Ending sexism isn’t just women’s work, Bono says

Approaching change with his arms wide open.
Approaching change with his arms wide open.
Image: AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini
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In the era of #MeToo, many men have made a point of silencing themselves—their opinions, experiences, biases, and fears—to avoid sucking airtime from women. This instinct, while well-intentioned, is paralyzing.

It hasn’t been an issue for Bono, the Irish rock star and philanthropist, who issued an urgent call to action on systemic sexism—for men as well as women—in a recent op-ed for TIME.

In 2016, Bono became the first man to ever receive Glamour’s Man of the Year award. It was an honor the lead singer of U2 accepted hesitantly, acknowledging it was “a bit ridiculous” to be recognized alongside so many exceptional women.

“I was glad that I was being offered up as a firestarter for a debate the magazine rightly wanted to have about the role of men in the fight for gender equality,” he wrote in TIME. “It seemed obvious to me that the sex who created the problem might have some responsibility for undoing it. Men can’t step back and leave it to women alone to clean up the mess we’ve made and are still making. Misogyny, violence and poverty are problems we can’t solve at half-strength, which is the way we’ve been operating for a few millennia now.”

He says he walks the walk, too, by always reminding himself of the reality that “there is nowhere on earth where women have the same opportunity as men. Nowhere.” As well as selling 170 million albums and winning 22 Grammys, Bono co-founded the volunteer-led movement ONE and corporate philanthropy program (RED); has helped facilitate $100 billion in debt cancellation for 35 of the world’s poorest countries; and persuaded the US government to pay the largest contribution ever for lifesaving AIDS drugs in Africa, as journalist Christine Amanpour wrote in a defense of Glamour’s decision to honor Bono.

More recently, Bono created Poverty is Sexist, a campaign that meticulously documents the link between poverty and gender, and is actively working to dismantle the world’s educational opportunity crisis—by which 130 million girls are denied access to schools in the world’s poorest countries:

“There isn’t just room for righteous anger at the injustice of all this, there is a need for it and for outrage at the violence–physical, emotional and legal–that perpetuates it. But there is also, in the facts, room for hope. Because the research is clear–it’s plain on the page and has been proved on the ground–that funding girls’ education isn’t charity but investment, and the returns are transformational,” Bono writes in TIME.

Give girls just one additional year of schooling and their wages go up almost 12%. Give them as much schooling as boys get and things really start changing. Closing the gender gap in education could generate $112 billion to $152 billion a year for the economies of developing countries.”

His outspoken feminism aside, Bono still admits that he, like all men, must continually reckon with their own sexism. “We’ve had a hard lesson over the past year that the march of progress is not inevitable,” he writes. “Sexism is rampant, conscious and unconscious. I’m still working on my own. Hopelessness is running high right now, and cynicism is cresting.” (This reality was made clear last month, when Bono claimed that “music has gotten very girly,” in a Rolling Stone interview. “There are some good things about that, but hip-hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment—and that’s not good,” he continued, a remark that was criticized as exclusionary, reductive, and sexist.)

Women’s ideas, needs, and experiences—especially those of women of color, whose perspectives have been systemically silenced for centuries—should undoubtedly drive the movement against misogyny. Men committed to feminism who do not listen to and follow women’s lead are not only mistaken, but destined for failure. Still, as Lindy West powerfully articulates in the New York Times, fixing sexism should not be strictly “women’s work”—nor can it be, if the movement is to be successful.

“One pervasive feature of the post-#MeToo landscape has been distraught men apologizing for their gender, fretting about old drunken hookups and begging for guidance on what they can do to help,” writes West. “O.K., fine. You know what you could do to help? Everything.”

West’s point, which Bono aptly echoes, is simple: Men created sexism. They cannot now just cower or follow. Rather, it’s men’s responsibility—especially powerful white men like Bono—to think critically about ways in which they can pool their resources and energy to empower women and girls, and crucially, to educate other men and boys about the sexist biases they surely harbor.

Actively listening to and following women, while staying active as feminist advocates in their own right requires an essential shift in mindset. It’s one Bono says he first learned from his wife, Ali Hewson, when they were teenagers: “Don’t look down at me,” Hewson told him. “But don’t look up at me either. Look across to me. I’m here.”

It’s a message all humans committed to equality ought to internalize. “It just may be that in these times, the most important thing for men and women to do is to look across to each other,” Bono concluded in TIME. “And then start moving, together, in the same direction.”