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The Dividing Line: Why Gen Z Men and Women Have Come Apart Over Masculinity and Gender Equality

Staff writer Mila Stricevic interviews Professors Rosie Campbell and Bobby Duffy, the lead researchers behind a new study revealing the divisions between Gen Z men and women on feminism, masculinity and gender equality.

For most of my life, I have identified as a committed feminist; that is, committed to the principles of gender equality. But for some inexplicable reason, when I was 16, the political content I was consuming started to change. My YouTube and Instagram feeds became populated with content from increasingly controversial figures, such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, who were not exactly wedded to the feminist cause. This was never enough to rid me of my feminist beliefs but it was rather shocking to see how my entire online world could be saturated by a handful of polarising figures in just four months. 

During this period, I was reading lots of feminist philosophy, attending marches for equality and promoting female empowerment. At the same time, I was consuming content online that either downplayed the need for feminism or outright attacked it, and naturally I felt a dissonance. The world, both real and online, that I was inhabiting started to feel increasingly divided and I felt, whether evidenced or not, that my generation was reaching a standstill in the pursuit of equal rights, not an advancement. 

Fast-forward 4 years, and new research by King’s College London’s (KCL’s) Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL), in partnership with the Policy Institute and Ipsos UK, has shown that there is indeed a divergence in attitudes towards feminism and gender equality between men and women and that it is especially marked in those aged 16-29. 

It’s one thing to feel as though our generation is pulling apart from each other – it’s entirely different reading the evidence printed in black and white. 

However, after speaking with Professor Rosie Campbell from GIWL and Professor Bobby Duffy from the Policy Institute it immediately became clear that there is much more to the report than newspaper headlines – and indeed my own assumptions – would have us believe.

Andrew Tate has achieved infamy for his views on ‘reclaiming’ masculinity and for his misogynistic attitudes towards women. It was his increased presence in the media which partly acted as a catalyst for the Policy Institute’s research, which found 1 in 5 young men aged 16-29 have a positive view of Tate compared to about 1 in 14 women of the same age.

This came as a surprise to Professor Duffy who has dedicated much of his research to understanding generational differences. The polarisation of cultural and political attitudes within Gen Z is an uncommon phenomenon.

“When you look at things truly generationally, over a long time, you tend to find both [that] generations come together within the generation, and they become more progressive or open as time goes on, so this makes this very unusual.” 

He went on to discuss these findings in the context of the Financial Times research which has found a similar inter-generational divide between Gen Z men and women over their political views – where young men are becoming increasingly conservative and young women increasingly liberal. It’s important to note here that Professor Duffy, along with Professor Campbell, stresses that it is still a minority of young men who are voicing concerns about the impact of feminism or indeed show support for Andrew Tate’s extreme positions. The idea then, that Gen Z is “two generations, not one” as journalist John Burn-Murdoch put it, should be treated cautiously. 

“We had a lot of questions in this survey and it’s not on every issue that you see a divide of this scale… I do think this generational divide is really significant but it’s not across everything so I’m not sure that I would say that they’re ideologically completely distinct.”

Professor Campbell

The data should nonetheless be taken seriously as the stark division within Gen Z is, at the very least, unusual. So, what could be behind it? 

The report didn’t offer definitive answers to this question, but Professor Campbell and Professor Duffy did offer some of their own insights into what might be pushing this polarisation. One obvious factor could be the way in which young men and women use social media. There has no doubt been an increase in the amount of content pushing polarising and controversial ideas about feminism, what masculinity means, and gender equality.

However, as Professor Duffy remarked, this crisis of masculinity and reaction against feminism wasn’t created in a vacuum. “There is clearly something significant going on with how young men and boys feel about their own role and masculinity and how that fits into the world these days.”

Issues that are particularly pronounced for men such as higher suicide rates, or the ‘Friendship Recession’ referring to recent studies that have shown increasing levels of loneliness which affects young men and women differently, can be overlooked. This feeling of dissatisfaction towards the way gender inequalities are addressed certainly seems to be reflected in the research, which found 1 in 5 young men aged 16-29 think it is harder to be a man than a woman today.  

Professor Campbell also noted the increase in positive role models for young women and girls through books and other forms of media but perhaps less so for young boys. “A minority of young men who feel disaffected are pulled in and getting this negative reinforcing information that the problems of the world and the problems they face are the fault of women.” This provides an opening for online reactionaries to fill the role model gap for these disenfranchised men and boys.

But what can be done? On a wider scale, there have been lots of policy suggestions looking at how to better support young men. Such as a men’s mental health minister, or starting boys at school a year later than girls to help with development. But Professor Duffy advised against this kind of “knee-jerk type response” suggesting instead that doing the research and getting people talking about these issues is one of the most important first steps to take. Professor Campbell echoed this need for dialogue: “One of the great things about being based in a university is that it is a place where respectful debate should happen.”

She emphasised the need to take these discussions offline and create more space on campus for young people to share their views on issues around feminism, masculinity, and what gender equality looks like without fear of backlash. And this is where students at King’s College London can take the lead. “Unless we can have these conversations, we don’t move forward together.”

It’s time to get talking.

Read the full report Here.


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