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Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Rotary Club of Goulburn: Men's Rights

Pru Goward
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Wednesday 15 February 2006

Rotary Club president “Bob”, ladies, guests and Rotarians. Thank you for inviting me here today.

It is always a great privilege to be invited to speak to Rotary groups; they run their local communities and they are full of people with a very active interest in what is going on around them. It’s always nice to be allowed out in mixed company.

When Geoff asked me to speak tonight and said I could talk about anything - a lot of ideas went through my head. What about “How to plan a wedding and stay friends with your daughter”, I thought - but with all the arguments in our house, I am not qualified. I thought instead I’d talk about future challenges facing women and men – and tonight I thought, for a change, I’d talk about men. I’m often asked about men’s rights, so tonight I thought I’d tell you!

It’s an unusual position, being Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Sometimes I get called the Sex Commissioner and sometimes the Sexual Commissioner, which I take as a compliment. People are not quite sure what I do- do I give people advice about sex, and isn’t discrimination something to do with picking the right wine?

Recently in Melbourne, I was at a famous race day where there were lots of women in tiny dresses and big hats. Everyone drank copious amounts of champagne. I am used to being greeted by people I don’t know and it is an important part of the job. But this time I was floored.

A very pretty young woman came up to me with a big smile and said “Hello”. “Hello” I said, offering my hand, “I’m Pru Goward, who are you?” Her face dropped and she quickly apologized for getting the wrong person and moved off.

A second later a very attractive young man came up in a suit and said “she’s told you about us, hasn’t she, and it’s my problem”. “No she hasn’t, but what’s your problem?” “We’ve been trying to have a baby for two years without any luck and I think it’s my fault”. This from a total stranger, and a man.

Well what sort of hours do you work, what sort of stress are you under I said very sincerely, guessing a high flying life in finance- and yes, his hours were long and hard. Well all that stress gets your sperm count down, I said, why don’t you slow up a little and get a sperm count done so you know. Thanks, he said, delighted by this very obvious advice. And I continued, if you do any scuba diving, that really reduces fertility and means you have girls.

Oh, he said, I so much want a boy- and I scuba dive every fortnight. That must be it, we both agreed, excited; the answer was to give up scuba diving.

For good measure I added – but if you have a girl, you can give her Prudence as a second name. This seemed to puzzle him- and at that moment the pretty girl, his girlfriend, returned and grabbed him by the arm and said “Stop stop- she’s not Dr. Feelgood, she’s the Sex Discrimination Commissioner!!”

It is certainly true the job has become a very public one. Young people in particular are more aware of their rights to live free of discrimination and harassment and follow my work very closely. Like the two young men walking in front of me out of a building in Sydney last week. One was complaining loudly to the other that there were no male toilets on his floor but there were women’s toilets. “That’s discrimination”, he said, “it’s not fair”. “Yes”, said his mate, “it’s discrimination. Where’s Pru Goward when you need her?” “Right behind you”, I said, to which they both turned, shrugged and said “oh yeah, right”, and walked off.

Interestingly a new aspect of sex discrimination work is in the area of men’s rights.

Although it was initially driven by men who felt cheated by the Family Court and Child Support Agency- and many although not all of them had a very good case- there is now a much greater awareness that the traditional roles played by men haven’t always been in their interest. Apart from the obvious case of young men, not women, marching off to war to have their heads blown off, it is certainly true that men frequently suffer as much from so called male stereo-typing as women do from feminine stereo typing.

In fact I would have to say that some of the most lost people in our communities are men, especially young men with less than Year 12 education and diminished job prospects. Not only are they at risk of social isolation, even exclusion, they are also the most likely male group to be childless.

Let me start with the facts about men, many taken from the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training’s Inquiry into the education of boys, released in October 2002. 

