Lesson Five: Here’s How Men Can Speak Up for Women
I recently spent a week in the middle of India facilitating an extraordinary leadership immersion programme created by The Hunger Project. Instead of attending courses at Harvard or INSEAD, twenty leaders from a large financial services company went to India to learn about leadership from women elected to serve on their local village councils (‘gram panchayat’).
I learned a lot from these women but to my surprise the most impactful was what the world needs most from me as a man. There were seven lessons in total. This article is the fifth in a series.
It was the turn of the quietest of the elected woman representatives to speak. Her name was Sura-bai. The translator said she is a Dalit, the most marginalised caste in India. She has overcome many obstacles just to be there, yet is still shy mixing with strangers.
We asked Sura-bai to tell us about her challenges. Her daughters had recently completed primary school and moved into Year 8 at the secondary school in a larger village ten kilometres away. Their daily journey to and from school involved more than two hours of walking each way. Unfortunately, every morning and afternoon men and boys shouted insults and taunts at them as they walked by.
“Where are you going?” they say. “You don’t deserve to go to high school… You think you’re smart? You’re sluts. You’re stupid… dirty… disgusting… filth, etc.”
Understandably Sura-bai’s daughters felt vulnerable, even travelling together with a large group of girls. When their father heard about all the hassle, he decided to take them out of school.
We were shocked. How could he give up so easily?
Sura-bai explained from her husband’s point of view, the top priority was the girls’ marriageability not their education. Under the current circumstances their reputations were being sullied. People would begin to believe the rubbish being said about them. Hence pulling the girls out of school was his way of protecting his daughters and ensuring their future.
She said it is hard for her husband and others like him to understand the long term benefits of educating girls. It is an investment in the future: girls marry later, have fewer children and earn much higher incomes. A positive cycle is created carrying them out of poverty.
But many men see little immediate payback, only short term costs. Someone else has to do the chores and earn money. The girls attract unwanted attention outside of the home. They get distracted from the ultimate objective of marriage.
Unfortunately, Sura-bai said this pressure results in a 100 per cent drop out rate at eighth grade for all the local girls she knows of from marginalised castes.
I could not bear to hear this. I wanted to find their Dad and shout, ‘Keep your girls in school. Stand up for your daughters! Go and tell those guys to leave them alone!’
Sura-bai shrugged, resigned to the way that it was. It’s how the cycle of deprivation stays stuck.
This story bothered me for a long time. Then I wondered what I’d do if I were her husband. Could I see beyond the constraining limits of my caste and speak up for my daughters? I was not so sure.
It became real back home in Australia a couple of weeks later when my wife and I were having breakfast with another couple. Our friend complained about her husband’s temerity at a recent social gathering when a man pronounced to a group of teenaged boys, “Don’t ever let yourselves get pussy-whipped!”
She was disappointed her husband had not challenged the man for perpetuating unhelpful attitudes amongst the boys.
“There’s no point me saying anything!” she continued. “No one would listen. It has to be a bloke.”
She is absolutely right. The cause of women will only move forward when more men speak up.
Yet her husband remained very quiet. I could see he was beating himself up pretty badly.
I have a lot of compassion for him for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in my younger days my attitude was as bad as his friend’s. People have heard me say similar things (and may even remind me after they read this article).
Secondly, as my views swung around, I have found it really hard to challenge men who talk women down. To be honest, I’m afraid. For example, there are clients who might not extend my contract if I pointed out how dismissive they are of female employees. Or male colleagues who might mock me if I challenged them for being patronising. I’ve even been afraid of speaking up in front of my friends. I have not wanted to look bad.
But I’m tired of being afraid. I am using this article to tell everyone I’m taking a stand to speak up for women. I want women to enjoy equal respect, admiration and treatment from men in all spheres of life. I invite people to hold me to it, and remind me if I forget.
Equally as important as speaking up is what I say and how I say it. I want to learn how to get through to guys like my friend’s friend. Not to shame them or drive them into a corner but to encourage them to think and speak differently.
How? First, we men need to admit we’re part of the problem. Whilst in India one of the executives said to me, “If I was brought up in this society how would I behave with women? Like one of the pricks? Or like one of the guys who behave well? I’m not sure.”
Second, we men can make others aware how our words make a huge impact on each other and especially on young, impressionable minds.
One of the executives travelling with me said, “The little boys in India are lovely but at some point they change into young men with toxic attitudes. I need to prevent that from happening in my family. I have to be clear with them about my values. And then take that to work.”
Another told me, “I’m aware of being a big, Western, successful bloke. It starts when you’re born with the expectations on you. Our young boys are nurtured in a similar way as in India, just more subtly.”
The third step is to acknowledge the perceived peer pressure. Many men fear appearing ‘pussy whipped’. It prevents us from speaking up for women. So let’s be honest about it.
I believe it is only when we challenge ourselves, honestly and with compassion, and with a lot of encouragement will we men make any progress. Please challenge and encourage me!
Watch out for the next article in this series: How to Lead by Example
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centred strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalised elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.