Who Are We Leaving Behind?

by Dr Catherine de Burgh-Day
Vice-President, the Royal Society of Victoria

This piece appears in the March 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at rsv.org.au/Science-Victoria.

We recently celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In light of this, the story I’m about to tell might seem a little counterintuitive, so bear with me… 

My partner Alec and I recently had a very thought-provoking discussion with the young adult son (let’s call him Sam) of some friends of ours while visiting them for dinner. The topic of Andrew Tate came up, and since Sam is exactly Andrew Tate’s demographic, I asked him what he thought about him and his messages of misogyny. His response was that while he does not like or follow Tate, he knows many people do. He said he is very supportive of feminism and improving equality amongst men and women, but also feels like girls get a lot of opportunities that he doesn’t. While writing this article I reached out to Sam to discuss this more, and he reiterated his perspective:

“I feel that my generation has grown up as equals. We were brought up by people who had fought for equality and thus had raised their children the way they wished to see world work. Throughout my entire life I was raised to see everyone as equal, and therefore in my mind they were. However, it began to feel unequal when the girls at school started to get given opportunities that the boys weren’t.”

Sam emphasized that as he grew into an adult, he came to appreciate the importance of addressing inequality, but that young men don’t have the experience to see the bigger picture, and understandably struggle with the inequality they themselves experience:

“Now as an adult with a little more experience and knowledge under my belt I can see why these opportunities are being provided for the girls in my class. Affirmative action is important for equality, but as a young man growing up in a seemingly equal society it can seem like an injustice. And a lot of my male peers would have benefited hugely if they had received the same empowerment and encouragement as our female peers.”

Another aspect of this issue which Sam raised was that many young men feel that part of the push for gender equality has manifested as an attack on masculinity:

“While toxic masculinity is a very valid issue that needs to be solved, it would seem that all masculinity is lumped into that…. It is no longer ‘in’ to be strong, brave, stoic and to protect one’s friends and families because to be strong is to be dangerous, to be brave is to be stupid, to be stoic is to be emotionless and to be protective is to say that women can’t protect themselves.”

I would agree with Sam that alongside the fight for women to be able to occupy roles other than stereotypically feminine ones, there has been a backlash against men leaning into stereotypically masculine roles. The emphasis on men occupying roles in society which were traditionally held by women has had the unintended consequence of sending the message that it’s no longer okay for men to occupy traditionally male roles.

Of course, the real ideal is for anyone to occupy whatever roles and traits they desire, regardless of gender identity. 

Ironically, many men are feeling forced out of the roles they wish to occupy – something us women are all too familiar with – which is contributing to a crisis of identity and sense of purpose in young boys and men. 

Our conversation with Sam left Alec and I with a lot to think about on the drive home after dinner. As a woman who has spent much of her life in male dominated fields (farming, physics, software development…), I am passionate about promoting gender diversity and am an active volunteer speaking to girls about pursuing STEM careers. I believe that there is a massive underrepresentation of women and gender diverse people in positions of power and leadership, and that we will not have a gender-equitable society until people of any gender identity can freely pursue whatever career and life path they choose without facing discrimination… But that does not detract from the very valid complaints Sam made. Furthermore, in the weeks after this, Alec and I asked a number of other young men we know what they think, and their responses were along the same lines. 

As a woman, I am deeply concerned about the number of young men who are following what Tate preaches. To me, it feels like a genuine threat.

It feels like there is a generation of men coming along who will hold misogynistic and violent ideals which will threaten my freedoms, rights, and possibly even personal safety, because I am the object of their ire. 

So, grifters such as Tate have risen in popularity, and are garnering a following amongst even well educated, well-intentioned young men. And these young men explain this trend by pointing to the ways in which they feel that they are being treated unfairly next to their female peers, and are being stripped of their sense of identity and purpose by society. At the same time, men (especially white, older men) still occupy a profoundly privileged position in society, and toxic masculinity is still a real problem to be overcome. When you think about this from the perspective of these young men however, it is easy to see how they can feel mistreated; they aren’t responsible for the discrimination women and gender-diverse people face. They are good to the women around them and support feminism. They (in fact, almost all young people in my experience) are far more caring, progressive and accepting of differences than many older adults. And yet, they face a challenging period in their lives with less obvious opportunities for growth than the girls around them, fewer scholarships, fewer awards, little to no clarity about their role in society, and a constant stream of messages telling them they are the privileged ones and that they should feel bad about it. Add onto this the messaging they get from more traditional/patriarchal parts of society that they deserve all the privilege they aren’t getting, and you can see how this is a very bitter pill to swallow. It would make anyone feel resentful and alienated. 

To make matters worse, it is harder than ever for these young men to feel any sense of community where they can explore these challenges in a safe space.

It’s not something they are going to want to discuss around girls, and if they form groups of boys to discuss it, they risk being branded as anti-feminist. So where can these young men go to find community, purpose, and a safe space to explore these issues?

Enter men such as Tate. These young men, disfranchised and struggling between the desire to do right by the women they know and bubbling resentment at the opportunities these girls get that they don’t, are easy pickings for his gospel of hate and misogyny.

Coming back to the conversations Alec and I have had about this (which continued on weeks after our drive home from dinner with Sam and his family), we started to think about what could be done about it. It struck us that something that was absent from this story was the older non-Tate like men of the world.

A big reason that there are a lot of women coming to schools to talk to girls about careers is because there are women in the schools motivated to invite them, and there are women out there motivated to donate their time to come and talk.

I am one of those women. The reason we do this is because we struggled as a minority in our careers, or because we faced discrimination or harassment. Similarly, a lot of the girls-only scholarship opportunities come from endowments made by women who want to make things easier for future generations of girls. 

I would love to be a role model who could come and talk to young men about careers and about how to embrace their masculinity in a positive way, but I am not who they need – they need a male role model who they can relate to.

And for that to happen, men need to start stepping up and being that role model. The reason men like Tate have so much pull is because there are almost no alternatives. 

So, this brings me (at last) back to the theme of this piece – the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The power that misogynists like Tate have scares me, because it threatens the future of girls and women in traditionally male dominated fields like science (not to mention the safety and wellbeing of all women and girls). 

To the men reading this: if you care about the future of girls and women in science, then please become more active in mentoring and supporting the young men in your community. Be the positive role model they can turn to. To the women reading this: please go out there and encourage the men in your life to become mentors and role models for young men and boys. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but a critical cohort we need to support if we want to achieve equity for all gender identities are young men and boys. They are part of the solution, and we need to listen to them. Right now, we are leaving them behind, and they don’t deserve that. None of us deserve that. 

Catherine is the Vice President of the Royal Society of Victoria. During the day she works as a research scientist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, focusing on coupled weather and climate models and machine learning. She has a Masters in physics and a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Melbourne, has previously conducted research in astrophysics and economics, and worked as a software developer.