  • Fact 1: Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, though women are apparently more likely to try.
  • Fact 2: Men are more likely to be murdered than women- double the numbers.  They also commit 85% of murder and manslaughter.  The ratio of male to female juvenile offenders in custody is nine to one, similar to the adult rates. 
  • Fact 3: Men do have specific health problems, such as prostate cancer, which are only belatedly receiving attention.
  • Fact 4: Men live on average seven years fewer than women.
  • Fact 5: By aged nine, while there are no real differences in numeracy, Australian boys are clearly behind girls in the literacy stakes. Five years ago the difference was almost 4 and a half percent.
  • Fact 6: By the time students are 14, according to a 1995 study, the literacy gap between boys and girls is 8%, an increase from 3% in 1975.
  • Fact 7: Two thirds of those in reading recovery programmes are boys.
  • Fact 8: 80% of students suspended or expelled are boys.
  • Fact 9: Overall girls achieve better academic results than boys at Year 12 level.  In New South Wales, for example, there is now a gap of 19 marks out of 100 between the male and female average Tertiary Entrance Scores, the widest gap in Australia.
  • Fact 10: In 2001 the Year 12 retention rate gap between girls and boys for was 11%.  Before 1976, boys were much more likely to finish Year 12 than girls.
  • Fact 11: 56% of university graduates today are women, 44% are men.

So how do we explain this when men dominate in high earning positions, run the country and run the economy?

Take a closer look at those figures and you will see a lot depends on what sort of family those boys are in.

  • Fact: According to the same parliamentary inquiry and just about every submission to it of consequence, the gap between boys’ and girls’ literacy is much more marked for boys of low socio-economic status families than for middle and upper status families.

The federal Department of Education, in its submission to that inquiry, says, for example,

  • “the differences between levels of literacy for males and females are greater among students from manual and unskilled occupations than among children from other socio-economic groups.  The gender gap is larger for the lower groups.”
  • Fact: The shift to a knowledge based economy along with new management techniques mean that computers are fast replacing the need for high levels of numeracy but there is an increasing need for high standard verbal communication between people. This favours girl brains over boy brains.
  • Fact: The availability of unskilled or manual work suitable for boys without Year 12 has declined in the course of the last twenty years.  Agriculture and manufacturing now account for only 19% of all employment; in 1966 it was almost half of all employment.  Unskilled blue collar workers, of whatever age, are vulnerable to unemployment and marginalization.  They are overwhelmingly male- and economic, not social reform, has done this to them.
  • Fact: Reading is no longer entertainment for boys.  Computer games for example are overwhelmingly played by boys. ... at the expense of reading.

A majority of boys report doing most of their reading at school, whereas girls say they do most of their reading as leisure.

  • In other words, girls read a lot and boys are no longer being forced to practise doing something they don’t find as easy to do.  Not surprisingly there is a skills gap by aged nine.
  • Fact: low socio-economic boys are the most likely to consider they must be the main breadwinner and conform to traditional family structures.
  • Fact: Low socio economic boys are the most likely to play truant, be disciplined at school and to commit crime.  Middle and high status boys are much less likely to experience these problems.
  • Fact: By age 24, men who have not completed Year 12 expect to have 1.6 children- the lowest number for any age male group and even among other 24 year old men. 
  • Fact: Overall the more men earn the more children they now have- men earning more than $70,000 a year for example, expect 2.12 children compared with men on low incomes, who expect around 1.83 children. 

And who can blame men with low education levels for not having children if according to their traditional family values, they don’t have the income to support a family? Little do they know there are plenty of ambitious and well qualified women out there who are also childless and who would make perfect partners. If only both of them would get down off their high horses and change their expectations.

These educational and economic outcomes for men are probably related to the poor health comes also suffered by men.
As we know, men die so much earlier than women, and so needlessly, almost from the time they leave the womb. The picture is a universal one, although third world countries and countries of the former Soviet Union countries suffer a greater disparity in longevity than Australia. This gap in life expectancy is still growing.

How can that be when men are the scientists, the professors of oncology and cardiology, the CEOs of aged care facilities and public hospitals, the ones with the money and, in older generations, the ones with the education?!

More than three times more men than women die before they are thirty five. Three times!!! This is after the birth defects and in vitro abnormalities are accounted for, which again, are more prevalent in male neonatals.

For men in their prime years of work and fatherhood, there are still more than twice as many men dying as women.
How stupid is that with modern medicine and all the advice in the world available? It is not until people are over 70 that more women die than men, clearly because there aren’t many men left. Even amongst the fifty-somethings, there are twice as many men dying as women.

But now let’s look at the causes. Are men more genetically pre disposed to cancer or heart disease before they are 35? – I think not. The numbers of young men and women dying of cancer, for example, are about the same.

