Of Power, Privilege, and Gender: Men need to Reflect on their Unearned Advantages in the Society

At the root of this essay is the question of male power and privilege. Power is a social construction that does not name itself but it has everything to do with the ability to influence outcomes. For those enjoying the privileges of power, power is usually self-evident and invisible until questioned by societal forces or when people begin to reflect on their unearned advantages [1]. This opinion piece looks at the fragility on which male power rests, and some aspects of male privileges, which are understandably just a tip of the iceberg. The essay concludes with a call for men to not feel guilty but to reflect on their unearned advantages. To understand the intricacies of the issues raised in this essay, I pose the following questions: what does it mean to live in a world where you are not compelled time and again to think about your gender? What really are male privileges?

Power and Privilege Rest on Shaky Grounds

Male privilege has much to do with men’s unearned advantages. For example many men may think gender has nothing to do with them; they may believe it is more about the female gender [2]. There are prevailing beliefs that studying women and gender issues is a way of radicalizing women to destabilize the status quo. And indeed, that thing that needs destabilizing is power. Why the power structure gets upset when women, in their quest to assert their humanity, ask for to be treated equally, is the fear that the public visibility of women may change the face of the society.

Just over a century ago in Britain, male parliamentarians felt besieged and staunchly opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that women took things too far when they asked for gender equality and access to power and resources [3]. Some of the key arguments by the reactionary British parliamentarians over a century ago was that women are bias, irrational, and emotional. Looking back and from a modernist perspective, one may see some of these claims by British lawmakers as humorous, if not bizarre. But power has a sinister way of resurrecting itself. Our contemporary society still has similar thoughts lingering around under different guises.

Nowadays, the attack is on feminism, with the argument being that women are biased when they see the world from feminist perspective. This narrative may even come from men who consider themselves nice and objective, leaving sociologists to scratch their heads, waiting for the right time to intervene to clarify that the human being is necessarily subjective. Sociologists remind us that our education, religion, race, class, level of education, economic circumstances, and gender (among many other categories) influence us to see the world with a biased lens [4, 5]. In fact sociologists use the word socialization to describe how we learn our biases [6]. Thus, perceiving the feminist perspective as a threat suggests the reactionary elements in the society are either unaware of, or ignore, that their perspective is just one of the many in the world. A Marxist analysis would simply tell that they embrace the prevailing ideas of the ruling class [7]; the reactionary elements may be benefitting from the status quo – a male-dominated power structure.

How does one make sense of, say, men fearing loss of control over perspectives or giving away some of their power? In one way or the other, many men defending the status quo fear falling from their positions and are unsure of when, or even if, they could rise at all without the unearned privileges associated with their sex and gender. The insecurity surrounding these privileges leaves the men asking what may become of them if women take away some of their unearned advantages. In other words, male privilege is fragile and shaky [8].

Some Pointers of Male Unearned Advantages

The privileges men enjoy in the society are often not self-evident. For instance, I, the male author of this article, have had some unjustified benefits in this life simply because of gender. I am scarcely aware of most of the favours. For example I have not done anything to deserve or be placed favourably when it concerns the following. When promoted at work, people do not suspect I moved up because I am sleeping with my boss. People do not suspect me of offering sex for grades when I perform well in an exam (or, as a man, I may easily achieve grades without using my body as some girls are forced to do). Any traffic infringement involving me is not because of my gender. No one would think of me as a home carer. I am less likely to attend the PTA meeting on issues that involve my children. Regarding social approval, as a man, people do not complain so much on how I dress and look; I do not spend excessive amount of money to look good in public. The list is unending [1, 9].

Untold gender dynamics are playing out in front of us on a daily basis. Some of these have been normalized and rendered invisible. One can further reflect on the following. Who is responsible for cooking and sharing food at family gatherings, celebrations, and funerals? In situations involving the church, who cleans, decorates, and cooks? In the university milieu where I work, when they talk of indecent dressing, who do we often refer to? In situations involving sex for grade, it is mostly young women, not the teachers, who are accused of using their bodies. When we talk of sex work (i.e. prostitution, to use a very derogatory term), it is more about the women, with little or no focus on male sex workers or the men paying for sexual services.

In all these practices and perceptions, men are often invisible in the picture. That is a huge male privilege and men must realise that it is a systemic issue. I mention this because, out of disappointment, many men angrily retort ‘I personally do not oppress women’. In fact, most men reading this piece are in healthy relationships with the women they love and care for. However, this does not mean that women, as a group, do not face discrimination along gendered lines. The systemic nature of male unearned advantages often blinds them of certain social realities, leaving some to be defensive when the oppressive system favouring them is pointed out [10].

Beyond Male Privilege

The argument on power and gender is not about ignoring the differences between female and male genders. Of course, there are huge differences between the genders. The point is that we should be intelligent enough to not deploy these differences negatively, that is, using the differences as a basis for discrimination and unfair treatment. How to achieve this would depend on individual societies and one way to do so is to inscribe and enforce gender anti-discrimination laws. Additionally, one may erroneously think that talking about male privilege is a way of making men feel guilty [10]. This is not necessarily true. It is about people taking responsibility. It is a way of reminding us that the male gender has certain unearned advantages that may in turn place burdens on the female gender [11]. Making gender visible to people who are often not forced to reflect on their gender, those who have been socialized to look at the other side when we mention gender, is a way of letting them know they belong to a system. They are the other part of the gender equation. Finally, gender equality is for the interest of everyone in the society.

 

Dr. Primus Tazanu
Dr. Primus M. Tazanu
Research Fellow in Governance | + posts

Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a Research Fellow in Governance at the Nkafu Policy Institute .He is equally a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Buea, Cameroon. Primus holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Freiburg, Germany

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