Robert Franken is a freelance consultant for organizational culture, D&I and digital transformation based in Cologne, Germany. Robert is also the founder of an international platform for male feminists called Male Feminists Europe. Male Feminists Europe promotes the idea of male feminism across Europe to empower and engage men to join the feminism movement. Before his current profession, Robert has been CEO of tech & community startups. He is advocating in transforming businesses and societies into fairer systems and takes part in many conversations around D&I and the future of work. Robert had a deep, candid conversation with Swagata Sen about his evolution from a privileged European male to a feminist activist and advocate of gender equality.
Robert, can you please tell us a little bit about ‘‘Male Feminists Europe’, the platform you’ve co-founded with Henrik Marstal?
Male Feminists Europe was started as an attempt to reach out to men who think they should play a role in the quest for gender equality.
At the beginning of my activism, I was always thinking about what kind of conversations do we need to engage men. I had an exchange with a Danish activist, Henrik Marstal, who later became the co-founder of this platform, on how to deal with my role as a man in the conversation about gender equality. I was always struggling, wasn’t sure when I should be engaging, and when I should step back as there are already too many men represented.
Henrik said he was using his privilege as a man to criticize this very privilege. I really liked that idea because it had a tactical inclination to it. It gives the idea of how important it is to be aware of our male privilege, it forces us to think about how we can contribute, what comes from this privilege, and what kind of responsibility goes with it.
We started to look around for a platform that we could engage in. At that point, Henrik was writing in Denmark in Danish, I was writing in Germany in German. In order to cross the language barrier, I wanted to create a platform for the European audience in English. I started a blog in 2016 to provide an international platform and intellectual space for male feminists. We wanted to show men why it’s so important for them to be aware of feminist concepts and why they should be supporting these concepts in their individual networks, families, and work environments. Ever since we have had more and more men who wanted to publish their stories. It became a small platform to represent the overall idea that feminism is a concept men should relate to and should engage in.
As a man, what made you initiate and develop a project to promote feminism?
It took me a long time to realize the need to be a feminist. Usually, one’s entry point to feminism is that of experiencing discrimination or marginalization as women.
I, of course, didn’t feel any discrimination because I was a male. As a student, I had a friend who was engaged in feminism, would often tell me about her views of the patriarchal world. At first, I used to feel estranged. I couldn’t even relate to what she was saying. But over time, I got what her perspective was. I thought there was nothing wrong with her or other women who had similar views. The problem was with the system – and with us men.
After that, as I entered the professional world, looking at the careers of women and men, I realized that there was something wrong with the system. Eventually, I became the CEO of organizations, where we had a predominantly female workforce. I was confronted with their care gap related challenges and problems. Whenever there were school holidays, my female employees had to change the way they were working, they had to reorganize their working hours. I always had to engage in this conversation and all the bureaucratic stuff. At one point I told them ‘I don’t care how you work. Please organize it the way it works for you.’ They were allowed to rearrange when they needed and they highly appreciated this. Everybody was allowed to express what she or he needed.
Then there was an incident when a male colleague came to me and said that he needed time off every Wednesday afternoon for guitar lessons. At first, I was shocked but on second thought, I felt ‘why not!’ This is also an idea of how we want to make our systems flexible and fair for each and every one. And this is not necessarily related to family status or parenthood. It’s about compatibility.
This was the prequel of the later development when I got aware of all the gender gaps that we had. I realized that there were huge discrepancies in the system. I thought this was not fair and I felt compelled to engage in this debate. Then I started engaging in the conversation and started learning. The more I learned, the more I felt we needed more ways to engage not only women but also men in the gender equality conversation.
How important is men’s participation in the gender equality movement?
Unfortunately for a lot of men this discussion and debate is about them being threatened by people who want to take something away from them.
Whenever you talk about gender equality, they complain about them being shamed, blamed, and attacked. They will tell you that more men kill themselves or more men are in prison etc But these are systemic issues. If men start to understand what systemic preconditions are and how these things fit together, they can have a completely new perspective on their roles in society.
Average, successful men believe ‘‘you have only one opportunity in your life: You can get a good education, a good job, pursue a career and establish a status in life. Then – and only then – you are entitled to a family.” To me, this sounds like a very narrow one-way street. Whenever there’s an obstacle on the way, men tend to push through that obstacle as hard as possible. The results being men losing their health, their connection to themselves, to their family, to their children. Most of the time they blame others, a lot of the time they blame women. what men usually do is they expect women to take care of them. Women have been taking care of men for ages. It’s not their business.
We have a gender pay gap of 20% in Germany, which is one of the largest in Europe. We have a gender care gap of 52.4% on average, this skyrockets to 83% when there’s a child in the household. It goes way above 100% if the women are around 35 years old. The default option of caregiving in Germany is women.
We need a new narrative. A narrative of us all sitting in the same boat, creating a future, so that each and everyone can prosper. That’s the reason why I think men are key to the discussion. We need to embark on a journey towards equality – together!
Based on your lived experience, what are the cultural shifts necessary to promote gender equality?
I was raised in Germany and I’ve been living here all my life, thus my perspective is a German one, with only a few experiences from other European countries.
In Germany, as a woman, you can hardly win. If a woman pursues a career and doesn’t have children, then she is not a very enjoyable person. On the other hand, if she decides to have a family and do part-time work with some interruptions, she loses her professional and economic freedom. We have very strict gender roles in Germany.
I think we need to tackle gender roles better, we need to open the discussion around care work, we need to make sure that paid work is no longer a monolithic centerpiece around which everything else in our life has to organize.
On the corporate level, we need to look closer at men’s careers and how they make their careers. We need to challenge the status quo. We need to explain to men what privilege is and how to deal with that privilege. We need to show them that there is more to life than just careers and paid work. Of course, this is a very privileged point of view as a lot of people don’t have the choice.
But we need to make sure that the systems are changing in order to give everybody a new inclusive environment to pursue more in life than just to struggle and make ends meet. The more privileged you are, the more engaged you should be in this task. Privilege is not something to blame people for, it rather should be used as an awareness-building exercise.
What would you suggest to men be better allies? What steps should they take?
Start from your own personal experience, and try to broaden it by trying to find other perspectives on how you see the world. Engage in conversations with women – and with other men. Be vulnerable. Try to understand how the world feels like for people who are not like yourself. Try to educate yourself about intersectional concepts. Try to create awareness about your responsibility – Where in life can you make a difference? What are the micro-actions where you can have a positive effect on an everyday basis? If you want to narrow it down to make a decision, whether you want to remain part of the problem or want to become part of the solution. If it’s the latter, then you are at the beginning of a very exciting learning journey, which will bring you to expand your own repertoire and creating a totally new perspective on your life.