26 September 2023

The myth of working-class men blocking gender equality

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Steven Roberts* argues that casting working-class men as the ones blocking gender equality only serves to protect more privileged men’s significant contribution to gender inequalities.

As a kid, I was brought up in relative poverty on a working-class council estate, and part of that upbringing involved experiencing and witnessing profound violence perpetrated by several working class ‘dads’.

And yet, as a researcher of men, masculinities and social class, I have over the last decade or so been interested to challenge the ways that working class masculinity has been framed in popular, media and academic discussions.

In terms of our everyday imagination, working class men are, perhaps, often the figure that comes to mind when many people think of the impediments to gender equality – a lower-educated man, maybe from a regional town or the ‘less desirable’ city suburbs, perhaps a tradie or factory worker.

An adherent to regressive, traditional and harmful masculine ideals that perpetuate gender inequality in terms of divisions of domestic labour and enacting violence towards children, women and gender diverse people.

In light of the recent revelations of the disgusting prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in Western Australian mining industry, this image might have been further underscored.

I want to suggest, though, that the image of working-class masculinity operates as a convenient foil that works to obscure or minimise more privileged men’s significant contribution to gender inequalities.

In a way, it’s strikingly obvious that powerful, wealthy, elite, professional-class men are also significant threats to the autonomy and safety of women and gender diverse people.

Such men are the common thread in the evidence brought to light by the now global #metoo movement, 2016’s revelation that Donald Trump self-advocates for non-consensual ‘pussy grabbing’, and last week’s frankly grotesque US Supreme court decision to overturn the rights to abortion.

Closer to home, we also need look no further than the accounts of misogyny and rape culture in our own seat of government as well as in some of Australia’s elite boys schools.

Despite these attacks on the rights and bodies of women, as individual and collectives, by more privileged men, the negative stereotype of working-class masculinity remains stubbornly ingrained.

My colleague, Karla Elliott, and I have recently attempted to illustrate how this remains the case in a lot of academic research, where violence, sexism, and homophobia are often understood as a response to relative (economic) powerlessness and status deficit that is inherent in the lives of working-class boys and men.

Our individual previous research and collective ongoing studies centres the lives and voices of working class and other ‘men on the margins’.

Our data has further undermined the idea that men in the margin somehow lag behind the real vanguard of progress: white, middle-class men.

In particular, the interviews we have conducted in the UK and Australia in the last 18 months or so regularly reveal evidence of, among other things, what is sometimes called ‘caring masculinities’, i.e. ‘masculine identities that reject domination and its associated traits and embrace values of care such as positive emotion [and] interdependence’.

This does not deny that problematic aspects of masculinity continue in the lives of working class or marginalised men – just as they do in the lives of more privileged men.

Rather, the point to stress is that the biographical narratives we uncovered are replete with the commitments to egalitarian gender relations and other practices often passed off as being the domain of educated and/or otherwise privileged men.

This includes what some academics call ‘lived egalitarianism’ – a significant if often understated contribution to household labour and childcare that is necessitated by the realities of working-class life that demands a dual-income.

In contrast to working class men, middle class lives are often (though of course not always) characterised by ‘spoken egalitarianism’, where men can easily talk a good game on equality of household tasks, made all the more achievable when a proportion of the domestic and childcare duties are outsourced to poorly paid women domestic workers, often minority ethnic and immigrant women.

To be clear here, oftentimes even a smaller gender gap in time allocated to childcare duties, or seeming evidence of ‘involved fatherhood’, is not a simple good that reflects middle class men’s commitment to equality, but is bound up with the problematic use of a marginalised workforce that are part of ‘the coloniality of labour’.

Zooming back out from our own research, the picture of working-class masculinity as a key driver of a stalling gender revolution is complicated further when we factor in that studies repeatedly show that well-educated women, employed in high-earning professional occupations report higher levels of gender discrimination than their working-class peers.

Coming back to a point above about a common thread: it’s the presence of professional-class men in such organisations!

Feminism has, in the words of the esteemed cultural theorist Angela McRobbie, become ‘a ubiquitous force in everyday life’.

It has inspired new possibilities for gender relations, evident in the supposedly counter intuitive narratives that Karla and I have found in our interview data.

Its ubiquity has also, though, been met with ferocious backlash with grim consequences, including the attack on reproductive rights in the US and the possible threat of what is to follow.

We would do well to keep at the front of our mind that masculinity is centrally implicated in the latter, but we ought to resist any suggestions that it is specifically a product of working-classness.

This is not an effort to engage in a form of ‘whataboutery’, but rather to ensure we can train our attention to the core of the problem – the powers, people and structures that sustain and expand gender inequalities.

*Steven Roberts is Professor of education and social justice in the School of Education, Culture and Society, Faculty of Education, Monash University.

This article first appeared at broadagenda.com.au.

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