Today on International Women’s Day, we want to talk about men. This might seem strange. International Women’s Day is, after all, a day to celebrate women’s achievements in bringing about gender equality. But recent events, from the #metoo and #timesup movements to the Florida mass school shooting, point to the fact that we will never achieve gender equality or end violence against women unless we tackle toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is the learned behavior, steeped in white privilege, that endorses physical violence and rape culture, and discourages men from expressing emotions or creating meaningful connections with their peers.

If you’ve ever heard a young boy being told to “man up”, or a male teenager talking about women in a derogatory way, these are expressions of the harmful internalised gender norms that reinforce male dominance at the expense of others.

How men think, act, and treat women, other men, transgender and gender diverse people all play an important role in maintaining gender inequality. Simply put, toxic masculinity reinforces the sexist status quo.

As bell hooks brilliantly explains, “The first act of violence that the patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that assault his self-esteem.”

The negative repercussions of this toxic culture for women, people of colour and the LGBTQI community are clear. The Harvey Weinstein scandal has brought to light an insidious culture of sexual violence and misconduct rampant in workplaces from Hollywood to hospitality, and from the Aid industry to the public service. The United States has a mass shooting epidemic with a clear pattern: violence perpetrated by white males who feel disenfranchised and full of rage. “In many of these mass shootings, the desire to kill seems to be driven by a catastrophic sense of male entitlement,” says Jennifer Wright in a Harper’s Bazaar article. The Red Zone report in Australia has recently revealed widespread sexual harassment, assault and hazing rituals at university colleges that include, among other things, male students masturbating into shampoo and conditioner bottles belonging to female students and targeting younger female students as “bait”.

But the patriarchy and the limits of masculinity that have been artificially created and sanctioned by our society negatively affect men too. Men have a lower life expectancy than women. Men have an alarmingly higher suicide rate than women.

Therefore, it is not just women or gender diverse people that have an interest in smashing the patriarchy. Men too have a vested interest in challenging toxic masculinity and a vital role to play in creating a more equal world. And many men are already doing so.

Justin Baldoni’s Man Enough series is a powerful exploration of traditional masculinity in America, which seeks to challenge the unwritten rules of ‘manhood’ that have have caused men to disconnect from one another and underpin men’s violence against women. In Hollywood, actors in conjunction with The Representation Project have teamed up with #AskMoreOfHim which demands that men take responsibility for their actions – the very actions that have sanctioned sexual violence in the industry for so long.

So what can you do today:

  • Educate yourself – gender equality is not a women’s issue. The patriarchy hurts men too.
  • Recognise your privilege – as someone who has benefitted from a system that prioritises men over women, you have a responsibility to help dismantle it.
  • Take a stand – speak out against sexist behaviours and attitudes that you see or hear from other men or other women. For example, if you have a public platform, refuse to speak on panels that are not 50% women.
  • Be an ally – don’t speak on behalf of women or gender diverse people. Instead, use your privileged position in society to create a space for their voices to be better heard.
  • If you are a parent, model equal gender roles, and encourage your children to develop positive and respectful relationships.

Real change requires more than just individual action. It requires cultural and structural change too. Organisations can work to ensure the inclusive and equal representation of men and women at all levels, the media can model more diverse ideals of masculinity, and governments can support community programs that work to promote more positive gender norms.

These are actions we must all take, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day, of every year, until we are all equal and free to be our true selves.