Student: Men Need To Feel Empowered, Too

Discussion about gender equality issues typically focus on female empowerment, but University of Chicago student Steve Saltarelli says it's time for men to have an interest group of their own. He created the "Men in Power" club to address that need. Still, critics ask whether men, and white men in particular, really need such a group.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share my thoughts on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her critics. But first it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of our program where we talk about issues that we often don't talk about very much.

Today we'll talk about efforts to address the problems of one American minority group, men. That's right, the latest census information shows that men make up 49 percent of the nation's population, which, depending on how you look at it, could make men America's largest minority. And some men say it's time for an interest group of their own. And while critics point to a history of male dominance at every level of power and influence in the U.S., men's advocates say the trends are against them in some ways, and they need their own advocates.

University of Chicago student Steve Saltarelli is one of them. He started a group called Men in Power as a campus club to address the issue. He's joining us now. We also hope to have with us Warren Farrell, the author of many books about gender equality from the male perspective, including "The Myth of Male Power." Welcome Steve, thanks for joining us.

Mr. STEVE SALTARELLI (Student, University of Chicago): Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Now Steve, do I have this right that the idea for the club started out as something a little bit more light-hearted? I'm getting that impression from the article you wrote for the Chicago Maroon. That's the University of Chicago's student newspaper, where you are a columnist, and the article seems tongue in cheek.

For example, you point out to readers that, quote, "many don't realize that men in power are all around us. In fact, the last 44 presidents have been men, including our own Barack Obama." So I'm wondering, was the idea light-hearted to begin with, and then it got serious, or were you always serious?

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, the article itself is satirical. But you know, as with any satire, you know, Swift's "A Modest Proposal," there's obviously ideas behind it. And so yeah, I've always had interest in these issues and after the article came out, there was some interest, and I got together with some of the smartest people I know, and we did some research, and we saw, you know, a real need for this group. We saw that…

MARTIN: Give me some of the research that led to your view that you need this group.

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, we saw that men had in one instance fallen behind in education. We have lower test scores, GPAs and graduation rates across the board. And we felt that men were, you know, unaware or apathetic to some of the larger social and medical realities of the world. And so we felt that they needed a voice on campus, and you know, perhaps we could address this conversation to the greater community at large.

MARTIN: Is it your view that this is something that college-age men particularly need or men in general?

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, we are particularly focused on college-aged men. We are trying to address the issues and challenges that men in society face today while at the same time providing college men with a coherent, pre-professional platform.

MARTIN: But what are those challenges? What challenges?

Mr. SALTARELLI: So for instance men, men have to deal with a lot of things such as depression is one thing that's really easy to laugh off in men. It's really easy to say, well, you know, men are depressed, how is that possible? You know, these are real people, and if we have guys going around that don't know how to talk about these feelings, that feel alienated from society, along with the external pressure that society already imposes on a lot of our young men, you know, we're breeding dysfunctional males that don't really know how to cope with the issues that they face. And this leads to a lot of the, you know, ills of the world, higher instance of domestic violence being one of them.

Men our age have higher instances of substance abuse and we - men aged 20 to 24 commit suicide at a rate that's seven times larger than the female population.

MARTIN: And Warren, I haven't forgotten about you, but Steve, I'm sure it won't shock you if I point out that only 15 or Fortune 500 CEOs are women, that only 17 of 100 United States senators are women, that there are only 76 members of Congress who are women. So from that perspective, a lot of people would say, what's the problem? Men are certainly in power. And Steve, I'm going to go - and Steve to you first, and then Warren, I'm going to ask you.

Mr. WARREN FARRELL (Author, "The Myth of Male Power"): Sure.

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, so as far as the CEOs, I mean, we think that that's reflective of a system that was in place 30 years ago in education. The type of degrees that women were getting, the type of, you know, life choices they were making, you know, there's not a lot of 24-year-old CEOs out there. And so we don't think that that's something that's going to stay - the disparity is going to remain that great in the coming future.

MARTIN: Warren, what about you? You authored the book "The Myth of Men in Power." So the same question to you. A lot of people would say, how is that a myth?

Mr. FARRELL: Yes, I define - what I'm explaining is that men have been really made themselves powerless because of the way we've defined power. We've defined power basically as feeling obligated to earn money that somebody else spends while we die sooner. And that real power is about control over your own life. And one of the great gifts of the women's movement is that during the last 30 years, 50 years actually, 30 years in particular, the women's movement has helped women move from sort of just having a role to having a choice in life, to then to having, doing their own spiritual journey to discover what values they have, who they wanted to be, and what their choices are. And psychologically, men today in 2009, are about where women were a half century ago, at about 1959 before women had, in the days when woman had roles and not opportunities.

And, but what very few people understand is that historically speaking, both sexes have had rules, roles, obligations, and responsibilities. When we first, you know, I was on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City and as I spoke all around the world, you know, people would say, wait a minute. You know, if a person who came to my audience was a grandfather or a father, she or he would say - or grandmother, she or he would say things like, you know, I don't understand this. You know, you're talking about rights but we had responsibilities in my generation. We had obligations. We didn't talk about rights. And because men in the old days had the responsibility and the obligation to earn money and suddenly we took the responsibility and obligation to earn money that led, that leads to even men today being 94 percent of the people who die in the workplace and taking - all of the hazardous jobs are dominated by men and taking 24 out of the 25 worst jobs, according to the Jobs Rated Almanac, are 85 to 100 percent male-dominated jobs.

We always look at the Fortune 500 and we say, men in power, but we don't look at the glass cellar as opposed to the glass ceiling and say, men also are the homeless, men are also the ones that are the garbage collectors. Men are also the ones dying in construction sites that aren't properly supervised for safety hazards. And so, we take men's obligation to earn money and when they do it well we blame them for having power and being oppressors. And when they don't do it all, women just don't marry men who are reading "I'm Okay, You're Okay," in the unemployment line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I need to intervene just for one minute to say...

