Which crisis in masculinity?

Tony Smith

In March 2004 claims about a shortage of male school teachers reached the national political agenda. In an election year the press gallery interprets most actions by the Coalition government as attempts to spoil potential areas of advantage for the Opposition. Prime Minister John Howard was alarmed by the popularity of Labor leader Mark Latham, and Labor was running strongly on education issues, including the special needs of boys (Australian Labor Party 2004; Howard 2004a).

The government introduced legislation to amend the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) so that more male teachers could be recruited to counter the perceived imbalance in the sex ratios among teachers (Ruddock 2004). This initiative was a response to the fate of an application by the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of Sydney seeking an exemption from the provisions of the SDA so it could offer some teacher training scholarships exclusively to male students (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004). The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission rejected the application and the Catholic Education Office appealed the decision.

Calls for more male teachers in primary schools rely on contentious claims.

Calls for more male teachers in primary schools rely on contentious claims: that boys are ‘disadvantaged’ academically, that part of the problem is an undersupply of male teachers, and that the disadvantage goes beyond academic pursuits to encompass identity formation. But unless the proponents prove that these distinct ideas are causally related, raising them together mires the discussion in emotion and ideology.

Should boys’ alleged academic under-achievement threaten their identities, then improving their attainments might address identity problems. If this is the government’s claim then they must produce the research supporting this contention. Most serious research however, is cautious in its predictions (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training 2002; Lewis, Butcher & Donnan 1999). Moreover, the government’s emphasis on more male teachers as role models implies that it thinks the influence works in the opposite direction, such that uncertainty about their identity handicaps boys’ performance (Anderson 2004; Howard 2004a, 2004b; Ruddock 2004).

Critics of the government see the proposed amendment to the SDA as another attempt to drive wedges between people, to create envy and distrust, and so to secure political advantage. A few weeks earlier, the Prime Minister upset former students of public schools by implying that they received inferior education (Howard 2004c). These positions on boys and public schools make a confusing mixture because, until recently, primary school students in the public sector have been much more likely to have male teachers than their counterparts in for example, Catholic schools, which were historically staffed by nuns from adjoining convents.

While raising a general cry of disadvantage, the proponents in this debate have stopped short of criticising the quality of female teachers. Nor have they specified which characteristics they think boys have acquired from an excess of female teaching. Are boys too sensitive, too conscientious, too adept at life skills, or too tolerant? Do they lack aggressive instincts, competitiveness, and ambition? These supposed problems should be identified, because each might have a different cause and so respond to a different approach. In any case, what is this ‘masculine identity’ that is supposedly in crisis? Is there really only one way of being a boy?

Serious researchers recognise the existence of many masculinities.

In some respects, to demand more male teachers is akin to demanding more female MPs. The point is however, that it is seldom enough for them to just be there. Rather, the key is what they do, and it is unclear what the government thinks male teachers as a whole do differently from females. When the Minister for Education spoke on this question, he noted that the only male at some schools is the gardener. While he did not intend to disparage gardeners, he seemed to imply that gardeners did not provide the kinds of role models that teachers do (Nelson 2004). But which male teachers would? Anyway, a look outside the classroom shows that it is wrong to expect teachers to provide all the role models that children need. Similarly, while some MPs earn respect for their parliamentary behaviour, few parents wanting to show their children good role models would switch on Order in the House before Gardening Australia.

Yet MPs could be excellent role models for boys. Why aren’t they? My research into how MPs perceive gender suggests that they mainly associate it with simple sex-based differences and mainly with women (Smith 2003). While many university departments specialise in gender studies, few scholars specialise in masculinity. Indeed, much effective research occurs in education faculties (see, for example, Connell 1995; Epstein 1997; Kenway & Willis 1997). Among practising educators, alarm bells ring when outsiders speak of masculinity. The term is imprecise and misleading and used so carelessly that at face value it has little content other than as a description of the behaviour of boys. If whatever boys do is an expression of masculinity, the term is value neutral. So used this way, ‘masculinity’ is neither good nor bad, and can hardly be in crisis.

Serious researchers recognise the existence of many masculinities. They are reluctant to construct typologies such as heterosexual and homosexual, macho and camp, sporty and nerdy. While such typologies have their uses, they are not suitable for categorising individuals. Boys are complex and dynamic beings and should not be stereotyped in any way, including by gender identity.

Exactly which aspect of masculinity the government thinks is in crisis is unclear. Perhaps it is an aspect that accords with government attitudes in other policy areas, from foreign affairs to family and community relations. Critics have argued that the government has been too militaristic and unilateral in foreign policy, and ultraconservative in its policy towards families, emphasising a model redolent of the 1950s, with wife-as-full-time-home-maker. Perhaps a clue is the government’s preference for the notion of a ‘share-holding democracy’, emphasising competition and self-reliance. Perhaps it involves the mateship the Prime Minister tried to write into the preamble to the constitution, but which carries the baggage of old time frontier masculinity with its disdain for Indigenous people, women, and the environment. Perhaps it is the form encouraged by government discourse around serious policy questions, which seems reliant on secrecy, obfuscation, and parliamentary attacks on the reputations of critics.

