Lawmakers in Washington State may be about to lead the nation by establishing a bipartisan Commission on Boys and Men. The Commission would be the first of its kind in the U.S. Its creation would demonstrate that politicians, or at least, politicians in Olympia, are able to move beyond the zero-sum thinking that is distorting the debate over gender issues.
The new Commission on Boys and Men would complement the state’s Women’s Commission, established in 2018. The proposal for the Commission is based on the presumption that it is possible to work on the issues facing boys and men in the state – including a threefold higher risk of a death from suicide, a suspension from school, or of being unsheltered – at the same time as tackling the challenges of girls and women, including workplace sexual harassment, childcare costs and a lack of women in corporate leadership.
It is not only possible. It is necessary. Policymakers can think two thoughts at once. Policymakers can do two things at once.
This kind of proposal can elicit a strong negative reaction. The response might be something along the lines of: “Really? Boys and men are the ones who need help now?” or “It’s still a man’s world!” or “Men still have all the privilege”. These reactions are not only understandable, they are honorable. Given the history of sexism that in many ways we are still struggling to move past, this visceral opposition is natural. But having acknowledged our own discomfort and skepticism, we then need to look hard at the evidence that in fact, on many fronts, many boys and men are in trouble.
There are some issues that disproportionately impact girls and women, and it is useful to address these through a gender lens. The same is true for boys and men. For example, in Washington State:
- Boys and men are at a four times higher risk of suicide than girls and women, accounting for 79% of all suicide deaths in the state.
- 35% of boys graduate high school with at least a 3.0 GPA, compared to 51% of girls, according to a new study from the University of Washington commissioned by AIBM
- Boys are three times more likely than girls to be suspended from school
- 70% of unsheltered adults in the state are men, as well as 63% of the homeless population overall.
- Men are twice as likely to be without health insurance (13% v 7%, excluding the elderly).
- Black men face a five times higher risk of homicide than the state-wide average.
The ask being made of legislators is not to take any less seriously the ongoing challenges of many women and girls, but to take more seriously the real problems of many boys and men.
If these problems are not being addressed by mainstream institutions like the proposed Commission, they will be exploited by reactionaries, mostly likely in an online environment. As Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute, says:
“The iron rule of politics is that if there are real problems in society and responsible parties don’t deal with them, the irresponsible parties will jump on them.”
Focus areas for a new Commission on Boys and Men
Institutions with a gender-specific mission should be guided by the data, and focus on issues where, in this case, boys or men are disproportionately at a disadvantage. The legislation to create the Commission highlights the following five areas: “education; jobs, careers, and financial health; fatherhood, family, and relationships; physical and mental health; and the experience of males in the criminal justice system and other court systems.” This is a good, broad framework for the Commission’s initial work.
Like the existing Women’s Commission, the new Commission will be charged with data collection, policy advocacy, and the presentation of an annual report to the governor and relevant legislative committees, among other tasks. The proposed bill also explicitly tasks the commission to “coordinate and collaborate with the women’s commission, LGBTQ commission, human rights commission, and other commissions to address areas of mutual concern.” This mandate to collaborate is vital, given that there will be many areas of overlap. There are also other organizations that the new Commission will likely partner with, for example the Washington Fatherhood Council.
The Commission should also pay attention to the intersection of gender with both race and ethnicity and socio-economic background. In many domains, the deepest challenges are being faced by boys and men and boys of color and/or those from poorer communities. For some key data points, see our factsheet “Key Facts on Boys and Men in Washington State”.
Suicide: one of the biggest risks for young men in Washington State
One clear area of concern is the loss of life to suicide among boys and men. The loss of life to suicide is a national problem, with particularly rapid increases among young men over the last decade. For more on the national picture, see the new AIBM Research Brief, “Male Suicide: Patterns and Recent Trends”.
Suicide rates are higher in Washington State than in the U.S., but the gender gap is similar. In 2022, men accounted for 79% of all suicide deaths in the state.  Three out of four gun deaths in the state (76%) are from suicide, compared to 19% of gun deaths that are homicides.
For men under the age of 55, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state. (For women of the same age it is the 5th most common). Suicide rates are highest for American Indian/Alaska Native men and non-Hispanic white men. (For more on the intersection of race and gender in suicide risks, see our Factsheet). They are also higher in the state’s rural areas, again echoing national patterns.