Mr. FARRELL: Sure.

MARTIN: ...if you're just tuning in this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about whether men need their own advocacy group. And we're speaking with Steve Saltarelli. He's creating a group at the University of Chicago called Men in Power. And we're also speaking with Warren Farrell. He's the author of "The Myth of Male Power."

But Warren, we're talking about cultural factors, okay. The laws have, as I'm sure you know because you were on the board of the National Organization for Women, one of the organizations that fought to change those laws, women that, restricted women's access to credit, to own property in their own names, educational opportunities, you know, quotas. I mean we all know those, that famous story of women like, you know Sotomayor, for example, who attended law school at a time when some of the male professors wouldn't call on them and said, look, you're taking up the space that a man would have. And certainly stories that all these pioneering women have said. So these are cultural factors, not legal factors. So can't people change them through their own mindset, through their own choices?

Mr. FARRELL: Yes. Absolutely and they can change them. And, of course, cultural factors and legal factors are definitely inseparable. People have a culture that the people in that culture make laws that respond to and reinforce that culture. And so, and yes, can we change? And that's exactly the value of awareness groups and advocacy groups. You know, that's why the women's movement you know helped women say, you know - we don't just want to be slated because we're female to the world inside the home. We also want to be involved in the world outside the home.

MARTIN: But you know what, I don't hear Steve talking about that. Men in power doesn't say to me, men who want more life choices. It doesn't say to me - I mean I don't know, Steve, let's ask you this. I don't hear - you say men want less stress, that men want to be more involved in family life, men want more sort of a work-life balance. It's not like the work-life balance committee. It's the men in power. So Steve, tell me more about what you envision this committee doing and to what end? What, in fact, I'd like to hear from you. What life do you want for yourself that you think this club would help you get?

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, I think firstly, it's important to note that when we talk about men in power we're talking exactly about what Mr. FARRELL is talking about. We're not talking about power in terms of exerting some sort of will over society or over women. We're talking about power and our name is striking and designed to ask the very question that you asked Mr. FARRELL, which is, you know, aren't men already in power? And personally, I plan on attending law school. And so one of the things that we're doing is we have a pre-professional group dedicated to law. So it'll teach young men, for instance, how to apply to law school, provide us with some sort of alumni networking events.

MARTIN: Wait, you don't have those now? I mean, the University of Chicago doesn't have alumni networking events now?

Mr. SALTARELLI: Oh, we absolutely do. We're trying to tailor these sort pre-professional events to something where we think that men will be more comfortable, a more comfortable environment. I mean anyone can go to our career advising services. But the fact of the matter is that they simply don't. And so we're trying to provide those resources as well as educate men on some of the broader social issues which I touched on before.

MARTIN: Why don't they go to these events now?

Mr. SALTARELLI: I mean, it's an issue of are they comfortable walking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SALTARELLI: ...walking, in our case, across the Midway and talking to, you know, older advisors who they can't really, I don't think they really feel in touch with.

MARTIN: And they feel that's a particular problem for men as opposed to young women? You think women feel more...

Mr. SALTARELLI: No, it's a problem for both sexes and they're a lot of great women's groups on campus that are doing really good work, Women in Business is one of them. And we thought it necessary, you know, they're actually nine of them...

MARTIN: And you know, I have to ask though, that there are those who'd argue and I know you've gotten a lot of very interesting reaction to this proposal because I've been reading the blogs and the message boards that went to the article after it was published. But there are those who would argue that really the issue is that men annoyed because their entitlement is now being challenged, that they have to walk across the Midway to get these as opposed to just having people come to them. What do you think about that argument?

Mr. SALTARELLI: I don't think it's a sense of entitlement at all. I think it's a sense of a lot of resources being available to, in our case, half the campus and we're providing it to the other half.

MARTIN: What do you, I still want to ask Steve, what do you think, what life do you think you want for yourself that this group would help you get? I get the sense that you feel like there's something missing. So what is it that you envision for yourself?

Mr. SALTARELLI: Well, I absolutely, you know that's kind of a tough question to ask a college student, but I kind of, I'd absolutely love to have, you know, a workplace balance you know later in life. Not just working all day, working all day, working all day. I'd like to, you know, raise a family and be well-educated and I'd like to have, you know, other men in society that are also well-educated and balanced.

MARTIN: Warren, we only have about a minute left. Let me give you the final word here.

Mr. FARRELL: Yes. I think one of the things that men are beginning to reach for, men who are insightful and bright like Steve is, is sort of like a, what is there in my life that potentially might be missing? And what he was just beginning to put his fingers is, for example, when a man and women are a potential parent and the mom, the future mom is saying, I'm pregnant, she often generates - that she's married to a middle class man or above, three options. And her options are, do I work full-time? Do I be involved with the children full-time? Or do I do some combination of both? At the same time the man is generating three options, too. And his option number is, do I work full-time? Option number two, do I work full-time? And option number three is, do I work fill-time? And then, and so we often have - we've developed as a result of the women's movement, a multi-option women and often a no-option man, and no one even discusses that.

MARTIN: Well we've discussed it here today and I thank you for that.

Mr. FARRELL: (unintelligible) right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Warren Farrell is the author of "The Myth of Male Power." He was kind enough to join us on the line from San Francisco. We were also speaking with Steve Saltarelli. He's a Law, Letters, and Society student at the University of Chicago and the organizer of the group Men in Power and he joined us from Chicago. Gentlemen I thank you both so much.

Mr. FARRELL: You're very welcome.

Mr. SALTARELLI: Thank you very much.

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