Traffic accidents and suicide account for almost 80% of all deaths for 15-24 year olds.

Each year in Australia, over 1600 young men aged 15 to 29 years die and more than 60,000 are admitted into hospital as a result of injury (NHMRC, 1996).

Among young males aged 15 to 29, the risk of death is around four times that of their female counterparts for accidental deaths, six times as high for suicides and one and half times as high for violence related death. Interestingly these high suicides kick in before men have families and what I would call reasons to live.

Many traffic accidents are caused through the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Mental illness also claims more deaths in young men than young women.

For the over 35s, the greater number of deaths from heart disease and cancers associated with life-style choices such as obesity, smoking, poor diet and alcohol, helps explain why twice as many men die in the 35 to 44 age group. After that, women start to catch up.

For these lousy outcomes, I think it is as safe to blame what we expect of men. In particular the derring do.

Being a man as it is commonly and traditionally defined, means an identity based on risk taking. It often means physically hard and onerous work under unacceptable health and safety standards (remembering that a lot of young male deaths occur as the result of taking risks at work).

Being a man also means a great financial and emotional investment in paid work. That’s your job, to support a wife and family, boys are told from a very young age.

Today this investment often means working long hours in paid work, often at the expense of time with family. Or the flipside for some groups of men, lack of opportunities for secure employment and the resulting poverty and social isolation.

In other words those same qualities that ensured the survival of the tribe when life was short, brutal and excessively physical, are still ensuring men are more likely to die than women even in peace-loving, quiet little Australia.

Is that smart? Shouldn’t we have worked out these risks were no longer necessary?

And theoretically, of course we have. It is just that in practice we continue to reward and encourage this type of male identity for its courage and daring and its achievements in invention, science and politics.

Which is great if your life is about achievements.

But courage, daring and excessive self-belief in one’s immortality also have an unnecessarily life-shortening downside for millions of men who do not discover the cure for cancer, do not become prime minister nor get to run BHP.
They live ordinary lives unnecessarily cut short by their efforts to live up to expectations that can have serious consequences for their health, their family relationships and their connections to community.

So what, you may ask, has this to do with my work, my project about balancing work with family life, Striking the Balance?

The traditional ideal that says men fight wars, work huge hours for forty years straight, are the family breadwinner and need to spend years hunched over company accounts or microscopes eating terrible food and without exercising so their wives can be the full time carers, also says that men don’t need to spend time with their families, are hopeless at housework and can’t fold the washing right, needn’t care for their parents, can’t get the baby to sleep and have no particular need of the rich and deep ties enjoyed by women and their children, women and their communities, or women and their parents, for instance. We tell our men that- women as well as other men.

You have to suspect that if that’s your lot in life, no wonder men regularly drink too much or go motor bike riding for relaxation.

In all these risk taking activities (like pub brawling, playing contact sport or driving fast cars) you might also note an element of irresponsibility, even of selfishness. But if we look a little deeper, perhaps it is a sense of not counting?

Perhaps this risky behaviour reflects a belief that what a man does and suffers will not matter to anyone else – his parents, his partner, or his children. To quote one of the truck drivers that we spoke to in one of our focus groups – ‘you do what you gotta do mate’ – this despite his awareness that his marriage was suffering and that he missed his kids.

It cannot be simply lack of awareness given all the campaigns about safety at work, road safety and smoking. Perhaps men don’t really believe they matter?

Our society does a great job of supporting women’s deep ties to their families – to parents as well as children – meaning that women are always aware of how needed they are, and how onerous their responsibilities.

Men might have grown up believing their job was to support a wife and family- women grow up believing their job is to love their families and be loved in return.

This of course has its down sides – think of how little society values unpaid caring work – but no one ever doubts whether women in their roles as carers are needed, treasured, loved.
The act of suicide has often been described as a selfish act, but is it not more correctly the act of someone who does not believe others need them to live?
For those of us who have lived the merry-go round lives of women, with time in and time out of the workforce, fitting around the needs of children, husbands and parents, with a (perhaps overstated) conviction that our families can’t live without us, preserving our health is important to us because of it.

Women, with exceptions of course, grow up knowing they will be or are the centrepieces of their families. We know that the ties between us take time, not quality time, but lots of time.

