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Is Crisis Our Opportunity To Acknowledge Interdependence?

| November 3, 2011

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The "Rising Talents" group at the Women's Forum for the Economy & Society. The author is dressed in red.

Marked by protest and environmental disaster, world-wide crisis may finally force us to turn to each other for solutions, ushering in The Great Liberation, suggests author and blogger Courtney E. Martin.

The 7th annual Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in Deauville, France last month was filled—as you might imagine—with talk about our perilous economic and environmental times. The Euro hangs in precarious balance. Occupy Wall Street solidarity groups have popped up in Rome, Sydney, and Tokyo. Monsoonal rains have invaded Bangkok, another example of the severe weather that proves climate change is real. At long last, those of us from historically rich regions in North America and Europe are finally forced to come to terms with the undeniable reality that our fate is inextricably interwoven with the fate of those who have long ridden waves of economic and environmental insecurity in the Global South.

You would think, then, that the similarly twinned fates of men and women would also be beyond obvious, and yet, somehow this remains the last symbiosis to be acknowledged. Yet, as these 1,400 women and a few brave men gathered over three days, many of them in very powerful positions in business and politics, men’s role in increasing (albeit slowly) gender equality was rarely and clumsily acknowledged.

The Women’s Forum, it should be noted, had more male speakers and more male-themed content than most of the many, many women’s conferences all over the world, which perhaps made it even more obvious how inadequate our grasp of this territory really is. CNBC asked participants, and continues to solicit answers on their website to the question, “What will women’s empowerment mean for men?”

Of course men’s liberation is tied up in women’s. Men, particularly those operating within a traditional Western context, have missed out on some of the most exhilarating parts of being human for far too long—authentic expression of emotion, the joys of being a present parent, intimate relationships with other men in which they can show up as their whole, vulnerable selves. Likewise, they have suffered from tremendous pressure to make money, to appear eternally strong, to wedge their diverse interests, passions, and reactions into the narrow box of socially acceptable masculinity.

The economic downturn has only further highlighted how much men suffer within the limited definitions of manhood in a gender imbalanced world. Men at the top, particularly in the financial sector, have failed miserably—plunging us into economic crisis with their reckless behavior, willful ignorance of the perils of excess, and flat out dishonesty. Though they have largely been bailed out, one need only observe the sheepish faces of expensively suited men rushing by Occupy Wall Street in lower Manhattan to know that they feel humiliated and defensive about the havoc they have wrought. Those on the bottom of the economic ladder have lost their jobs, and with them, their pride. Blue collars are increasingly no better than nooses for a generation of men raised to think that their entire self worth lies in bringing home hard-earned wages from industrial jobs. Their lack of flexibility could not be more devastating.

When men give up some of their leadership clout to women, they also shed some of the pressure and blame. When they advocate for women’s increased presence in the workforce and political sphere, they get to benefit from more presence in the home with sticky-fingered, ebullient children. When they support women to claim previously unclaimed emotional territory—authority and assertiveness—men, in turn, are gifted with opportunities for authenticity and vulnerability.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman proposed that we are either facing “The Great Disruption,” as coined of by Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding, or the “The Big Shift,” as conceived of by businessmen John Hagel III and John Seely Brown. The former focuses on major upheaval and the latter major opportunity. I’d like to propose a third option: The Great Liberation. As has been said so many times before, in crisis, there is opportunity. At this insecure, unsettling moment, it’s not just the wealthiest one percent that are poised to lose some of their privilege, but the dominant 48 percent as well. Contrary to what those who are afraid and clinging to tradition might say, I believe that this paradigm shift is actually a profound win-win for everyone involved. Women get their fair share of institutional power. Men get their fair share of emotional and familial experiences. And we all enjoy a more well rounded human experience. 

[Image 2: Occupy Wall Street march in Times Square, New York City. Photo: Jenny Warburg]

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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