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Gen Z men have a problem with feminism. We need to talk about why

Earlier this year, a global study found one generation of men more than any other thinks feminism has gone too far.

That generation, I’m uncomfortable to say, is mine: Gen Z.

In fact, 60 per cent of young men surveyed thought the push for women’s equality discriminated against men, according to the recent report by Ipsos and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College, London, which surveyed people across 31 countries.

Sixty per cent of Gen Z men think the push for women’s equality discriminated against men, according to a global survey.

Sixty per cent of Gen Z men think the push for women’s equality discriminated against men, according to a global survey.CREDIT:MOMENT RF

This would be easier to understand – though no less saddening – if my peers and I were advanced in our years. People could shake their heads and say, “thank god times are changing”. But my generation is just entering adult life. We grew up with #MeToo and Grace Tame, with the coverage of domestic violence protests and the overturning of Roe v Wade. We’re modern and compassionate enough, surely, to support the right for women to be equal.

Julia Gillard, when asked about these findings by The Australian, said they suggest advances in women’s rights have “clearly landed in a way that is felt as exclusionary or diminishing for, particularly, young men,” resulting in a “hardening of attitudes”.

Our former prime minister is correct. And, as a young man fresh out of an adolescence spent with other young men – at an all-boys school, and in boys’ sporting teams – I can testify that, for some, not myself, the message of feminism is being lost.

For these young men, the fight for women’s equality, rights and freedom from violence feels accusatory.

Many believe the term “toxic masculinity” – describing a version of manliness that is about aggression and dominance – suggests there is something rotten at the core of manhood. That there is something toxic about masculinity.

Popular discourse around women’s rights – such as the question addressed to women that went viral on social media: “would you rather be alone in a forest with a man or a bear?” – makes some young men feel they have been automatically branded as violent and threatening. Even empowering T-shirts that say “F--- all men” can create a feeling of being villainised.

The right reaction to all this would be to learn from it. To realise that, say, the bear question is not meant to accuse all men of brutality, but rather to illustrate the plight of women around the world; and that toxic masculinity points to a problematic form of manliness rather than the entirety of manhood.

Yet that isn’t the reaction we’re seeing. Instead, widespread alienation is giving rise to a dangerous contrarian movement. I see it in boys saying Caroline Wilson and Kelli Underwood, high-profile women in AFL media, got their jobs because they’re women. And I see it in young men stating, after the March 4 Justice protests, that it feels “illegal” to be a man these days.

Growing up, I’ve understood and appreciated the message of the women’s equality movement. When it comes to intentionally provocative forms of engagement, though, such as the bear/man question, I’ll be honest: I’ve felt uncomfortable being lumped in with an unimaginably grotesque minority.

Thankfully, perspective has always remedied this discomfort. It’s not me, I remind myself, who has to fear walking home unaccompanied at night or being alone with male strangers.

But some don’t see things from this perspective. The schoolyard admiration for figures such as social media phenomenon Andrew Tate seems rooted in a feeling of embitterment. The young men I know who buy into this brand of misogyny, which poses as “bringing back masculinity”, are frustrated. They feel persecuted for the sins of others and judged before having had a chance to prove themselves as “good” men.

Though I never guessed there could be so many of them. The King’s College Emerging Tensions report finds that among British men, it is 16- to 29-year-olds who are most likely to believe life will be harder for men than women 20 years from now.

What can be done to stop this regression? The obvious moves – men taking action, calling offenders out, pushing for funding for domestic violence prevention and education – plainly haven’t made enough ground. While these efforts must be continued and redoubled, innovation is needed. Julia Gillard suggested the feminist movement must be “self-critical and analytical about [its] obvious inability to take young men in particular on the journey,” and she’s right.

To reach a generation fast becoming disaffected, the dialogue around young men needs to shift. While the problem isn’t (and shouldn’t be) how young men are feeling, there won’t be meaningful change unless the causes of Gen Z men’s worsening attitude are tackled pragmatically and inclusively. Their alienation needs to be recognised and addressed, in my view through a more welcoming conversation.

It’s worth considering whether approaching young men with consistent compassion and respect, those same qualities they should be displaying to young women, might be more effective. To do this we should be more careful and accurate when using terms such as “toxic masculinity” and promoting messages such as “F--- all men”, which can detract from productive discussions and make boys feel like an unsolvable problem. Such a change in language and delivery must be implemented by men and women together.

Enacting this could achieve what Gillard hopes for: an effective way to explain that “a gender equal world will be better for everyone”.

Of course, when it comes to the fight for better treatment and a safer world, the last thing women should have to do is tiptoe around men’s feelings. By and large, men aren’t the ones who fear for their safety each day, nor are they the ones dying in significant numbers at the hands of their partners.

This suggested change in approach is not motivated by the thought that men deserve softer treatment. It’s about turning around a concerning trend: young men being lost to the cause.

This is a difficult truth. I say it with some apprehension. But I’m frightened by what’s happening to my generation – and we won’t find solutions through division.

Daniel Cash is a law student at Australian National University.


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