I live in one of the most conservative provinces in Canada. When my province’s Status of Women Ministry tweeted in September that they were “proud to recognize the work of…Next Gen Men,” the response on Twitter was immediate, and it wasn’t good.
Tweets ranged from confusion and disbelief (“Is this a joke?!?!”), to anger and derision: “Yes, Alberta Status of Women…let’s focus on the men!” Other tweets were equally scathing. “So… the way to promote equality & gender equity is to promote men??? Is this some sort of parody?” And, “This sounds a lot like ‘all lives matter.’”
With hundreds of furious comments like these, our hearts sank at Next Gen Men. We feared that this tweet—and the ensuing fallout— would contribute to misunderstanding our work, thus hindering our ability to engage men and boys to understand and care about gender equity. It also gave us pause, a time to think about the larger landscapes in which we f ind ourselves, three of which intersect here: a Conservative-led province, Twitter, and men in feminist work.
While my provincial government is currently is a target for criticism for anything it does—look no further than its disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic— it has also shown that its response to issues of equity is at best, lackluster, and at worst, downright regressive. Almost as soon as it came to power, the current government downsized the existing Status of Women Ministry, combining it with the Ministry of Culture, Multiculturalism, and Tourism. For contrast, there is an entire ministry dedicated to reducing red tape in Alberta. The irony of creating a new bureaucratic branch to get rid of bureaucracy is not lost on me; it’s very telling of where the government’s priorities lie, and gender equality is clearly a very low priority.
To date, they have failed to use a gendered lens when developing policy by ignoring women in both their budgets and their economic recovery plan. While they also actively contributed to worsening conditions in public sector jobs—predominantly held by women, like teaching and nursing—they are threatening to opt out of a deal with the federal government that would introduce 10-dollara- day child care across the province. Worse, some party leaders were (and remain) leaders in antichoice movements, have used policy to actively harm the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and overall, have shown disdain for anti-racism efforts.
With all that in mind, the anger at the supportive tweet about Next Gen Men probably makes more sense. Since this government has done so little to advance gender equity—and stalls and blocks progressive measures daily—it’s easy to see tweets like this as hollow gestures. Ironically, the Ministry of the Status of Women tweeted the offending tweet during gender equality week, the stated purpose of which is “to raise awareness of the important contributions women and gender diverse communities have made to the growth, development, character and identity of Canada.” So many people felt this tweet missed the mark by promoting the work of male-led organizations. Of course, that is completely understandable.
Sadly, I think the tweet missed the mark most not in terms of timing, but in terms of wording. “Engaging men and boys to be leaders and promote equality for all” can be interpreted as meaning “not enough men are leaders” which, of course, is not the case. Most leaders are male, but evidently, most leaders are not committed to gender equity—which organizations like Next Gen Men are working to change. Clumsy wording on Twitter almost always draws fire, and this tweet was no exception.
There is another tension made clear in the reaction to the tweet— many people still see men doing feminist work as contentious, and our work is often misunderstood. We know these tensions well. The response in the Twitterverse served as a stark reminder that even progressive folks in many cases do not yet see the importance of engaging men and boys in feminism. Instead, they see men as “co-opting” a movement that is not primarily for or about them.
At Next Gen Men we understand this well; we get it. Men leading gender equity initiatives may ride a glass escalator. They might even receive more accolades and career advancement for saying what women and gender diverse folks have been saying for decades. Whereas for women and gender diverse folks, speaking up has tended to negatively impact their careers and has led to being targeted for hate and harassment.
When powerful males, men who fit gendered norms of masculinity, defy those patriarchal gender standards by being vulnerable, showing care, or embracing “femininity,” they can face backlash, but are more often still praised for their courage. Just as, for example, how involved fathers are praised for what women have been doing forever—taking care of children. Women, 2SLGBTQ+ people, and everyone existing and resisting at the margins and intersections of oppression are still targeted, harassed, threatened, and subjected to violence for defying patriarchal expectations every day.
Consider, too, how white male academics and activists are generally seen as objective and believable, while activists and change-makers marginalized or stigmatized by race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, or gender identity/expression are not. Instead, they are often brushed off as biased—“too radical” or “not academic or professional” enough. As a consequence, they are not taken seriously, have their work uncredited or ripped off by others, and once again are targets of hate and violence.
Historically, and to this day, it has been easier for those in power to see people who look like them (think cis white men) as champions when taking on ideas that have now become more mainstream, like gender equity, when not that long ago women were laughed out of rooms, threatened, harassed, and worse, for expressing those same ideas. They often still face consistent backlash.
Such unjust treatment presents men with an opportunity to call it out, to name it as unjust, and to demand that women be listened to. Taking those steps would be leveraging privilege in the service of change, even as it can understandably feel frustrating for feminists. A man and a woman could deliver the same speech, and he might be seen as a compassionate leader, and she as “difficult” or “too radical.”
These tensions (among others) arise when men lead gender equity work, when we take up space in the feminist landscape. We recognize these tensions. At the same time, since we want more men doing this work—and this means taking up some space— how can we do so in a positive way? By beginning to strike a balance: first, credit women and gender diverse folks and support their leadership; second, don’t let gender equity work be only their responsibility. Taking responsibility for educating and engaging men is critical to how boys and men participate in feminist work. It’s something Next Gen Men is always striving towards, and is an ever-shifting balance between standing in front (advocating in all-male spaces), standing beside (showing up in solidarity), and standing behind (supporting feminist leadership).
At Next Gen Men, we believe solidarity and support means men uplifting women, 2SLGBTQ+ folks, change-makers, and others at the margins by amplifying their voices, supporting their work and initiatives, and learning from their experiences and expertise— without placing the burden of educating us onto them. It means crediting these feminist leaders, providing equitable pay for their work, promoting them, sending opportunities their way, and more. It should go without saying that gender equity work should be done equitably.
Standing in front means men are responsible for engaging, educating, and empowering other men to understand gender equity, what it’s about, and why they should care. Indeed, the combination of men being more willing to listen to other men, having access to all-male spaces, and recognizing that many men currently hold positions of leadership from which to make change, means that men have an integral role to play in dismantling patriarchy.
The Twitter experience Next Gen Men went through was certainly enlightening for us as an organization. Of course, we were disappointed that our work was mischaracterized, and that the tweet did not bring us the kind of positive recognition that perhaps the staff in the Status of Women Ministry had hoped for. I feel for those staff, since their department has been decimated, morale is likely not high, and resources are scarce.
For me, this experience also reminded me that Twitter is where, by and large, nuance is sacrificed on the altar of outrage—and Next Gen Men’s work is full of nuance. As much as it’s important for us to be vocal and visible on a platform like Twitter, rare is the tweet or thread that has transformed or catalyzed. That is why we take heart in the fact that we are and will continue to be vocal in pubs, locker rooms, board rooms, and other male-dominant spaces, away from the algorithm. Thank you for reading what couldn’t fit into 280 characters.
Veronika Ilich is the community manager at Next Gen Men. She works alongside volunteers to coordinate monthly events, engages with NGM’s community through their online forum, plans and facilitates Equity Leaders workshops, and connects with community partners and stakeholders. She lives and works on Treaty 6 Territory. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.