Dominant constructs of masculinity and gender inequality: what are they and what can be done to challenge them?
In the blog post Rosemary Morgan discusses what dominant constructs of masculinity and gender inequality are and explores some of the things that can be done to challenge them.
What does it mean to be masculine? This depends on where (and when) you live. Masculinity is a socially constructed term; its definition changing according to place and time. It is not an intrinsic characteristic, or in other words it is not developed naturally or genetically; rather it is taught and learned. The term itself relates to “perceived notions and ideals about how men should or are expected to behave in a given setting” (1, p.5). In many cultures, including the United States, masculinity often represents strength, dominance, competitiveness, independence, and aggressiveness, and men and boys are often socialized to possess these characteristics.
Within most cultures masculinity is valued over femininity and all men, regardless of race, class, and sexuality, share one thing in common – gender privilege. By the very nature of being born male they are granted access to power, resources, and position compared to women (1). In any country you do not have to go far to see male privilege – whether it is greater pay, access to career advancement opportunities and leadership positions, access to education, increased freedom, access to jobs, and better nutritional attainment.
Privilege is a fluid concept, however, and how much an individual possesses will depend on a confluence of characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, among others. A white straight male may hold a different level of privilege to a black straight male, similar to how a white gay male may hold a different level of privilege to a black gay male, or a white straight male to a white gay male. Throw socio-economic status into the mix and levels of privilege become even more blurry. Different groups of men therefore have different experiences with power and privilege, and many men themselves are oppressed due to such things as racism, homophobia, and economic exploitation (1). What is true of privilege – whatever form it takes – is that it is often assumed, taken for granted, and not recognized. Recognizing one’s privilege is uncomfortable, as it means recognizing your own unfair societal advantage over others, and sharing this advantage may be difficult and sometimes even unwanted.
Men and boys, however, do suffer as a consequence of dominant constructs of masculinity and subsequent gender roles. For example, men and boys often feel great pressure to stick to what society deems is acceptable ‘masculine’ behaviour, such as by showcasing strength and by being the breadwinner. As a result, it can be very difficult for anyone who does not fit comfortably into this mould (UNICEF 2005). This can lead to personal insecurities, especially for those who “fail to make the masculine grade”, leading to self-doubt and negative self-esteem or image, resulting in such things as anger, self-punishment, isolation, and aggression (1, p.7).
For men and boys who do behave in a socially acceptable masculine way, this can lead to serious repercussions on their health. Men, often due to the need or pressure to express their masculinity, are more likely to take more risks, get sicker, and die younger (2). For example, men are more likely to smoke, drink, get in road traffic accidents, and engage in violent behaviour with other males (2). In particular, gender notions equating “masculinity with sexual prowess, multiple sexual partners, physical aggression and dominance over women, a readiness to engage in high-risk behaviour and an unwillingness to access health services or seek emotional support, impose a terrible burden on men—a burden that, due to trying to live up to masculine constructs, puts them, their spouses, partners and children at risk” (1, p.11).
Despite the above negative repercussions of dominant masculinities faced by men, it is important to recognize that these often pale in comparison to what women, as a whole, have to face. Such masculinities subordinate women, and globally women “are more likely to be disadvantaged than men, to have less access to resources, benefits, information and decision-making, and to have fewer rights within the household and within public life” (1, p.11). Gender inequality can also have serious consequences to women’s health, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health where women often have very little say and control, and in relation to violence against women. So while it is important to recognize the different levels of power and privilege experienced by and between different groups of men, it is equally important to recognize the pervasive gender inequality that exists between men and women.
What can be done about it?
Men and boys need to be included within discussions about gender and there needs to be a greater focus on masculinities
Men are often excluded from participating in gender equality efforts, which is often seen as a women’s issue. By focusing on masculinities, the concept of gender becomes more visible and relevant for men, and makes them conscious of the fact that gender is something that also affects their lives (1). Achieving gender equality therefore needs to be recognized as not just as a women’s issue, but as an issue relevant and pertinent to both men and women. Men need to be brought into discussions about masculinities and gender equality, especially as achieving gender equality will never happen without changing both men’s and women’s lives.
The constructs of what it means to be ‘masculine’ need to be changed
Current constructs of masculinity constrain men in relation to their actions and emotions; for example, men who stand up against violence or show emotion are often regarded as weak. The current rigidity and stereotyping of masculinity limits men’s physical and mental health, as well as psychological well-being (1). There are clear benefits for men in changing current constructs of masculinity. If current constructs of masculinity were to change, for example, they would have “less risk […] in experiencing and expressing the complete range of human emotions; the ability to enjoy more intimate, trusting and respectful relations with women and other men; opportunities for sharing the care and contributing to the growth of young children; fuller, more balanced work and home lives; a richer personal life and the opportunity to be a more rounded, complete human being” (1, p.16).
Men and boys need to be made aware of the positive effects gender equality can have for them
Men and boys need to understand that giving increased advantage and power to women, or different groups of men, does not threaten their own status and advantage. Ideologies that promote unequal power relations supress both men and women; a focus on the role of men and boys in disrupting these unequal power relations and achieving gender equality not only improves the lives of both men and women, but also contributes to achieving human rights, poverty eradication, economic justice, and sustainable development (1). A more equitable world would therefore improve the lives of all – both men and women alike.
The above is just the beginning in what needs to happen to challenge dominant constructs of masculinity and gender inequality; however, it represents a good starting position. Current constructs of masculinity are harmful to both men and women, and challenging these will not only promote gender equality, but will also positively affect the lives of everyone. At the micro level this can be achieved through education, dialogue, and awareness-raising. At the macro level, policies, services, and programs combating negative constructs of masculinity and promoting gender equality can be developed and implemented. Ultimately, if real change is to occur, such action needs to happen at all levels and across of sectors of society, and needs the involvement of both men and women.
1. Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Masculinities: Male Roles and Male Involvement in the Promotion of Gender Equality. New York; 2005.
2. Hawkes S, Buse K. Gender and global health: evidence, policy, and inconvenient truths. Lancet. 2013;381(9879):1783–7.
Rosemary Morgan is a research fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs): Building Stronger Health Systems. You can reach her on twitter at @RosemaryJMorgan.
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