Women of the World Festival Exeter 2018
Written by Paul Manville
Photos supplied by WoW Festival
Yes, I was there. The very first Exeter Women of the World festival. From panel discussions on mental health, domestic abuse, and women in STEM, to the future of sex and sex robots. Badass women aplenty, and more than a few men, all coming together to confront sexism and inequality. Challenging and enthralling, it left me realising that I can make a difference. But most importantly, as much as it opened my eyes, it filled me with hope.
So why was being there such a surprise?
Well, for one, I didn’t think of myself as a feminist; I’m a middle-aged bloke. And whilst I consider myself a decent enough guy, progressive in outlook and supportive of others, this wasn’t my fight.
So how did I find myself in Exeter Phoenix that morning, feeling equal parts anxious, curious, excited and slightly misplaced? Why do I think that the men of Exeter should get involved this year? Why am I now so passionate about this? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
1) Change isn’t Easy
I became a father for the first time at the start of 2017. From early on my wife and I knew that for us the only option was for me to stay at home. Joanne had not long started her business, whilst I worked for a company that offered fantastic parental leave. And by chance, a number of studies were making the headlines, demonstrating direct and measurable outcomes where fathers were engaged, affectionate and involved. It was an easy decision to make.
Of course, there were a few who thought we were nuts. But most dad friends got it, some were even a little jealous. Obviously, we all wanted the best for our children, so why weren’t more fathers doing this?
The more I looked, the more I saw the problems. Society sets specific roles for mothers and fathers. Everyday language enforces it. It turns out that the prejudice and stereotyping that frustrates women in our society, does the exact same thing for us men.
2) Prejudice Works Both Ways
There was nothing particularly special about our decision, surely?
I’m not sure what I expected as a stay-at-home-dad, but from the start it was anything but straightforward. No one knew how Shared Parental Leave should work, so I ended up doing lots of research trying to figure it out. I was shocked by what I found. Estimates are that less than 2% of eligible fathers take it up. Does that show a lack of interest? I don’t think so. Whilst many companies understand the importance of good maternity policies, offering more than statutory, for SPL most offer the basic amount of £145.18 a week. Consider that most men are still the main earners in the household, and the reality is that it’s often not a choice at all.
There’s also the cultural stigma, which came as a shock. Most were supportive of our decision, but some took issue with it. Didn’t I realise the impact on my career? Was I capable of doing this as a man? Was it fair to the child? That so many women shared this viewpoint was bewildering.
Obviously in hindsight I hadn’t a clue. It’s not that I thought that staying at home would be a breeze, but looking after a baby really is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s wonderful and rewarding, but it comes with a hefty side of exhaustion and pain. And whilst the challenges that face a stay at home dad can be very different to those women face, I soon began to realise that many of these issues were interlinked.
3) Gender Inequality Makes Prisoners of us All
I’ve never been lacking in confidence. So why did I so quickly find myself questioning my ability? The constant pressure of getting things right, painfully aware of other people’s expectation and judgement. Trying to juggle and balance everything, knowing that you’re never quite on top of it. Sleep is infrequent and fitful. The painfully short cycle of eat, activity, sleep gets harder and harder to cope with, and the pressure builds. Mentally, I’d never felt so washed out. I was so unprepared. I needed to man up. But what did that even mean anymore?
Not only was I struggling, I was asking some serious existential questions. Everything I thought I knew, everything I thought I was; I was struggling to make sense of. Maybe it was a mistake? Maybe this was women’s work after all?
Jude Kelly, founder of WoW, said:
“Men have been taught that they might be considered a bit dull if they’re not laddish. I have a daughter, but I also have a son, I have a partner, I have a dad, I have lots of men in my life who I love, and I can see if you put women in a prison and say, ‘This is what you are, this is what you have to be,’ there’s also a prison for men. And just because they are socially more powerful, it doesn’t mean that each individual man has the individual power.”
How true! I looked for support, and found that most everything is geared towards mums. Books for new dads mostly suggested not getting in the way of mum (apart from one notable and surprising exception, Commando Dad). Most of the clubs weren’t particularly inviting. A lot of new mum conversation is quite frank and graphic, and no one wanted me involved, especially me. Besides, if I heard “Didn’t Bethan look pretty, had mummy dressed her today?” one more time, I was going to lose it.
I was lucky to find to a core group of stay at home friends who were wonderful, especially our friends from antenatal class, who went out of their way to make me feel a part of the group. They probably didn’t realise just how important our get togethers were for my mental health at the time.
4) To Improve Relationships and More
I had it lucky. My wife had been here, she knew exactly how hard this was, and as soon as she was done at work was straight back to help. Listening to mums gripe about partner involvement, how on earth did the majority manage? The baby, the cooking, the housework, just planning it all was a full time job. I hadn’t realised before, but we’d been anything but equal in our house. I certainly didn’t know that this ‘mental load’ was a ‘thing’.
We talked it through. We confronted stereotypes, and made adjustments. Then later on, I joined a WoW ‘think in’ at the Boat Shed on the quay. My wife and some of her friends were going, and by that point I realised that this was a subject that mattered to me.
I left, feeling energised, and excited. Listening to women, from all backgrounds, discuss issues of inequality, the impact on their lives, and what it might mean to live in a more equal society was nothing short of inspirational. I might not be in the same boat, but I felt a sense of solidarity, and I knew that joining the conversation was important to me, to our relationship.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. There’s plenty of research to show that equality and discourse isn’t just good for the home. A 2013 paper from the IMF showed that companies and economies make greater gains when they employ a representative proportion of women. Investment Managers are starting to look at indexations of diverse companies to increase performance of their portfolios. Everywhere you look, the evidence suggests that real equality is beneficial for all.
5) Because Men Need This Conversation Too
And that’s how I found myself at the Phoenix on that Saturday Morning. As the summer had progressed I’d begun to really enjoy my new role. It was still hard work, but we were making it work, and now I wanted to find out more.
WoW came at a ripe time for me. It was an incredible experience. I didn’t get to see everything I wanted, but what I did was inspiring. Here was an incredible group of people having the exact same discussion, just from a different angle.
Men are just beginning to ask similar questions. What exactly does it mean to be a good man in this new world? Is it the same thing as a ‘real’ man? Never before have we felt so isolated, confused and conflicted. How to behave, how to feel, men have been conditioned to internalise emotion, to not show a softer side. Can it be any coincidence that men are three times more likely to commit suicide, as well as three times more likely to conduct in violent behaviour?
What I realised at WoW is that when the conversation is one sided, no one wins out. We have to do this together. So come along this year, and join in the conversation. As for me, to quote a huge hero of mine. “Write this down: I’m a f***ing feminist.”
To find out more about the excellent WoW Festival, visit the website.