MPs can project some negative aspects of masculinity.

While it is difficult to show that masculinity is in crisis, there is no doubt that many boys are. But, as I argued earlier in response to a suggestion from the other side of politics, so are many girls. The manifestations differ, but the causes may be similar (Smith 2001). The government needs greater awareness of the effects its actions have on children. Its pre-occupation with enforcing parental responsibility and its announcement that it would consider funding after school hours care with nutritional advice and exercise for overweight children suggest that it is oblivious to the effects of its own policies. Boys whose masculinity seems to be failing because they break laws could come from families in crisis because of poverty.

Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks his statements about same sex marriages advance the cause of masculinity (Wade 2003). But the claim that children need mothers and fathers fosters the idea that there are normal and abnormal families. His statement of beliefs gives official sanction to some types of families and suggests that parenthood is the only normal state for mature males. How confusing and hurtful this must be for all boys, even those with resident mothers and fathers. Very few adolescent boys think their families are statistically normal. In 1996, the Prime Minister campaigned against what he said was the ‘political correctness’ prevailing in debate about social affairs such as immigration, Aboriginal policy, and gender. But freedom of speech should not mean freedom from responsibility. What the Prime Minister believes personally is less important than what it is appropriate for his government to do. Unfortunately, many people seek opportunities for intolerance, and boys should be spared the kind of pressure that their peers might bring to bear on them simply because they can.

Those with conservative attitudes to gender relations will have problems coming to terms with allegations made against some rugby league players and by extension, against the types of masculinity encouraged by a footballing subculture (McKay & Middlemiss 1995; McKay et al. 2001). You need not peruse Hansard for long to realise that MPs like to be associated with football teams and heroes and regularly use analogies such as ‘political football’. On this issue, MPs’ actions speak louder than their words. While many male MPs play as rough as they can in parliament, they rush to project an electorally appealing image of the gentle family man outside the House. This unnatural activity of ‘splitting’ is a prime problem of hegemonic masculinity rather than of males in general (Massey 1996, p. 121). While the parliamentary culture has its own rules, understood by insiders, outsiders regard as disgraceful the conflict and lack of respect shown opponents. Without realising they do so, MPs can project some negative aspects of masculinity. During this very debate about boys’ schooling, the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson lampooned Mr Latham as ‘Mark the mouse’ (Anderson 2004). Perhaps if MPs had some workshops on masculinity they might avoid some of these problems.

Teachers aim to deliver the best outcomes for all students.

The Second Reading speech of Don Randall on the Sex Discrimination Act Amendment Bill is informative (Randall 2004). (Mr Randall (Liberal, Canning WA) achieved notoriety some years ago when the Prime Minister distanced himself from his backbencher’s personal attack on Labor MP Cheryl Kernot.) In this speech, he accused a Labor MP of being ‘driven’ by his ‘politically correct union masters’. He referred to ACTU President ‘Sharan Burrows’ (sic), as an example, implying that she was inhibiting boys’ education. Recalling his own teaching days, Mr Randall mentioned how he could ‘bond with the boys, to see them achieve success and get stuck into a good game of football’. The boys, he said, did not want female teachers going into change rooms. Hopefully, Mr Randall is heeding the advice being given to football teams across the country right now.

Unsubstantiated claims that boys suffer because there are too few male teachers in primary schools are no reason to tamper with human rights legislation. There are non-discriminatory ways of supporting all adolescents as they grow to adulthood. Rather than make ideological claims, governments should invest adequately in salaries and resources to make the teaching profession more attractive to quality candidates of both sexes. Teachers aim to deliver the best outcomes for all students, and the special needs of boys are not being ignored. Research is addressing these needs and schools are implementing programs, both for individual boys and for groups (Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli 2003). Current education emphasises the acquisition of life skills by students. If boys become adept at analysing the idea of masculinity and how it is used by advertisers and legislators to gain power over their lives, then they might well become better citizens and know when their identities are being exploited politically.

Because boys seem to mature more slowly than girls it might be better to try to attract mature aged males than to offer extra scholarships to male school leavers. The quality of teaching candidates is a more complex question than their physical sexual characteristics. The Catholic Church has a problem with offering its most important positions in priesthood to people unless their chromosomes are right. But it is unlikely that the Sydney Catholic Education Office would want its scholarships to go to any male before a really outstanding female. Mature males might be confident enough to oppose some of the residual misogyny in educational institutions. They might even challenge, rather than reinforce, the classroom and staffroom preoccupation with rugby league and its dubious subculture. That would be a great contribution to the development of a mature masculinity.

Postscript: During the passage of the bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, the Catholic Education Office changed its application. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission responded by accepting the revised application expressing the intention to offer twelve scholarships to males and twelve to females. The Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, said that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward had coerced the Catholic Education Office into changing its application and that the Bill would proceed (AM 2004).


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Tony Smith interviewed 40 MPs and visited the NSW Parliament 50 times to observe MP behaviour when researching his PhD thesis. He has taught in public and private schools in urban and country New South Wales. He is an ardent admirer of the dedication and skill that teachers bring to their daily work and believes that they deserve greater recognition.

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