Background Paper: 'The role of men and boys in gender equality'

The purpose of this paper is to:

  • provide background information on the issue of the role of men and boys in gender equality for women’s groups and individual women in the community;
  • stimulate discussion on this issue;
  • encourage women to provide their views to the Australian Government Office of the Status of Women; and
  • provide information to assist the Australian Delegation to CSW 48 in 2004.

Context of the theme issue at CSW

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will hold its forty-eighth session, tentatively scheduled to take place from the 1-12 March 2004, in New York. One of the two theme issues the Commission will examine is: 'the role of men and boys in gender equality.'

In preparation for CSW 48, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) is organising an Expert Group Meeting on this issue in October 2003. The group will prepare a report with recommendations that will form the basis of a draft Agreed Conclusion document from CSW. The group will comprise 8–10 experts selected by the Secretary-General.

The meeting will focus on the key issues. This includes unequal power relations between women and men, on gender stereotypes, and on socialisation processes as challenges to the achievement of gender equality. Particular emphasis will also be placed on the role of men and boys in the world of work and in HIV/AIDS prevention.

The results of an on-line discussion (30 June to 25 July 2003) will be presented to the group. Topics discussed included the world of work, HIV/AIDS, and the value of gender equality for men and boys. (


In the Beijing Declaration adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), governments expressed their support for encouraging men to participate fully in all actions towards gender equality (para 25). The Declaration emphasised that equal sharing of responsibilities and a harmonious partnership between women and men were critical to their well-being and that of their families).

The Beijing Platform for Action (1995) also emphasises the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality including the principle of shared power and responsibility between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities (para 1). It stresses that gender equality can only be achieved when men and women work together in partnerships (para 3), and that the principle of equality of women and men has to be integral to the socialisation process (para 40). The Platform for Action identifies gender stereotypes as a major obstacle to the attainment of gender equality.

The Beijing Platform for Action document (2000) contains several strategies specifically targeting men and boys. It also contains several strategies designed to involve men and boys in the pursuit of increased gender equality, including policies and programmes on changing stereotypical attitudes and political will and commitment at all levels. Specific actions aim in particular at promoting harmonisation of work and family responsibilities for men and women (para 179); and encouraging men to share equally in child care and household work (para 107c).

A key objective of Australia’s Beijing Plus Five Action Plan 2000-05 (attached) is to increase the involvement of men and boys in addressing discrimination and inequalities, including challenging negative attitudes and behaviours that harm women.

Key issues - Why focus on men and boys?

Men and boys have a very important role in helping to progress gender equality. Gender equality is everyone’s business – not just governments. The vast majority of decision-makers in the community are still overwhelmingly men. All men and boys can play an important role in combating gender inequality at that level. Individual men and boys – as students, fathers, boyfriends, husbands, work colleagues etc – can take greater responsibility in helping to change stereotypical attitudes and behaviours.

The attitudes and behaviours of many men/boys is considered to be a central cause of gender inequality.

  • Men continue to comprise the majority of key decision-makers in the community, in the media, politics, government departments, religious organisations, employers, unions and education. For example, women comprise only 10% of board members and 24.7 % of managers in the private sector. There are still very few female politicians, with women comprising only 26.5% of current Federal Parliament and women’s issues rarely get media attention.
  • The attitudes and behaviours of some men and boys play a significant role in maintaining inequality for women and continuing occurrence of domestic violence and sexual assault. Research highlights the persistence of gender stereotypes and attitudes that it is okay to sexually harass women/girls or to force them to have sex or to be beaten; that women should take prime responsibility for domestic work and child care; that women should only work in certain parts of the labour force (eg, nursing; teaching; hospitality industries) and not others (eg, building); and that girls at school should stick to traditional female careers.
  • The culture of workplaces: continues to reflect dominant masculine practices (eg. competitiveness; hierarchical; not family friendly). This often creates an environment that is not responsive to the needs of many workers (male and female).
  • Gender issues continue to be given a low priority in government agencies, business and other organisations. There is scope for heads of these organisations to take leadership in promoting gender equality.

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Obstacles to increasing men’s involvement

The strategy to increase the involvement of men in gender equality faces a number of potential problems around the world. Some key obstacles are outlined below.

  • Very few men work in the area of gender equality because they view it as having a poor career path with low status and limited advancement opportunities.
  • There are misunderstandings about gender equality in the media and the community. Many men believe that there are no inequalities for women and that men fare worse than women.
  • Many male leaders view gender equality as a low priority or irrelevant to their organisation.
  • Some women’s groups do not support men becoming involved in women’s issues, particularly issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Some groups consider that involving more men in gender equality takes resources away from women’s machineries.
  • There are misunderstandings that the strategy to involve more men in gender equality is about the ‘men missing out’ agenda.
  • Attitudinal change is always very difficult to achieve.
  • There are few role models of male leaders who support and publicly speak out about gender equality.
  • While the importance of men’s involvement has been acknowledged for some years, little work has been done in this area. There are only a few best practice models to draw on (see below). Information about these best practices are not readily available.

Best practice models

There are limited strategies in place to increase men’s involvement in gender equality. Some of the examples outlined below have been undertaken by the Australian Government.

  • The Australian Government has funded community awareness campaigns aimed at changing men and boy’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls. Some of these projects have used high profile sportsmen and media and entertainment personalities to speak out about violence against women
  • Several men’s groups (eg. Men Against Sexual Assault) have been established by men committed to tackling violence against women. These groups have worked with other men and boys in the community and developed newsletters and brochures to encourage changes in their behaviour.
  • Some male leaders in community and legal organisations have taken up specific gender issues as a high priority. The Chair of the International Association of Jurists in Australia, for example, set up public forums to raise community awareness of women’s human rights.

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Key areas for discussion

The following questions may provide a starting point for discussions.

  1. Do women’s groups believe this is an important issue that requires greater attention and action?
  2. Do you know of any men’s groups that are involved in promoting gender equality in Australia? If so, what work are they doing?
  3. How can male decision-makers better contribute to the achievement of gender equality in Australia?
  4. How can the Government engage more men in activities to achieve gender equality?
  5. What do you see as working well to engage men and boys in gender equality in Australia and overseas? Please specify and provide detail.
  6. What do you think are the most important strategies / issues that Australia should focus on during negotiations at CSW?
  7. What do you think are the most important issues relating to the men and boys theme?

How will this information be used?

These consultations will provide useful background information for OSW and the Australian Delegation to CSW 48. The Delegation will participate in negotiations to develop the Agreed Conclusions document (see page 1) consistent with Australian Government policies. The Delegation will also meet informally with government delegates and women’s groups about activities in their respective countries.

Useful Sources

Flood, M. (2001), The role of men and boys in gender equality, paper presented to the Australian WomenSpeak Conference, Canberra

Friedman, B. (2001), Boys talk a program for young men about masculinities, non-violence and relationships, Boys and Relationships SA & Commonwealth of Australia Partnerships Against Domestic Violence

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (2000), Twenty-third special session of the General Assembly Beijing Plus Five outcomes document

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women Commission on the Status of Women (2003), 48th Session theme issue, Aide-memoire on the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality

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