How men can be better allies, according to a man

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One year ago, Ben Hurst, delivered a TEDx talk to try and change the conversation around gender equality: ’Boys won’t be boys. Boys will be what we teach them to be’. As the feminist movement forges ahead, Ben shares his insights on gender alliance efforts, and how we can all become better collaborators in the push for social justice… 

Over the last decade, the feminist movement has gained significant momentum. With the help of online activism, celebrity endorsement and popular culture, the advocacy of women’s rights is now thoroughly a topic of mainstream conversation. 

But as discussions around gender equality so often centre upon the efforts of women, how can we ensure that male allies are equally involved in the push for social justice? It’s a question that Ben Hurst is exploring through his work as the Head of Facilitation and Training at the Good Lad Initiative, an organisation that promotes positive, equal gender relationships through interactive workshops with boys and men. 

Here, Ben explores the evolution of feminism, the meaning of positive allyship, and how everyone has an active role to play in dismantling inequalities in society.  

Early experiences of gender roles

“I’d never been a ‘boyish boy’ growing up. 

I came from a very relaxed, artsy family with three older sisters, so I was playing with hand-me down Barbies as much as toy cars. My understanding of masculinity was quite heavily based on my experiences in church, where men and women had different roles. 

Men were leaders with responsibility. 

They were meant to be heads of households and look after women and children. 

Although I didn’t have the language at the time to explain it, there was definitely a societal power imbalance that put men further ahead than women, and therefore men had lots of freedom that other people didn’t have. 

But there was cognitive dissonance, because in my house, my Mum and Dad had always worked, my sisters were incredibly competent, and women were calling the shots.

I didn’t challenge very much when I was growing up and didn’t really question stuff. 

I remember during my second year at university, I came home one time and went to a party. My older sister said ‘make sure you call a cab or call Dad when you get back from the station’. And I said ‘I always walk home, why would I do that?’. 

That was the first time I realised that maybe our experiences were slightly different and based on something other than race.” 

Seeing a different narrative

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“I applied for a job to develop a boys’ project about how to be a good man, and when I was applying I thought ‘this is super easy’. But when I sat down to start the project, I thought ‘I don’t know what to do!’

What do you actually say to boys to convince them that they should be good people?

How do you teach anyone that what they’re doing is harmful to themselves and other people? 

I started researching other organisations that were doing similar work and finding reading lists and theories of change on the internet and trying to figure it out. 

There were loads of organisations that spoke a lot about rites of passage and teaching boys hard skills, like how to build a house, how to fix a car, how to chop down a tree, to help them get in touch with their masculinity. But nothing resonated with me.

Then I came across this organisation called The Great Men Project which was doing gender equality work with men and boys.

I went to the training course, and it was the first time that I’d been in a room of men where people were actually talking about how they felt. 

I think often we talk about what we think of stuff, but we try and avoid how we feel; it felt like a super safe environment.

That training was the first time I’d ever come into contact with feminist theory. 

It was definitely the first time I’d adopted a worldview that explained everything in a way that made sense. And once I was there I loved it. After a year, I started working for them and what was The Great Men Initiative became the Good Lad Initiative.”

Working with future generations

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“The Good Lad Initiative is an organisation that exists to engage men and boys in gender equality work, and we explore and challenge traditional ideas of masculinity in our culture. 

When you get a room full of guys and give them license to say whatever they think, they can say really problematic things early on. But I also think it’s important that people feel comfortable to express their real opinions. That is paired with a lot of exploration, challenge where necessary, but primarily holding space to think about things they probably haven’t thought about before. 

More often than not, people haven’t thought about gender unless they are marginalised. 

A big thing for us is not being prescriptive, so not just presenting a new framework or saying “here’s the new way to be a man”. 

It can often feel like we’re talking about individuals, when actually what we’re talking about are societies and structures and systems. 

A lot of it is about dismantling the systems that prioritise you over other people and then creating spaces for people to genuinely start to reimagine alternatives for themselves rather than for everyone.

We also take into consideration more than just gender when we’re having these conversations, and how people’s experiences are different based on their identities. 

