Why are men afraid to be called feminist?

These guys have their own part to play in the journey towards gender equality. Just don’t call them feminists.

In a study published last year by the Fawcett Society, over 3,800 British men were quizzed on their attitudes towards gender. Fifty-five per cent of the men included in the survey said they believe more needs to be done before men and women can be considered equal, and 85 per cent said they want the women in their lives to have the same opportunities as men.

This research reflects the growing number of Brits who are getting on board with the fact that breaking down traditional gender roles, both at work and at home, is as good for men as it is for women. But despite the majority of these guys being pro-gender equality, only four per cent say they would actually describe themselves as feminists. Why are so many of us reluctant to use the F word?

Laura, 27, says she would love it if more of the men she knew would define themselves as feminists — but she also admits to being suspicious of men who do just that. “Sometimes it’s like they expect you to say ‘well done’ — they say it for validation,” says Laura. “In my experience, it’s never brought naturally into a conversation; it’s literally a spring board for them to receive praise. It’s hard to know if they really mean it. However, if any man tells me he’s a feminist, I assume he’s telling the truth and then dive into a lengthy conversation about women’s rights.”

Feminists need to be heard and I feel that to label myself one waters down its meaning. – Christopher, 36.

It can’t all be about posturing though, surely? Aren’t there men out there who say they’re feminists simply because they are? “Some men say it as an empty gesture but don’t really believe it, and others believe it and understand that it helps men too,” says Gigi, 21. “I’ve experienced men before who say they’re feminists, but they’re just kind of ‘free the nipple’ and not ‘let’s look at how misogyny effects women every day’ kind of guys.”

When asked how many men she knows who have gone beyond that empty gesture, Gigi has to think hard for a moment before answering. “I know just one straight man who I would say is genuinely a feminist,” she says, finally. “He’s really good at being educated on feminist issues that he wasn’t already aware of; if his girlfriend or his female friends bring something up, he learns and makes a genuine effort.”

Whilst many men might be reluctant to use the word “feminist,” it’s not necessarily because they don’t believe in it. More than half of men in the UK say that they do believe in gender equality, but feel reticent about proclaiming themselves feminists. Many of them prefer to just call themselves “allies.”

I believe in feminism and I think it’s an important force for good. – Conor, 40.

“As a white straight male I’ve had more than my fair share of privilege,” says Christopher, 36. “Feminists need to be heard and I feel that to label myself one waters down its meaning.”

Then there are guys like Conor, 40, who calls himself a “bad feminist” and admits he’s still learning. “I believe in feminism and I think it’s an important force for good,” he says, “but I have no doubt that I continue to say and do stupid things, because I am automatically speaking from a position of privilege that I don’t even fully perceive.”

Holding your hands up and admitting that you’ve got something wrong isn’t exactly something that men are encouraged to do in a culture that still rewards “alpha males,” but a willingness to listen and learn is key to examining our male privilege. “I think we have to turn to women, in short,” says Conor. “As a straight cis white male, I have a responsibility to listen to people who aren’t all or any of those things. Twitter is fantastic for that; I get to see the viewpoints of people I definitely didn’t grow up around in Ireland in the 80s.”

Each of the men I speak to about this agrees; women should be the ones to lead the feminist conversation. But that doesn’t mean male allies don’t have an important role to play. “By shedding light on it and then shutting up,” says Christopher. “I’m always wary that when promoting a cause, it can become a ‘step back ladies while I deal with this’ sort of thing.” That said, he adds that there are occasions when men should speak up. Specifically: “to challenge other men.” Like it or not, we’re living in a patriarchy. While a woman who calls men out for their sexism might be dismissed as “unable to take a joke,” that same criticism coming from a man is much more likely to be heard, and taken seriously.

More than half of men in the UK say that they do believe in gender equality.

And when it comes to the workplace, it’s possible that it will be male voices and actions that make the most difference. Fifty-five per cent of British men believe that men in senior roles won’t make room for women unless they absolutely have to. “I think this is why I’m wary to call myself a feminist,” says Christopher. “You get a lot of liberal guys calling themselves feminists, who are all for equality, but when it encroaches on their space, suddenly it’s too much.”

So it definitely takes more than wearing a ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt to be an ally. Be an advocate for the women in your life, but don’t speak over them. Don’t automatically assume authority and knowledge in this matter, because you’ll probably be wrong. “As a straight white male,” says Blake, 43, “I see my place on these issues is shutting up and listening to others who know.”

Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves. Actions speak louder than words, after all. “In my mind,” says Laura, “you’re either a feminist or you’re not.”