Women’s Commissions Provide a Model
The legislation under consideration in Washington State draws explicit inspiration from the existing Washington State Women’s Commission, created in 2018 to “address issues relevant to the problems and needs of women, such as domestic violence, child care, child support, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, equal compensation and job pathways opportunities in employment, and the specific needs of women of color.” Washington State joined the majority of U.S. states – 36 – which have a commission or similar governmental body focused on women’s issues.
In many cases, these date back to the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s. In fact at one point, every state had a commission. In some states, these have become moribund in recent decades. In others, they have been either created or rejuvenated very recently.
In New Mexico, for example, the Commission on the Status of Women was created in 1975, but its fortunes waxed and waned between different administrations. In 2012 the Commission was defunded and effectively mothballed. In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged to reboot the Commission. With new funding and new appointees, the Commission is up and running again.
In Washington, the new Commission was created without much controversy. This was in stark contrast with its predecessor, the Washington State Women’s Council, abolished after a heated referendum campaign in 1977, just months after it was formally established as a state body.
The new Commission is led by nine commissioners and has four advisors that sit in the state legislature (two from each of the major political parties), as well as an executive director. The Commission gathers data on the status of women in Washington and produces both status reports and policy recommendations to advance the causes of women and girls.
Since its establishment, the commission has produced two biennial reports for the Governor’s Office, worked to create templates for sexual harassment policies, advocated for increased representation for women on company boards, and helped champion a new law to improve the provision of childcare. The Commission has also initiated and supported various events and programs for women across the state.
It is early days, and it is necessarily hard to evaluate the impact of these kinds of institutions. But this new small agency certainly seems to be making a positive difference on behalf of women and girls in the state, and with broad, bipartisan support.
A Proposed Agenda
The proposed Commission on Boys and Men would not be a competitor to the women’s commission but would be a complementary effort. The proposed bill explicitly tasks the commission to “coordinate and collaborate with the women’s commission, LGBTQ commission, human rights commission, and other commissions to address areas of mutual concern.” A world of floundering men is unlikely to be a world of flourishing women, or vice versa. We have to rise together.
So what would be on the agenda for the new Commission, if it is established? The initial priority will be to gather relevant data and community input on the key issues for boys and men in the state and to raise awareness among policymakers. Identifying which specific groups of boys and men are most at risk, including by race, class, and geography, is of particular importance.
Once the principal challenges have been more concretely identified, the Commission will play an important role in identifying and promoting potential solutions. For illustrative purposes, these could include:
- A push to recruit more male teachers. Currently 28% of K-12 teachers in the state are men. The good news is that this is higher than the 23% national share (down from 33% in 1980). The bad news is that it is still too low and is falling over time.
- Better vocational education and training. This could include an investment in technical high schools as well as in community colleges showing good labor market outcomes for graduating students; employer-focused apprenticeships; and “returnships” for older workers who have taken time out of the labor market or been economically displaced.
- Recruiting more male mental health professionals. Given the mental health crisis facing both young women and young men, the need for diversity in these professions is acute. Men make up a shrinking minority of workers in these fields. It’s hard to get good recent data on this (another priority for the Commission?) but based on the available research, men account for a small and shrinking share of these fields. Some indications of the challenge are that:
- Fewer than one in ten of the students in the University of Washington’s well-regarded program for Specialist School Counselors are men.
- Men accounted for 23% of the doctoral degrees in psychology awarded in the state in 2015 (and these are a requirement for professional practice).
- Only 18% of social workers are male – and just 15% of students who received a master’s in social work in the state in 2015 were male.
- There is an opportunity here for the new Commission to work with the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board and the Behavioral Health Workforce Advisory Committee to support policies to increase the number of men in these professions, many of which face labor shortages.
There are of course many other areas that the Commission might choose to focus on as well as, or indeed instead of, the ones sketched out here. That would be a matter for investigation and deliberation on the part of the Commissioners. The key goal here is to create some institutional incentives and resources to ensure greater attention to the specific challenges of boys and men in the state without, to repeat the point, undermining the necessary ongoing efforts on behalf of women and girls.
By establishing such a Commission, Washington could lead the way for other states, many of whom who are considering how to address the challenges of many boys and men. We can only hope.
Richard Reeves is president of the American Institute for Boys and Men, which he founded in 2023. His 2022 book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, was described as a “landmark” in The New York Times and named a book of the year by both The Economist and The New Yorker. This article originally appeared on the AIBM blod and is reposted with permission. Learn more about the American Institute for Men and Boys at aibm.org.