Leading Article: Men have the right to be protected

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To paraphrase Lionel Bart, what's the matter with men today? Part of the answer has to do with changing patterns of men's and women's employment and reward. According to new figures from the Equal Opportunities Commission, more than half the complaints it received last year about sexual discrimination in the search for jobs were from men - a historic reversal in the battle of the sexes.

This seems only to compound other recent prophecies of doom for the male. He has been assailed by falling sperm counts and loss of libido. He has lost his role as father and helpmeet and finds it hard meekly to partner dynamic, go-ahead and demanding women. Domestic reality is a lot less dramatic than the gender soothsayers would have us believe. None the less, something is happening at those deeper levels of consciousness and sentiment that pollsters find hard to plumb.

That something is not, however, going to happen quickly, nor ought it to compromise the broad principles on which our political and legal systems work, at the heart of which is equal treatment, equal opportunity. One of the paradoxes, indeed, of the Conservative era that may now be passing is how little the government even attempted to turn back the tide of tribunal and court judgments based on equality.

The Equal Opportunities Commission survived several culls of quangos. It has a lot to be modest about, both as an analyst of changing employment and a litigant, Recently the EOC has functioned as a sort of subaltern to the European Court of Justice. The principles of equality laid down in the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act have powered the broad movement towards equal treatment against which the British government has chafed but then buckled.

Now it seems the EOC is to start doing more for men. This must be right, because the principles of anti-discrimination and equality transcend gender. Men have every right to apply to the commission for relief. Unfairness should be tackled wherever it surfaces.

But no one should mistake friction in the service sector (the movement of men into functions that throughout most of the 20th century have been "women's work") with an end to the relative position of men and women in either the work or domestic spheres. The proportion of men and women between 20 and 60 who are at work is now broadly the same. But men's earnings remain higher. Participation of men in domestic work remains slight. Many women work outside the home and sustain higher burdens of child care and domestic management.

Individual men - though far fewer than some reports allege - are having to learn to live with women in power in the home and at work. The longer- run ramifications of that are fascinating and radical, but they remain just that - longer run. Some women - taking their cues from men - will abuse their new-found power and their men may wilt as a result. The EOC and the courts are obliged to protect men in such circumstances with as much enthusiasm and energy as they have women.

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