This is what equality looks like


Clementine Ford

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin. Photo: Rick Madonik

As Annabel Crabb noted over the weekend, we're more likely to see a conservative man in power declare himself a feminist than we are a conservative woman. The reason for this disparity is pretty simple. Men lose nothing by declaring themselves feminists, which parallels nicely with the fact they also have to do nothing of substance to claim it. As Crabb wrote, "Let's be honest. The reason why men can loudly buy into feminism and not be worried for one second about using that term is that they will never secretly be suspected of being a man-hater, the way some successful women fear they will be."

The latest addition to this stable of Girl Power advocates is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose choice to not only appoint Peter Dutton as Immigration Minister but to continue backing him is just one of many questionable moves for a so-called feminist to make. Turnbull follows in the footsteps of men like Alan Jones, whose illustrious feminist career includes calling for Julia Gillard to be put in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea and railing against the empowerment of women leaders in Pacific regions by claiming women are "bloody destroying the joint". Tony Abbott also came out as a feminist while holding government, citing his three daughters as inspiration. These were the same three daughters whose virginity Abbott openly discussed in public, and who form part of the same group of people (women) who Abbott once said were physiologically less capable of leadership than men - a view which might explain why he thought only one of them was meritorious enough to promote to a Cabinet that also contained a walking potato like Barnaby Joyce.

Still, it's easy (and even beneficial) for conservative men to declare themselves feminists in a culture currently experiencing a long overdue resurgence in feminist activism. It's the metaphorical string of garlic around the neck to ward off vampires, except this time it's warding off accusations of prejudice, sexism and bias in leadership. Promoting minimal numbers of women to leadership positions can't be gender motivated when you're a Proud Feminist! Similarly, working in a broadcast industry that actively drowns out female voices and allows those of white men to set the agenda is just coincidental!

It's a sad day indeed when the struggle for gender equality is co-opted by privileged men whose sum total of feminist action involves simply saying the word.


But what does equality really look like, and how can male allies work towards it? Such a thing is possible, but unfortunately the methods prove extremely unpopular when laid out bare for everyone to see. The truth is that equality - real, substantial, tangible acts of equality and not just the kind of lip service we normally see directed towards it - involves loss. It involves loss of power, privilege and positions. The dominant group has to sacrifice the privilege and power they have in order to meet a level playing field. There is no other way around it.

A good example of this can be found in Canadian government. Not only has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed through on his commitment to establish a gender equal Cabinet, but it appears his move is being emulated in individual legislatures around the country. Last week, Ontario representative Ted McMeekin announced he would be stepping down from his position as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing so he could help achieve "gender parity in [Premier Kathleen Wynne's] next Cabinet." He followed up in a Facebook post, writing, "Like our Prime Minister, I've never been afraid to call myself a feminist. In fact, I've always been proud of being an honourary member of the Women's Caucus, and working for equality. But sometimes the best way for a man to advance the equality of women may be to step back and make room at the table."

Such a move will invariably be howled down as 'misandrist' by those determined to misunderstand what the reality of gender equality looks like. After all, how can it really be equality if men are forced to lose something? That sounds like discrimination!

But how else is it going to work? Talking about equality in government won't make it magically appear, especially not if the majority of leadership positions continue to not only be held by men but be fiercely defended by them. When 70% of visible positions in society (the lawmakers, the media creators, the voices and the faces of authority) are still held by men, no amount of claims to believing in equality can change the fact that it just doesn't exist. Gender parity under that structure inevitably means that 20% of those positions will need to transfer from men to women - that means that 20% of men currently holding positions of leadership will have to let go of them. That's the reality.

Commitment to real gender equality therefore becomes less a measure of how willing men are to call themselves feminists and more about how willing they are to actually leave their position at the table and transfer it to a woman. And I don't just mean white men letting go so that white women can take their place. I mean a radical restructure of power so that diversity, not homogeneity, is reflected. This means white people losing power so that people of colour can have their equal share, heterosexual voices staying quiet to listen to LGBTQI representatives, able bodied people being denied the right to determine the futures of people with disabilities.

Equality isn't a word that can just be waved around like a talisman against accusations. It has to actually mean something. And right now, in 2016, part of that definition needs to be recognising the necessary loss of power for the people who've always had it and who cannot conceive of what it might look like to start letting that go.