How men can be better allies to women fighting inequality

Bestselling author Matt Haig has spent the past few days as the subject of a Twitterstorm thanks to a series of comments that have once again prompted debate on the place of men in feminism.

"There may be too many books about and by men, but not many looking at the perils of masculinity. Am I wrong?" he tweeted on 13 June, going to on to say that "we need to look at what masculinity is and why its current interpretation causes problems..."

As people began to respond, talking about the way men are harmed by society's expectations of masculinity, Haig explained that he feels 'macho' culture hurts men and that, as someone with a daughter, he feels strongly about how sexism affects women. He talked about key concerns surrounding men's mental health and how problematic ideals of masculinity are related to rates of suicide and addiction. And then he started to talk about feminism.

"Are the goals of feminism going to be reached if men are shut out of the debate?" asked Haig.

"I think it is very helpful to highlight the benefits of feminism for all. It's how you win people over," he said. And while this may have some truth, Haig found out all too quickly that this is a mindset that many feminists find frustrating. He has spent the following days bombarded by media requests, as the subject of stories claiming he has been 'crucified' by feminists for trying to talk about gender.

I certainly don't disagree with Haig that traditional masculinity is damaging. If he wants to write a book about it, and say he supports feminism in the process, I'd encourage him to go ahead. But thanks to the volatile atmosphere of Twitter, assumptions were made about his intentions and accusations were thrown all too quickly. Consequently, it wasn't long before he was on the defensive, arguably making the situation worse.

So why did Haig upset people despite his alleged best intentions? In short, he appeared to be co-opting feminism to address problems men face, despite having little experience of the movement. This looked suspiciously like an attempt to refocus issues of gender justice on the people who benefit from gender injustice the most. And whatever you believe about the toxic effects of modern masculinity on men, it needs to be understood that feminism is primarily a movement for women's liberation.

In the midst of a Twitter pile-on, it's easy for misunderstandings to happen. Quite often, we don't express ourselves in 140 characters as well as we would in a face-to-face conversation, for example, or an essay. And if, in those 140 character soundbites, men appearing to be appropriating feminism to centre themselves – it's not hard to see why Haig has been the target of such ire.

On a daily basis, women talking publicly about inequality, injustice and feminism are told that they're wrong, subjected to abusive behaviour, and patronised – usually by men. We are wary of men's motives when they involve themselves in feminist activism, because at its heart feminism should be led by women, who have first-hand experience of what gender inequality is like. And in a society where men are socialised to take charge and women to keep quiet, men can (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly) come to dominate engagement.

Haig's hurt and defensive response to the pushback against him – and the way the media has focused on the way he has been 'attacked' by feminists – illustrates the difference in the way men and women experience negativity when discussing gender inequality. While he may have been upset by the treatment he's received, his ultimate reaction was to say: "That's it. I am not a feminist because I can't be one because to talk about feminism at all is to mansplain it. I'm out."

While he has the luxury of opting out of discourse about feminism, framed as a victim in the press, women do not have this choice. We can't opt out of the disadvantages we face as women. We have to do our utmost to stop people from dismissing issues that affect women, asking instead "But what about men?". And when people disagree with what we say online, we're often subject to shocking verbal abuse.

Rather than meaning we dismiss men as our partners in fighting sexism or demonise women for 'attacking' a man with good intentions, what has happened to Matt Haig should encourage us to think about what makes a good ally. If you believe that men and women are created in God's image and that we are meant for mutuality, then there is much to be done in terms of reconciliation and dismantling of harmful norms that perpetuate inequality. It's therefore important, in discussions about women's liberation, to:

Keep women at the centre: thanks to gender stereotypes and socialisation, men often dominate space and conversation, while women are more likely to keep quiet and feel less confident about speaking out. When it comes to discussions about how gender injustice affects women, it's important to prioritise and amplify their voices, taking a step back and seeking instead to understand more. It's often said that society needs to hear more men speaking up for equality – the inference is (unfortunately) that they're more likely to be listened to. If this is the case, men can use this privilege to make sure women's voices are the ones that are heard.

Listen, learn, and spread the word: one of the most important things men can do is, having listened to and learnt from the experiences of women, talk to other men about how they can make a change together and stand against inequality (hint: it's more than using a hashtag). This means thinking about how to be proactive in their daily lives to challenge harmful behaviour.

Speak carefully: Few people are completely immune to heat-of-the-moment social media exchanges that cause offence, and we could all do well to really think about what we mean and how it comes across when we weigh in on something controversial. But speaking carefully also means avoiding 'civil' language that could sound patronising or dismissive – or apologising if that's what comes across. The temptation can be, as we've seen this week, to become defensive. Ultimately, this is unproductive.

Remember it's not about you: Men: go forth and fight against damaging stereotypes of masculinity. Organise campaigns on the theme of equality. But it's not up to women to prioritise you. Men's response to feminism is often to tell us what issues we should be focusing on instead of the ones we care about. Your concerns aren't trivial, but a movement of women isn't the best place to tackle them or to try to make them a priority.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge