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While in many countries such as Argentina, Benin, Colombia or India, sexual and reproductive rights have progressed, these remain under serious attack in other places. But everywhere, discussions on the definition of gender, “what it means to be a man” or how gender roles are being (re)defined are considered sensitive topics. As we approach the mid-point of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, we have in fact reached the apex of polarisation, we must ask ourselves - how did the narrative on gender equality and discriminatory social norms become so polarised?
First, the very notion of “masculinities” and how it influences gender equality is rather novel. It is also long overdue, as we have not been inclusive enough when starting to unpack the root causes of inequality. It has become urgent - if not critical - that we engage men and boys in these conversations and encourage them as drivers of change themselves. But in 2023, what does it mean “to be a man”?
Also on the Forum Network: The Confusion about Manhood is Global. Are We Ready to Talk About It? by Gary Barker, CEO and co-Founder, Equimundo Center for Masculinities and Social Justice
Men must learn to care for children, be mindful of their environmental impact, support the end of domestic violence, demand equitable workplaces, and actively contribute to the cause of gender equality. So how do we begin the conversation?
Can one still be a “real” man?
Masculinities are not synonymous with men. The concept of masculinities is socially constructed and includes how both women and men understand what it means to be a man. The recent OECD publication, Man Enough? Measuring masculine norms to promote women’s empowerment, has also helped define what masculinities are about and what data should be collected to assess norms of masculinities in the public – economic and political – and private spheres.
Furthermore, about 35% of the world’s population considers that if a woman earns more money than her husband, it is almost certain to cause problems.
The economic and political spheres have long been perceived as predominantly men’s domains, where gender disparities and rigid norms of masculinities persist. Even women themselves often think “men make better leaders than women”. Yet, traditional roles are being questioned, which brings us to consider that masculinities are an inevitable part of the gender equation. Thus, according to traditional norms of masculinity, a “real” man should:
- Be the breadwinner, which means being the main earner and provider for their family;
- Be financially dominant, making more money than women;
- Work in “manly” jobs, which often comes down to sectors seen as masculine (engineering, construction, politics…);
- Be the “ideal worker”, the one for whom work comes first whatever happens, and regardless of children, family, or health priorities;
- Be a “manly” leader, an assertive, dominant and competitive leader.
In this traditional conception of the role of men, women are confined to the private or domestic sphere but men’s power and control over decisions also often prevails there, leading to the following behaviours, accepted by both men and women. A "real” man must therefore:
- Not do any unpaid care and domestic work because it is seen as “women’s work”;
- Have the final say in household decisions and exercise power over women and other members of the household;
- Control household assets and finances;
- Protect and exercise guardianship of family members within the household;
- Dominate sexual and reproductive choices, including family planning and reproductive health.
Rigid norms of masculinities: a negative sum game
These ten norms of traditional masculinities promote a restrictive interpretation of what it means to be a ‘real’ man. The adherence to such masculinities imposes significant pressure on men and boys to conform to the ideals of manhood. Some of the restrictive masculinities in the economic sphere place a disproportionate burden on men to assume financial responsibility and reinforce the notion that men’s worth is tied to their ability to generate income. They also place unrealistic expectations on men to prioritise professional success at the expense of personal and family life. This pressure often has detrimental effects on their mental health and overall well-being. Indeed, a recent study in Europe found that men who are in a relationship where the woman is the sole breadwinner experience lower well-being compared to those in relationships where the man is the main earner or both partners work. Furthermore, about 35% of the world’s population considers that if a woman earns more money than her husband, it is almost certain to cause problems.
In other words, we have reached a point where across societies, these constructed ideals of masculinities perpetuate gender inequalities and limit women’s empowerment, whilst being detrimental to men’s wellbeing. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) finds that globally, 56% of the population believe that children will suffer when the mother is working for a pay outside the home. Some restrictive norms of masculinity in the private sphere further reinforce the unequal distribution of power in the household. This not only undermines women’s agency over their bodies and reproductive choices, but also limits women’s economic independence by devaluating their paid labour. Such norms manifest themselves even more forcefully in times of crisis, when growth slows down and/or at times of lockdown. For instance, 45% of the world’s population today thinks that when jobs are scarce, men should have priority over women.
Being a man should not be the issue. Traditional/restrictive norms are the issue.
Going beyond established norms: Promoting Gender-Equitable Masculinities
So, what are the alternatives to the status quo? First, bringing men and boys into the gender equality equation. Second, discussing and challenging norms of masculinities. Being a man should not be the issue. Traditional/restrictive norms are the issue. For both men and women. Third, identifying ways to make norms evolve towards gender-equitable or positive masculinities.
Being a man should not come hand in hand with the traditional restrictions placed on men's roles and behaviours. Instead, gender-equitable masculinities should be the other side of the coin of gender equality and involve the following dimensions:
- Having flexible and diverse roles and responsibilities, including challenging the expectation that men should solely be the breadwinners and women should be responsible for unpaid care and domestic work.
- Promoting joint decision-making and fostering norms that encourage equal participation of both partners, including recognising and valuing women's agency, while moving away from male dominance in decision-making processes.
- Engaging men and boys as allies, encouraging them to actively challenge and reject restrictive norms, and to become agents of change when it comes to gender and role equality.
By unpacking and measuring norms of masculinities, we will finally question and be able to rethink the social contract and our own societal well-being. Bringing men and boys into the gender equality equation also puts the spotlight on discussing a more equitable and inclusive society that benefits all individuals. Gender equality was always meant to be a positive sum game.
Read the full report: Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment
Masculinities can either support or hinder women’s empowerment and greater gender equality. However, a lack of consistent and comparable data hinders efforts to understand and assess harmful, restrictive masculinities. This report identifies and describes ten norms of restrictive masculinities to be urgently addressed within the political, economic and private spheres. Alongside these norms the report highlights gender-equitable alternatives, which support women’s empowerment in practice. By mapping available and ideal indicators, the report provides a roadmap for efforts to measure changing norms of masculinities. In doing so, this report aims to support policies to transform masculinities by facilitating the creation of more and better data on masculine norms.