One of the more disturbing pieces of research to appear in Australia in recent weeks has shown an increased likelihood of domestic violence when women earn more than their male partners. Researchers from the Australian National University indicate that this perceived violation of gender norms is proving emotionally confronting to some men, who sense a loss of power and feel the need to use violence to reassert it.
Their research highlights what should be considered Australia’s most pressing social and political problem: male resentment.
These trends are not unique to Australia, as a similar problem has been identified in the Nordic countries. The phenomenon is known as the “Nordic Paradox” because these countries consistently rank as some of the most gender equal in terms of education, economic opportunity, pay, and political representation, yet also maintain disproportionately high levels of violence against women.
The working theory of the Nordic Paradox is that female advancement creates a male backlash.
I happen to currently be in Iceland, and here there is an added component to this problem. Not only does the country have high levels of violence against women despite — or due to — the country topping the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for the 12th year running, but there is also an institutional pushback against female advancement from the justice system, which consistently demonstrates a deep suspicion and hostility toward women who report gender-based violence.
In recognition of this, nine women (including an Australian) are attempting to sue the Icelandic state in the European Court of Human Rights for serious breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to how the justice system handled their cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.
What is most disheartening about this is that it indicates that education does not necessarily neutralize resentment toward women. If some of the most highly educated people in a country that prides itself on its progress on gender issues still maintain an instinctive animosity toward women, then humanity has an incredibly wicked problem on its hands.
The dominant aspect of this problem is that many men feel that the advances women have made with regard to rights and opportunities have come at the expense of men. There is a zero-sum understanding of human interaction that believes female advancement automatically means male disenfranchisement.
Compounding this is a feeling that social expectations that seek to set behavioral standards for men are unfair and oppressive. There is an implicit belief that men cannot be expected to be non-violent, and the household, especially, should be a space where male authority needs to be respected. This is why some Australian men find their female partners earning more than they do to be so emotionally confronting.
Australia is currently experiencing an important cultural movement where it seems like the country is finally starting to take violence against women seriously. Unfortunately, the implications of this new research into women earning more than their partners — and the lessons from Nordic countries — indicate that this might produce a significant backlash.
Here it is important to understand that this backlash may not just come in the form of greater household violence (as awful and intolerable as this should be), but also wider social and political instability through attraction to misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys, and the emergence of populist political figures who feed on male resentment.
There is a strong connection between men who seek power, control, and violence in their personal lives and support for violent and authoritarian groups and political parties. The promotion of masculine virility and hierarchical gender roles was a central feature of the fascist governments of Europe in the 20th century, and this perspective is now also creeping into the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, driving the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism in India, and propelling the fever dreams of the Republican Party in the United States.
Male resentment and status anxiety are globally destabilizing forces.
An unpalatable implication of this is that some may come to believe that both domestic and global stability may require the halting of female advancement in order to coddle bruised male egos and subdue the instability that they bring. It would be truly awful if the Australian government were to consider such an approach.
For too long women have been asked to live in subordinate social roles, to suppress their capabilities and potential in order to placate a misguided sense of male dignity. Expecting women to continue to do so because we cannot figure out a way for men to control their own volatility over a difference in salary would be an even greater kick in the teeth.