Watching children grow up over weeks and years, events small and momentous, shared activities like peeling the potatoes or planting the vegetable garden... Not always as exciting as cutting a deal or a drink after work with the boys, but a necessary part of family intimacy.

It goes further than that – it is also true that living your life closely with your children and your parents and network of extended family and friends, also requires flexibility.
You have to do lots of things at once and fit in with everyone else. And for anyone who needs to change their life style- say to improve their health- flexibility is essential. You can’t change if you aren’t changeable. Frankly if you can manage the dietary requirements of three school aged children, then doing Jenny Craig should be easy.

By contrast, a 1998 NSW State Government assessment of Gutbusters, a successful Newcastle programme for male weight loss, observed, quote, that any male weight control program required non-disruptive changes to men’s lifestyles in order to be successful.

What a challenge!

Frankly it is hard to think of any weight control programme that provides non-disruptive changes to lifestyle, since it is the lifestyle that produced the weight gain in the first place. It’s a contradiction in terms.
I have spent the good part of a year going around Australia talking to men and women about what they want from life, from their jobs and from their families. It’s for my report Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family.

And the connections between balance and better lives really jump out at me.

But they might not be obvious to other people. You may well ask how would men doing more with their kids rather than for their kids, doing more housework, taking a bigger share of caring for their parents, help them to live longer and healthier?

It goes well beyond the physical exertion involved in all of those activities.

First, men feeling wanted and connected might make them conscious of the need to be healthy, to watch what they eat and drink, exercise more, and drive speeding cars less.
To say to themselves “I must stay healthy to see the kids through university”, not “my insurance will cover them”.

Second, building those connections with their children, their partners, and their parents is likely to help their mental health, in particular depression, and again, make them less likely to indulge in risk taking behaviours.

Not only is improved mental health good for adult men, it sets a risk-averse example for their sons, who by age are more at risk of dying or serious injury than their fathers.

Third, it ensures men are skilled up in the areas of life that we traditionally allocate to women. This means bringing up both our girl and our boy children to cook for themselves, keep their living quarters clean and tidy, organise their social lives, develop their own diet and exercise regimes without the need to refer constantly to women as their caretakers and gatekeepers.

It is in old age that the uneven split in responsibilities between men and women shows itself most starkly.

For women it means a much greater chance of living in poverty because their onerous family responsibilities have prevented them from working and providing for their own retirement.

For men, not only does the ‘work til you drop’ model reduce their chances of living long, or instead increases their chance of living with chronic illness such as heart disease, suicide is a terrible outcome for older men who are unable to cope, either emotionally or practically, without a woman.

As many of you will know, men over the age of 65 have a much higher suicide rate than women of the same age, and are more likely to kill themselves than middle-aged men. Where older widows may go on to enjoy another twenty years of life, men so often fade away, neglect their health or, sadly, suicide, so lost are they without someone to care for them and they for her.
But you can see how it happens- the family stops dropping in with kids to mind or a family meal, because mum organised that and they really came to see her.

Friends don’t drop in because there’s never anything to eat in the fridge. The food you cook yourself leaves a bit to be desired. The house gets a bit neglected and going out, unless it’s to a local club, also becomes less frequent because mum always did all that arranging and got on the phone to friends and made sure you had something decent to wear.

Why should this be the case in Australia in the 21st Century, at a time when theoretically there are more ways of ‘being a man’ than ever before?

It may be tempting for some to conclude that the answer to the problems of men’s health is to spend more time at the gym, ensure there are more male community nurses, more support services for men, or diet and exercise programmes at work sites. More education, more awareness perhaps? Certainly these are important elements. What doesn’t often get put on the list of solutions is spending more time at home - but I beg to differ.

Nothing will work without motivation. A reason to live and to live healthily. Time to look after ourselves. The healing power of being with people we love.

Men need to know that risking life and limb is not ok, that medical check ups, diets and keep-fit regimes are essential because their families need them to be around. They need to know that their families need them as much as mothers.

Men should be as sure as women that they must live, and live healthy lives, for all their sakes.

I know I’ve taken a big risk in talking to a group of middle aged men about yourselves. But I think it’s worth talking about because amongst younger age groups this sort of rethinking is starting to happen.

