Defining Male Privilege

Over the last several months, when I’ve matter-of-factly mentioned that I’m doing some thinking and writing on the topic of male privilege, I’ve almost always come up against the same response:

Huh? What’s that?

Doesn’t matter if it’s pastors or seminary students, housewives or firemen, the idea of male privilege is for the most part an utterly foreign concept. So, in this post I’ll offer what has become my working definition. It’ll be in conceptual form, and then I’ll illustrate the heck out this definition in coming posts. Here you go:

Male privilege is a system of advantage based on being male.

Short and sweet, right? Let me break it down into three parts.

First, male privilege is a systemic thing. By their nature, systems are hard to see. They’re subtle. They sort of lurk in the culture, influencing from behind the curtain. I like a quote by a writer named Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh was writing about white privilege (full article here), but I think the description is apt for the context of male privilege:

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

Next, male privilege is a system marked by a built-in advantage. There it is, systemically embedded in the culture, and yet it’s not passive. Instead, it is a system that clearly awards an advantage. In this way, male privilege is like most systems in that it has an intrinsic bias. I appreciate what Malcom Gladwell says in his book Outliers:

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only asking where they are from what we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

Finally (and obviously), the system of male privilege offers advantage to men and a simultaneous disadvantage to women. Again, it’s not like men do anything to warrant or access this advantage. It simply comes with the territory of being a male in American culture. In the coming weeks I’ll offer many examples, but given the heightened political atmosphere right now, let me offer one illustration from the realm of government:

Even though 51% of the American population are women, according to a Rutgers University survey, only 23% of elected officials across the country are women.

How do you explain that discrepancy? I submit that a major factor is our culture’s bias toward a system of advantage based on being male. Truly, you and I live in a culture marked by male privilege.

What do you think? Does this definition resonate for you? How would you define male privilege?

2 responses to “Defining Male Privilege”

  1. Tom Allen says :

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for opening this topic up and trying to make the invisible, visible. I would love to see you explore what is inside the invisible backpack and more illustrations where you point out what you see male privilege looking like in culture, ie, who gets elected. What cultures have female privilege? I wonder how the contrasts in those cultures help expose what is in the backpack of male privilege in American culture.

  2. rdixon1365 says :

    Thanks Tom. Just stay tuned for plenty of illustrations. I’ve just begun thinking more about female privilege, both in terms of pockets within American culture (such as higher education) and around the world. Thanks for stopping by!

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