So, today, 19th November is International Men's Day. 'International Men's Day?', you ask. Yes, I know it sounds a bit strange, what with all the talk about the low representation of women on the boards of our major companies, in parliament, and so on. But think about it for a moment. And if, like me, you're a feminist, think about it a bit longer too. Are things really so loaded on the side of the masculine, that we don't need to think about men as needing help sometimes too?
Think about boys for a moment. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are currently 18.2 million 'families' in the UK, of which 2 million are lone parents with children. Now, the majority of those lone parents are female. (Let's park the issue of lone fathers for the sake of this argument, but acknowledge that they have no end of problems, many of which International Men's Day was set up to highlight.) So, any boys in those lone parent families will be more or less fatherless. They may, if they're lucky have a strong male role model in a grandfather or other relative. They may not. If they are astonishing lucky, they may find themselves in a primary school with one or more male teachers and one of those might teach them. They probably won't. There's a pretty strong chance that most of their teachers at secondary school will be female too.
This isn't just a question of role models. The feminisation of the education system has a much more serious impact. It introduces different norms into what is regarded as acceptable behaviour: sitting still and listening quietly is good, jumping around and kicking a ball is disruptive. OK, that might be a caricature but the fact remains that an awful lot of young boys find themselves labelled as trouble-makers for typical boyish boisterous behaviour and from then on they are launched on a trajectory towards suspensions, exclusions and asbos. And probably, all they needed was a bit more time blowing off steam on a football field.
There's another, even more insidious side to this feminisation. It sometimes goes under the name of misandry and it has spilled out into the media and popular culture. It's the female equivalent of locker-room sexism: giggling comparisons of male inadequacies in the bedroom, around the house, cooking, driving, you name it, and culminating in the conception that the only thing men are good for is providing sperm. There are a whole TV programs centred on this idea. And they make me shudder.
Nicely reasoned articles like the one in today's Guardian by Ally Fogg make the case for men and women working together to solve common interconnected problems of, say, mental health or violence. He argues that before this can happen the commonality of those problems needs to be acknowledged and hopes IMD will help bring that about. No-one could fail to agree. But in my opinion there's a step that comes before this. Let's recognise all that female banter for what it is: sexism. And let's start by getting it out of our primary schools.