We'll sink or swim together

The Equal Opportunities Commission says it wants to stand up for men's rights too. But is that possible?
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The Independent Culture
Has feminism gone too far? Is masculinity in crisis? Has the "gender switch" really been thrown? Ever since Fay Weldon coined that horrid little phrase last spring, there's been a running battle between those who see men as failing because women are thriving, and those who insist that the new concern for men shows a disturbing lack of concern for the many disadvantages women have yet to overcome.

In the popular imagination, the Equal Opportunities Commission (or the Equality Police, as the tabloids prefer to call it) is a firm ally of that second, traditionally feminist camp. But now we hear that the days of this comfortable alliance are numbered.

Ministers are keen to have us know that when Kamlesh Bahl leaves the commission's top job in a few weeks' time, they plan to replace her with someone who will take men's rights just as seriously as women's. To quote a senior source: "Equal opportunities should mean equal opportunities for boys as well as girls. The changes we are achieving in the position of women have an impact on the lives of men, and any real concern for equality must recognise that."

This unattributed statement has been taken by the press as heralding a radical departure from the EOC's original remit. But the truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated. The EOC was never a women's agency. Even when it was nothing more than an idea in a White Paper, it was a gender agency, charged with looking after the interests of both men and women. At its inception 20 years ago the consensus was that the questions of female disadvantage were most pressing, but as the public has become more concerned about the problems men face, so has the EOC.

The Barber case, which challenged the rules allowing women to retire and collect pensions earlier than men could, was supported by the EOC. It's been working to make nightclub owners aware that it is against the law to charge men and women entering free promotions; as in the case of ladies' nights. It has made a submission to the government asking the National Childcare Strategy to reflect ideas that childcare is not just a profession open to women. It's also supported the Parental Leave Directive, due to come into effect in 1999. And it's done the first detailed study looking at the underperformance of boys in schools and universities. This week, it has also made a submission to the Government calling for a new sex equality bill for the new millennium.

The same study looked at girls' performance, too. And the picture that emerges from it is far too complicated to support either side in the media battle of the sexes - which may explain why it did not attract much media attention.

To run through the findings very quickly: boys are doing about the same as ever, and girls are performing a lot better - largely, it seems, due to the National Curriculum opening up more opportunities for them. But wherever the system allows for choice (at GCSE and A-level, for example), the old stereotypes prevail, with girls favouring the soft, arty and creative subjects, and boys dominating all the sciences, except for biology. At university, more girls than boys get upper seconds, with boys dominating both extremes. More of them get thirds and passes, and more of them get firsts.

It's too early to know whether the improved performance of girls in schools is going to lead to more of them having bigger, better, higher-flying careers. Just because schools now operate on the principle that girls and boys are equal, doesn't mean that the workplace is ready to throw out all the customs and practices that trip up employees with (traditionally female) family responsibilities, and privilege male workaholics. What the report does show is that current trends spell trouble for both sexes. The subject choices girls make in their teens will bar them from scientific and technological professions for ever, while boy's subject choices will bar them from white-collar service and caring work - a shame, since this is where all the jobs are going to be.

So it's a mixed report card - but the one clear message that we get from it is that if boys underperform it is not because of girls, but because of larger economic and social forces. Poverty is still very much a factor, as is ethnic group. The same goes for your parents' educational and earning levels. But that is not to discount what that senior official said about the changes we have achieved in the position of women having an impact on men.

It has to be the biggest understatement of all time, though, because these changes have had a profound effect - and not just on men, women, boys and girls. They've also changed the way we work, and the way we arrange our home lives; the way we talk, argue, dress, worship, have sex, marry, divorce, shop, care for the elderly, and bring up the next generation. The old contract between the sexes was written into every single social arrangement we had, from the biggest to the smallest. To rewrite it is to cause social disruption on an almost unimaginable scale.

So, no wonder there are so many walking wounded. No wonder there are a lot of boys out there who no longer know what they're supposed to be. No wonder so many of the fathers and teachers who want to set good examples for them don't have a clue either. No wonder so many girls and boys find comfort in falling back on the old stereotypes, so many employers are so good at finding new ways of treating their male and female employees differently, and so many working women still do all the housework.

Our lives have changed rapidly over the last two decades. Our ideas about the old sexual division of labour have also changed, but there is no consensus about what we should have in its place. This is the real gender dilemma - not the sexual seesaw you're always reading about in the papers, in which a female victory always implies a male defeat. It's not a question of girls on top, or boys on top, or men against women. We're all in the same boat, and if it sinks we'll all go down together. The Equal Opportunities Commission does not begin to have the means, or indeed the clout, to keep us afloat. But it is uniquely equipped to highlight new areas of unfairness that emerge as the division of labour continues to change. Because its remit is to look after men as well as women, it is also uniquely equipped to be balanced and fair. A commission that can direct attention to the problems suffered by fathers, for example, without ignoring problems unique to mothers, or the problems all parents share, is a commission that is very clearly serving the common good.

If this is not immediately apparent to people who insist on seeing gender in terms of seesaws and switches, might it be time to suggest they find a new metaphor?