Very few people know that July 11 is Gender Empathy Gap Day, a day inaugurated in Germany in 2018 to raise awareness of our societies’ general indifference to the suffering of men and boys. Not surprisingly, it has no official status in any country.
Most people, if asked, will respond that it’s women and girls who suffer predominantly. We hear often that men are privileged, even entitled. Societies are allegedly set up to benefit men. We expect men to apologize for their privilege and to educate themselves about women’s issues. Animus against men is socially acceptable, even approved. “I bathe in male tears” is a popular feminist slogan, and university professors write mainstream opinion pieces with unironic titles like “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”
The Gender Empathy Gap Day does not seek to establish a contest over which sex has it worse. But it does seek to prompt recognition of our collective inability or unwillingness to recognize the humanity of men.
Academic researchers Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic have compiled data showing that both females and males tend to have more positive associations with women than with men. Professor of Psychology Roy Baumeister summed it up by saying that “Both men and women hold much more favorable views of women than of men.” Moreover, researchers have confirmed a much higher in-group bias amongst women, meaning that women feel more empathy towards other women than towards men, while men also feel more empathy for women.
Whether it’s homelessness (61 percent male), homicide (78 percent male victims), suicide (79 percent male), workplace fatalities (93 percent male), prison incarceration (93 percent male), or a host of other issues, men and boys do suffer. Yet according to the research of Tania Reynolds, we tend to associate agency with maleness and the capacity for victimhood with femaleness, seeing men and boys as active doers rather than as sufferers deserving concern.
As a result, we are tolerant of harsh punishments for male offenders. In 2012, Sonja Starr, a professor of law, published the results of her study (pdf) of discrepancies in criminal sentencing showing a very large gender gap in punishment of women for the same types of crimes committed by men. Starr’s extensive study found an average 63 percent sentencing gap that harshly disadvantaged men. She also discovered that “Female arrestees are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.”
The gap in punishment tends to result because we all—including prosecutors, judges, and juries—incline to the belief that women who commit crimes were led to their law-breaking behavior by others, usually men, and had limited choices in their lives because of disadvantage, poverty, mental illness, or addiction. We hesitate to deprive young children of the care of their mothers, while we are content to see fathers behind bars. As Starr points out, however, male offenders have also “suffered serious hardships, have mental health or addiction issues, have minor children, and/or have ‘followed’ others onto a criminal path.” Why are we willing to use life circumstances as mitigating factors for women but not for men?
Author Glen Poole has noted that such indifference to the male plight is built right into the stories our society tells about itself. He points out that when a large number of men are killed—whether in war, accident, or natural disaster—mainstream news sources report on people killed, making the sex of the victims invisible. It’s not news when men and boys die.
When women or girls are killed or harmed, they’re rarely if ever referred to as people. It’s news when women and girls are killed or harmed.
The only exception to this rule occurs when men or boys commit an atrocity, especially if the atrocity is committed against women or girls. Then the maleness of the perpetrators becomes part of the story. In this manner, newsmakers consistently represent men in a way that drains empathy away from them when they suffer and evokes anger and the desire to punish when they do harm. The opposite is true for women.
As a result, when approximately 93 percent of the prison population across the world is male, we have many special initiatives to reduce the impact of prison on women, but no special initiatives to reduce its impact on men.
When Boko Haram captured Nigerian girls to be forced into sex slavery in 2014, a massive protest involving First Lady Michelle Obama was joined by leaders around the world to demand their return. Yet boys were routinely captured by Boko Haram to be used as child soldiers, abused and enslaved—or killed outright—and there was no similar targeted outcry.
As Poole notes, “We are all—men and women—collectively more tolerant of the harm that happens to men and boys.”
Why does the empathy gap exist? Fifty years of feminist advocacy stressing male evil and women’s innocent victimization has had an unsurprising impact on our capacity to care about men. We are so used to thinking of women as the ones who suffer and men as the ones who cause the suffering that it’s difficult to summon compassion for men.
Feminism didn’t create such asymmetrical concern; it was already there in the DNA of our culture: “Women and children first.” Throughout human history, men have died in war and sacrificed their bodies in killing work so that women could be protected. In earlier times, the very survival of the human race was predicated on the protection of women, and concern for women became a strong cultural norm.
It should matter to us all that our society takes the suffering of our sons, brothers, fathers, and male friends with such nonchalance. On July 11, let’s reflect on the gender empathy gap and resolve to close it.
Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Her latest book is “Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.