2. Factors that influence norms around masculinities

Gender norms do not form or change in isolation. As noted in the EMERGE 2015 brief on Engendering Men, men’s support for gender equality and the extent of changes in norms of masculinity vary according to context and the roles men play: within families and social relationships; in the community as religious or cultural leaders; in the workplace as bosses and employees; as political representatives; or as teachers, doctors and other professionals (see ICRW’s 2018 report on Gender Equity and Male Engagement). Men relate to, and can change their stance on, gender equality and women’s empowerment depending upon where they are and the role they are playing. Understanding these locations and contexts is crucial if we are to change gender norms.

Changing norms is extremely challenging. Given the benefits that patriarchy bestows on men, it follows that gender equality requires men to lose their unfair privileges – a complex and dynamic process. At an individual level, it can be difficult for men (and women) to transform beliefs and practices that they have learnt from childhood. In addition, the desire and ability of men and boys (and women’s) to change depends on their broader contexts and the messages they receive from their surrounding about gender norms.

A MenEngage and UNFPA Advocacy brief argues that men can be motivated to question their deeply held beliefs by appealing to their sense of social justice and by demonstrating the change they need to make. The challenge, however, is how to speed up such change remains.

A 2014 MenEngage Alliance, UNFPA, and UN Women discussion paper notes that men’s support for gender equality is shaped by multiple and sometimes conflicting factors. It is sometimes based on self-interest, or men’s concern for their own personal well-being and relationships. It may be rooted in potentially patriarchal attitudes about protection, where men see themselves as ‘gatekeepers’ who exercise power in nearly every sphere of life. It may, however, be linked to a sense of gender justice and universal human rights. It is crucial to understand these multiple factors and to note that they are not mutually exclusive.

Changes in gender norms happen in diverse ways, with many drivers at individual, community and the institutional levels. Change may be rapid and overt, or slow (see Boudet et al., 2013). It may be easier to change norms on a smaller scale, within the home or community, than changing the same norm across an entire country or culture. Such small-scale change can be achieved through targeted programming, while norm change at a larger scale requires policy changes, as well as social and political mobilisation (including through the media and social media).

Small-scale change may, however, influence norm change at a larger scale. For example, if more men take on a greater share of caregiving tasks at home, it can create a shift in broader expectations of what men can and should do, and have an impact on the next generation of boys (see Marcus and Harper, 2014).

As well as being influenced by context and role, gender norms are also influenced by international and national social, economic and political processes and trends (see Marcus and Harper, 2014). These can either aid or constrain the positive changes made in gender norms and masculinities. As noted in the 2015 EMERGE Evidence Report, they include technological development, demographic changes, globalization, migration, growing education, situations of conflicts, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism, among others.

The IMAGES survey shows that changes in attitudes to support gender equality are more apparent among younger men, those with higher levels of education and those who live in urban areas. There are exceptions, however: more recent IMAGES research in the Middle East shows the opposite trend, with young men having more rigid attitudes than their fathers. The EMERGE Evidence Report summarizes how some such trends can influence gender norms.

  • Women’s earning and control over their income and ownership of assets has been associated with lower levels of domestic violence, and higher levels of decision-making power and mobility. However, women’s economic empowerment may also be met with resistance as it challenges established social norms. This may lead to increasing violence from men in the household, as well as a double burden for women of continuing domestic and unpaid care work on top of their paid work.
  • Peace-building and post-conflict situations provide a unique opportunity for governments to codify gender equality and engage men thoughtfully in the process. At the same time, there can be pressures to revert to pre-conflict roles once men are ‘back from fighting’. Here, it is also important to note women’s exclusion from official peace building processes.
  • Broad shifts in population growth (declining population growth rate) and fertility (reduced fertility rates, particularly among adolescent girls) have been associated with higher rates of education for girls and women, increased access to contraception and health services, opportunities to pursue activities beyond reproduction and greater labour force participation.
  • Migration can be associated with progressive shifts in gender norms. Men and women who from their homes tend to have less contact with their extended families, more access to education, and live in more diverse settings, enabling them to diverge from traditional norms. At the same time, however, migrants may face poor conditions, insecure housing, a lack of social and political support and a lack of employment. This heightens the risks to women of sexual violence, poor reproductive health services and outcomes and isolation, while putting greater pressure on men when they are unable to ‘provide’.
  • The rise of conservatism and religious fundamentalism is a critical  concern worldwide and has a major impact on gender norms. A 2007 survey by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development found that 76% of women’s rights activists see had seen an increase in religious fundamentalism over the previous 10 years. Fundamentalism reinforces patriarchy, gender inequality and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It may curb the rights for women by restricting their sexual freedom, economic autonomy, participation in public life; curtail their sexual and reproductive rights, and increase their vulnerability to violence. Religious fundamentalism may also increase the pressure on boys and men to be ‘masculine’ through enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality, dress codes, and support or participation in armed groups (see Balchin et al., 2011). It can also be embedded in institutions, such as health and education systems, that then deny services to women and girls.  
  • The media, including social media, is a strong channel for messages on gender norms and roles. They can often perpetuate unrealistic and stereotypical images of what it means to be a woman or a man and what a relationship between men and women should look like. Their influence often perpetuates certain message about gender norms, making it difficult for men and women to question these norms. However, the media can be very powerful in generating debate when they challenge accepted ways of thinking and behaving. The debates generated after a recent Gillette advertisement that promotes a new kind of positive masculinity is a case in point.

Actions that change gender norms often meet resistance, as noted in the 2015 EMERGE Evidence Report. This can result in a backlash from those in positions of power (often from men who benefit from patriarchal structures, but also from women) and can include moves to preserve traditional gender norms by reversing the progress made to promote gender equality (see Boudet et al., 2013).

Resistance may include imposing obstacles to rights, employment, curtailing sexual and reproductive autonomy, refusing to take on equal parenting responsibilities and the use of violence (see Alvarez Minte, 2013). This backlash can even come from those who are the most marginalized. Among men, sometimes the struggle to find work and the pressure to provide for the family can cause a backlash against gender equality. This can be exacerbated by rising economic and social pressures due to rapid urbanization and migration, growing inequalities and increased instability due to climate-related shocks. Men may question norms in public, but they may also simply accept them in order to get ahead.

Changes in gender norms can be contradictory. For example, parents may encourage daughters to play sport, but many find it unsettling when their sons want to play with dolls. There are more incentives for girls and women to act in ways seen as stereotypically masculine than there are for boys and men to act in ways seen as feminine. As a result, men and boys are still dealing with tremendous pressure to be ‘men’ from a very young age, which contributes to their poor physical and mental health (see Verma and Kedia, 2018).

Kedia, S. and Verma, R. 2019, Gender norms and masculinities: a topic guide. ALIGN: London