There’s a story that is embedded in my mind from my time in my very first job nearly three decades ago.A friend of mine was dying. Lymphoma. He’d been in and out of treatment for months, but this trip into hospital looked like it would be his last.
Every week we had a meeting for our little team. At the end of the one after my friend had gone into hospital our boss, as he always did, asked if anyone had anything else to mention. I told my colleagues how I might be a little distracted because of what was going on with my friend.
After the meeting one of my work mates came up to me and told me how brave he thought I had been for talking about what I experiencing. I was bemused. What my friend was going through was brave. I was just explaining why I might be a bit cranky in the coming days.
It’s a story I’ve told many times since, usually to illustrate how some people are very guarded about their life outside of work, and others are more open. But in the Beyond Equality workshop I attended last week Ben, one of the two amazing facilitators, offered an alternative interpretation.The perceived bravery might have been in me, as a man in the workplace, revealing my emotions at work. Something that many men would regard as career suicide.
That that has never before occurred to me might indicate one of the reasons why I signed up to this day-long session to explore ideas of masculinity.
The catalyst was the fallout from Sarah Everard’s murder earlier this year. I’ve been on my own journey in the last few years, exploring my privilege and my ability to do something from the position of power I hold to help make things a little more equitable. But hearing stories of sexual intimidation and violence recounted by so many women after the terrible events in Clapham made me sure I needed to do something more.
I picked up on Beyond Equality in an article in The Guardian, and immediately registered my interest to help work with them to expand on issues of acceptable patterns of masculinity with boys and young men.
The workshop was the first stage in that process. A dozen men talking about what it is to be a man.
I am no Alpha Male. Neither is my father, nor was his. They, along with my maternal grandfather, are a set of role models for me in my life. None of them were perfect. But I grew up knowing that there were alternatives to blokey blokes. My lived experience showed me that clearly.
But were those role models masculine? Up until this workshop, I realise that I had thought probably not. Indeed, our cultural stereotypes of things that are “masculine” are almost all, by definition, things that aren’t “feminine”. Strength or stoicism or violence are stereotypes of masculinity. In our culture a “strong woman” or a “violent woman” might imply a masculine woman. An “emotional man” or a “tender man” an effeminate man.
At the start of the workshop, I was surrounded virtually by eleven other men of a type who would sign up to be on an Exploring Masculinities workshop. I thought that was a problem. Going into this I thought that the task at hand would be to turn blokey blokes into something else.
But by the end I realised it was something very different. That it’s not masculinity singular. It’s masculinities plural. That my forefathers were masculine. Just not of the square-jawed, stoic, emotional void-variety. And that’s great.
And if I can provide an alternative role model of masculinity for boys and men (and indeed girls and women) in my life, then all the better. And maybe I’ve been doing that for much longer than I had previously thought.
You can find out more about Beyond Equality’s work, donate to support it, and register your own interest in volunteering with them at https://www.beyondequality.org/