, is allyship in the traditional sense, but also absolutely represents men being allies to themselves and improving their own life outcomes.
We also urgently need a new progressive model for male success. The lack of one is contributing to many of our young people being influenced by Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson and the manosphere who are selling a very toxic and harmful brand of masculinity.
Through my work, I know men and boys have been calling out for help and support.
But who’s been listening?
And who’s been listening to the organisations who have been supporting men and boys?
Is the world ready for this conversation?
I presented a documentary last year on BBC One called Becoming Dad. It covered issues around dad’s mental health, work-life balance and masculinity. It was one of the 20 most watched documentaries across the whole BBC network in 2022. I think this shows that, as a society, we are now more open to the conversation about some of the challenges that men face.
It’s in addressing men’s issues, in addition to continuing and going further with the work on women’s issues, that we can create true gender equality for us all.
And now is the perfect opportunity to highlight some of the organisations that are working to improve men’s mental health, fatherhood involvement, addiction, homelessness, loneliness and everything in between.
These organisations are offering solutions. How? By providing young boys with positive male role models through mentorship programmes. By going into schools and talking to boys about healthy masculinity, relationships and identity. By creating safe spaces for men to talk in a vulnerable way about the challenges they are facing in their lives and receive peer support in doing so. By educating and empowering men with the information they need around prostate cancer. By campaigning for better paternity leave. By helping health providers to be more inclusive. By celebrating and recognising employers that offer flexible working and support dads to ‘parent out loud’ at work. By supporting expectant dads through the maternity process.
The Men and Boys Coalition is the umbrella organisation which brings together many of the companies and individuals across the UK who support men and boy’s issues. They have partnered with the Men’s Health Forum to campaign for a national men’s health strategy. They need more support from MPs, the mainstream media and all of us to make this happen.
And they do this work with everybody in mind. Yes, men may be the primary audience, but we understand that this is about creating a better world for us all; men, women and children.
So if you read this article and feel moved to action. Please engage with the organisations that are fighting for gender equity by supporting men and boys.
If we engage men and boys in the conversation around gender equity and put more effort into the solutions to the issues that affect them, we will create a better world for all of us. We will create healthier and happy men who live longer, spend more time with their children and contribute positively to society.
We are in this together. I have used ‘men’s issues’ and ‘women’s issues’ in this article for clarity of messaging but, these are all our issues. They are human issues. This is not a competition, but a shared endeavour.
And if we want to improve things for ourselves, our families, our communities and the next generation, we need to come together and work collectively on the challenges that impact us all.
I hope now that the world is listening.
Elliott Rae is the founder of the parenting platform MusicFootballFatherhood, called the ‘Mumsnet for Dads’ by the BBC. He is the curator of the bestselling book, DAD, presenter of BBC documentary ‘Becoming Dad’, co-founder of the Working Dads Employer Awards and one of the UK’s most prominent speakers on fatherhood, mental health and masculinity.
Some of the organisations that are working towards gender equality by supporting men and boys:
The Fatherhood Institute – is the UK’s fatherhood think-and-do-tank. They collate, publish and mobilise international research on fathers and their impact on children and mothers. And lobby for changes in law, policy and practice to dismantle barriers to UK fathers’ care of infants and children
Future Men – through a front-line delivery of practice-led services, Future Men work with boys and men to help them become dynamic and healthy future men. From structured school programmes and youth hubs to individual one-to-one sessions and outreach work, Future Men provide the vital support and advocacy that changes boys and men’s lives for the better.
Pregnant Then Screwed – is a charity dedicated to ending the motherhood penalty and they have a new campaign to increase statutory paternity leave to six weeks at 90% pay.
Dad Matters – help to get dads engaged with maternity and health services that have traditionally been targeted at mums. And work directly with services that support Dads, families and especially babies to increase engagement and knowledge across the sector.
Father 2 Father – is a multi-award-winning trauma informed specialist Community Interest Company that supports boys, men, fathers and families along the path to become their true selves whilst also addressing social issues, stereotypes and prejudice.
MusicFootballFatherhood – is the UK’s most exciting parenting platform for men. All about open conversations about fatherhood and supporting dads through community, content and campaigning.
Beyond Equality – works with men and boys towards gender equality inclusive communities and healthier relationships.
Andys Man Club – is a men’s suicide prevention charity, offering free-to-attend peer-to-peer support groups across the United Kingdom and online. The aim is to end stigma surrounding men’s mental health and help men through the power of conversation
Working Dads Employer Awards – celebrates employers that are supporting working dads through leadership, flexible working and enhanced paternity leave policies
Working Families – Working Families is the UK’s national charity for working parents and carers. Our mission is to remove the barriers that people with caring responsibilities face in the workplace.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – takes a stand against suicide by provoking conversation, running life-saving services and bringing people together so they reject living miserably and get help when they need it.
Prostate Cancer UK – Prostate Cancer UK’s top priority is funding research to stop prostate cancer killing men. We’re investing millions to find better treatments and better tests that can spot fast-growing cancers early, and could be used in a screening programme to save thousands of lives.
Movember – the leading charity changing the face of men’s health. Since 2003, Movember has funded more than 1,250 men’s health projects around the world, challenging the status quo, shaking up men’s health research and transforming the way health services reach and support men.
Mark Williams – Mark Williams is an advocate for fathers’ mental health. He is a motivational speaker and, on a mission, to start the conversation about fathers’ perinatal mental health issues and mental health in general. Mark has been featured in the media several times and has spoken at more than 350 conferences and events.
Alex Holmes – is a wellbeing consultant, therapeutic coach and trainee psychotherapist. He works exclusively with men and wrote the book ‘Time To Talk: How men think about love belonging and connection’.