A row has broken out at York University after plans to mark International Men’s Day on Thursday were cancelled following an outcry from staff and students.
The university had signed up to the event, which aims to highlight issues affecting men and boys, including the high male suicide rate, men’s shorter life expectancy and “the struggles that boys can face in getting an education”.
It has since been cancelled at York after students, staff and alumni signed an open letter to the university objecting to the event. However, a number of students are campaigning to reinstate the day, and accuse the university of sending out a message that “men’s rights are not important”.
A petition has been launched, which states: “It is important that we recognise men’s day just as much as women’s day. True feminists should be fighting for gender equality for both men and women. To cancel men’s day is simply hypocritical. Equality is not just for women and should concern both genders.”
The dispute began after a statement appeared in connection with International Men’s Day in which Adrian Lee, of the university’s equality and diversity committee, said men were under-represented in some areas of the university and that women had a higher chance of being appointed to academic staff posts than men.
“In the area of gender equality, the focus has rightly been on raising awareness about – and removing barriers for – women,” Lee was quoted as saying. “We are, however, also aware of some of the specific issues faced by men. Men are under-represented in the student population as a whole; they are also significantly under-represented in a number of academic disciplines across all three faculties.
“In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men. In the professional support services, there are areas where men are significantly under-represented. Likewise in academic departments, the support staff complement is often heavily weighted towards women, with some departments employing no men at all in these roles.”
About 200 members of the university staff, students and alumni signed an open letter suggesting the reputation of the university could be damaged by aligning itself with the event.
“We believe that giving practical application to concepts of equality and diversity should be taken seriously by the university,” the letter said. “However, we do not believe that this is furthered by the promotion of International Men’s Day in general and are concerned by the particular way in which the university has chosen to do so.
“A day that celebrates men’s issues – especially those outlined in the university’s statement – does not combat inequality, but merely amplifies existing, structurally imposed, inequalities.”
Addressing claims about men’s under-representation at the university, the letter said secretarial and support work were demeaned as “women’s work” whereas men dominated senior, better-paid roles. “The statement is particularly crass in view of the fact that of the 12-strong university senior management group, three-quarters are male.”
The university later apologised. “The intention was to draw attention to some of the issues men tell us they encounter and to follow this up by highlighting in particular the availability of mental health and welfare support which we know men are sometimes reluctant to access.”
Matthew Edwards, a third-year politics student, said the university’s U-turn was shameful. He is among those calling for the event to be reinstated. “By cancelling the day entirely, they have sent out the message that men’s rights are not important, which is astonishing,” he said.
“International Men’s Day is about raising issues like the high male suicide rate, male rape and male domestic abuse; it’s about issues in education, and child-father relationships. These do not necessarily conflict with women’s rights.
“Perhaps I am a little biased given I am a male but that does not mean my points are not valid. Indeed, they are not just my points but many people’s points who are disgusted with the university’s shameful decision.”
A university spokesperson said: “We have withdrawn the original statement about International Men’s Day, and do not propose to mark this event formally. In gender equality, our main focus has been, and will continue to be, on the inequalities faced by women, such as under-representation in the professoriate.
“At the same time, we will not neglect other aspects of equality, and will take a balanced approach to all nine protected characteristics as defined in the 2010 Equality Act. Our overriding goal is to strive to treat every member of the university community with dignity and respect.”