Are Men Frozen in Time? We Need to Transform rigid Masculinities


By Ravi Verma, Regional Director, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

A friend told me recently, “While I am able to fight against the rules set for me and continue my struggle to do so, I feel helpless about my father and brothers. I realise and openly acknowledge how they have also been victims of rules and norms set by what we call “Patriarchy”. Unfortunately, the rules for them have remained unchanged, they seem to have been frozen in time.”

One of the greatest oversights in recent times has been to equate gender with women and gender equality with women’s empowerment, ultimately leaving men out of the picture. This implies that masculine norms need not be questioned, and women should strive to be more like men. Evidence and data however show that thinking of gender equality as conforming to masculine norms is unhelpful for the well-being of both women and men. In fact, the norms and practices that men continue to associate with gender roles and relations seem outdated in the context of changing social expectations today.

Surveys carried out in many countries suggest that an overwhelming number of men believe that they should act tough (International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES)). For example, 86% of men in India believe that ‘to be a man, you need to be tough’, and 66% in the US, 55% in UK and 49% in Mexico believe that “men should figure out their personal problems on their own, without asking others for help”. Evidence suggests that the pressure to be tough creates taboos around help-seeking and sharing, and can lead men to live shorter lives, and suffer from poor mental health. Men, globally as well as in India, are more prone to the top 10 risk factors for mortality and morbidity, resulting in a shorter life span. A report from the World Health Organization says that men die earlier than women because they take more risks and do not see a doctor when they fall ill.

Suicide statistics reveal that men are two to four times more likely to die by suicide, although more women than men may attempt to commit suicide. Many men feel ashamed, depressed and stressed when unemployed or under-employed, due to social expectations for them to be breadwinners (IMAGES data). In India, while more women than men try to commit suicide, men are twice as likely than women to complete the act. It is also noteworthy that suicide rates in India are highest in the 15-29 age group. This is a time when boys and men are at maximum pressure to prove their masculine-related expectations (see Figure below).

Rigid Masculine Ideas

Source: Images: 2011 and Men and Preference studies: 2014

Emphasis on adapting to a man’s world is not helping anyone

We have seen a rapid and substantial decline of women’s participation in the labour force in India—from 36.7% in 2005 to less than 26% in 2018. This decline is true across economic classes and both the informal and formal sectors of the economy. In the absence of adequate support systems at home and at work, women are not able to cope with their multiple responsibilities. Men are least supportive to women in unpaid care and domestic work. Yet data show that 86.2% of men in India believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family. Meanwhile, workplaces are not women friendly and do not allow them to balance between work and life.

Transforming the idea of static masculinities is the way forward

Changing men’s ideas about gender relations and masculinities is neither straightforward nor simple. Men and boys often do not know how to deal with peer pressure or expectations. And due to fear of peer pressure, an overwhelming number condone violence against girls. In one of our gender-transformative programmes working with girls to empower them through sports, fathers did not want to be seen as supporting their daughters in sports that involved public open spaces. Fathers were conscious of the norm that girls should not play sports in public and they feared the consequences for the family’s reputation of contravening these gender norms. While in most cases a father’s refusal put an end to the conversation, other factors, including a daughter’s victory in public sports, could change a father’s mind into accepting the role of “passive supporter”. In this context, the expression “positive masculinity” for men that are supportive should be used with caution. A clear understanding of the ‘conditions’ under which men express their support to gender equality and with what level of conviction is necessary.

Despite the ambivalence towards change among men, it is nevertheless possible to enable a shift away from rigid ideas of masculinities. Research by the International Centre for Research on Women and partners identified concrete ways to challenge unhealthy expectations of what it means to be a man and transform unfair biases and practices from an early age. For the past decade we have undertaken the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) and Parivartan (in Hindi meaning transformation), which use the school environment and sport as strategies to transform traditional norms and behaviours related to manhood and violence. Both programmes showed that boys and men who were exposed to gender-transformative interventions demonstrated higher levels of gender-equitable attitudes compared to boys and men who were not. By taking part in Parivartan – an adaptation of U.S. programme Coaching Boys into Men – boys and men demonstrated improved positive bystander behaviour and intervened to reduce violence in all incidences they came across by the time of the 24-months evaluation. These findings are in line with various other promising practices globally and suggest that with the right strategy, positive change is possible.

We need to transform the ideas of rigid and static masculinity that value victory and aggression into fluid and respectful masculinities where life is not a zero-sum game but a win-win for all.