I’ve met men who have become the principal parent, often as the result of a crisis or death, and have discovered, to their joy and amazement, how wonderful it is to be with their kids. I see the separated dads on the trains, going home at 5 o’clock, ringing their children to make sure they’re alright and to get them to put dinner on.

To the delight of many, society is beginning to question the assumption that men’s role in families is confined to being a credit card on legs.

We know many men want change because they have told us what they are missing out on with their current arrangements.
Survey after survey of fathers show that most dads felt they did not spend enough time with their children.

Take the country’s largest survey of households, which found that 55 per cent of men working full time agreed that the requirements of their jobs caused them to miss out of family activities that they would prefer to participate in, with 60 per cent agreeing that working caused them to miss out on some of the rewarding aspects of being a parent. Remember, these young men are either your workers now or the workers of the future.

What my consultations are showing is that what men are not so sure about is how to change, given the current constraints on their choices as well as the unspoken pressures of gender roles that are adopted by default rather than intention. Not just by them, either.

While women are apparently quite comfortable with changing roles for themselves, they are not quite so sure how much time they really want their men to spend at home with them and the children in their domain. It’s called gate-keeping and I have to say women do a lot of it, if the consultations are any guide. Whatever way he folds the sheets or cleans the bathroom, it’s not her way and it’s not good enough. So he gives up and goes and gets a hobby and she gets angry.

People complain about different things of course.

Low skilled, low paid blue collar workers have spoken of the need to work long hours to get the overtime they need to pay off mortgages and support their partners, who are mostly mothers working in low paid part time jobs, or in no work at all- because there is none flexible enough to accommodate caring for their kids or they can’t afford the child care.

Male middle managers talk about the pressures of a 24/7 economy, global link ups, 60-80 hour weeks in professions that theoretically offer family-friendly work arrangements but which amount to nothing in practice. Some speak of the continual scheduling and negotiation required to get time off to attend school events, or of their stoic resignation to being ‘weekend dads’ to their kids. Many mention the pressures these arrangements have on their relationships with partners and children. The levels of stress are clear and profound.

Yet others speak of how they are doing things differently. Of the difference that a CEO can make by discouraging a long hours culture at work, or by members of senior management choosing to work part time so that they can spend more time with their families, setting an example for other men to follow.

Others proudly inform me that they are already sharing the load at home on top of their manic working lives thank you very much.

To test one of these ‘new men’ I light-heartedly asked him if he knew what kind of washing machine he had. He replied yes, and gave me the make, model and litre capacity of his Fisher and Paykel!

‘Be a man’, says the TV ad., and get your prostate checked out.[1] But for young men today, , being a man also means having more to do with their kids, looking after their health and marrying women with whom the responsibilities of home are evenly shared. And it’s not just university educated professional men who are making this choice. It’s happening to many young men, including tradesmen.

Take the case of a middle-aged friend of mine who runs a large motor service and repair business.  In his life time he has seen dozens of pimply youths with a love of cars and grease under their fingernails start out as apprentices and leave him for the challenge of a better job.  Today, he says, they aren’t especially hungry for the overtime and, quote,
“They aren’t as ambitious as we were”.  “Young men used to say, “I want your job”- now they say “I like my life the way it is thanks””. 

At this point my twenty something daughter interrupted him to say:

  • - “no, that’s because they know we’ll go Dutch with them”
  • - that new-age habit of going halves in the price of a night out.

And this is now accepted.  These boys have gone to co ed high schools with girl school captains, or competed against them directly.  They go out with young women who work from the time they are at school, and may now earn even more than they do; the finger-nail biting pressure for young men to achieve is relieved. 

They know that when they marry or partner, she will kick in as much as he, she will work part-time when the children are young, if they decide to have children, and she will provide for her own old age. 

He might even harbor a dream of working part time himself when the children need him. He might choose to partner with someone who does want the boss’s job, while he becomes the principle parent and home-maker.

Women have changed and, for their own sakes, men are starting to change too.

What a blessed relief, young men might say.  So might their doctors. So might their partners!

Thank you.

[1] Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia's 'Be a Man' campaign, launched 1 September 2005. The campaign promotes early detection by encouraging men to talk to their doctors and uses well known sporting, media and community figures saying ‘Be a man’...