In schools and universities there are a lot of lightbulb moments, and people thinking ‘there’s a difference between the way that I can move through the world and the way that women and non-binary people, or trans people, or queer people, or people of colour can move through the world’.

There’s a lot of conversation in pop culture about toxic masculinity, but there are a lot of men who are very marginalised because they don’t fit within what those expectations are of them. 

There are more men than we think who are willing to opt out, if they can be presented with an alternative, and I think the biggest piece of work is reimagining what the world can be like if we choose not to accept the status quo. 

We can change outcomes massively just by having conversations really early on with people.”

Finding a feminist worldview

“Feminism opens a lot of the conversations that are necessary for freedom to exist. 

For a long time, I believed feminism was equality of the sexes. Now, I think feminism is the fight firstly for equity, and more importantly, justice. 

It’s not just about equality of opportunity, it’s not just about levelling the playing field, but creating a world where those systems that prioritise one person or another are dismantled to the point where everybody has access to all things. 

It’s about saying ‘how do we create a world where all genders are equally valued?’ And secondly, ‘how do we create a world where everybody can access all opportunities?’

My worldview at this point in time is an intersectional, feminist worldview. 

It’s a major key to allowing people to understand and explore their own versions of masculinity and opt into different versions. 

It allows men to access a full range of emotions, to be emotionally literate, to be able to have conversations. It allows men to opt in to parenting and caring roles, and being present in the lives  of their children. 

The worldview allows for a lot of freedom, and not just tolerance, but genuine inclusion. 

If we have feminist conversations with more boys, more men, more women, more people, it allows you to be a truer version of yourself in the world.”

My philosophy on allyship

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“For me, allyship is essentially making an issue that is not primarily your issue, your issue. 

I think a lot of people describe allyship as supporting other people in their issues, which is a good first step. When I first started this work, I really believed that allyship was just showing up and doing the work on the day and listening to someone else talk about their problems.

But a real personal journey has been realising that I have the opportunity to opt out, and other people don’t. And that by opting out, I’m putting them back in the sh*t.

It’s hard, because everyone has their own issues, even the cisgender, heterosexual white man. 

Everyone has different capacities, but for me allyship is pushing yourself to that limit and doing as much as you possibly can within your context. 

It’s about being a co-conspirator in the dismantling of someone else’s oppression when it’s not yours. 

It’s definitely not just about listening to someone and patting them on the back, but taking extra steps to resolve the issues that exist for people when they’re not your problem.” 

Allyship is about taking action

“Being more vocal is one thing that people can do, calling stuff out is super important, that goes so far to create change. 

There’s a lot of value in creating spaces for those conversations, but also allowing people who have to deal with particular issues all the time to not have to deal with that for a moment, whether that’s for an hour or a day. That’s been a real learning journey for me.

Learn, understand and educating yourself. Rather than asking your female friend to explain gender inequality to you, buy someone’s book who’s spent a year writing a book to explain that idea, and has laid it out in a way that you can understand. 

So get that thing, do that piece of work to educate yourself, and then ask questions. Have conversations with people in your life and explore those ideas. But don’t just expect somebody else to teach you.

There are also people who are already creating content to counterbalance harmful stuff that people have access to. So find those people, follow them, and engage in conversations that are already happening. 

Figure out what your learning style is. I found out in university that I was dyslexic, therefore reading a book is not going to be my go-to for learning feminist theory. I’d much rather sit and watch a YouTube video that’s an hour long.

So open space for conversation is super important, looking at who’s influencing you is super important, taking in information in ways that’s easier for you is super important. 

Ultimately, it does feel uncomfortable to push yourself and challenge yourself in ways that no-one else expects you to do, but that is what allyship looks like.”

In the end, it all comes down to one word. Grace.” With notes of mandarin orange, grapefruit and bergamot, philosophy’s amazing grace fragrance encourages you to express your femininity and carry yourself with grace through everything.

philosophy is the wellbeing beauty brand inspiring you to look, live and feel your best.

philosophy is the official partner of Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards 2020.

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.

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