1. Introduction and key concepts


Meaningful engagement with men and boys is critical to advancing gender equality and equity, and is increasingly recognized in international development. There is a growing realisation that gender and its norms affect both girls and boys, men and women.  

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) 2018 report on Gender Equity and Male Engagement notes that men and women live within, uphold, are harmed by, and can transform, patriarchal power structures. This does not imply that they are harmed equally by patriarchy, nor does it down-plays the patriarchal power and privileges held by men. A 2014 MenEngage Alliance, UNFPA, and UN Women discussion paper states that while men usually have more agency than women, their own decisions and behaviours are shaped – and profoundly – by rigid social and cultural expectations related to masculinity.

As noted in the 2009 First Global MenEngage Symposium report, gender both creates and generates a complex social system of power imbalances that constrains the rights and choices of girls, boys, women and men. It urges us to examine the costs that men and women pay as a result for patriarchal social and gender norms and to leverage men as agents of change to challenge the structures, beliefs, practices, and institutions that sustain men’s privileges.

This thematic guide brings together evidence to unpack the concepts around gender norms and masculinities across a number of key themes.

Key concepts

Equality and equity often are used interchangeably, yet they are distinct concepts. Gender equality is defined as the same treatment of all people regardless of their gender identity; while gender equity refers to the creation of conditions of fairness that consider the diversity of all people across all genders and identities – not despite their gender, but in response to their gender. As such, gender equity is a pre-requisite for gender equality.

As well as disadvantaging women, gender norms and power dynamics also expect men to take risks, be violent, endure pain, be tough, be providers, mask their emotions, not seek help, be sexually active and aggressive, to be (or appear to be) heterosexual, and drink alcohol, as noted in the 2015 EMERGE Evidence Report.

Men experience the pressure to be ‘real men’ and to live up to the prevailing standards of masculinity by which men assess themselves and others. Some of the prevailing standards of masculinity have been organised by Promundo into what they call a ‘Man Box’. The pressure to fit into the ‘man box’ has an impact on men’s satisfaction with their lives, their self-confidence, physical and mental health, friendship and support-seeking, and their body image. It can result in risky behaviours, bullying and violence. These standards differ across societies and there are several local variations, but there are common threads running through them on what it means to be a ‘real man’.

In many societies, men still feel that their main role in the family is that of the breadwinner. When this is role is taken away from them for some reason, it can threaten their identity and make them feel incompetent (Barker, 2011) The 2011 International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) study, found that  a high percentage of men, ranging from 34 percent in Brazil to 88 percent in Mexico reported feeling stress or depression because they did not have enough income or enough work. The IMAGES study also found that men who reported stress because they had no job or not enough work were more likely to report depression, have suicidal thoughts, report having been arrested, and report the use of violence against their intimate partners.

Men’s health is another area where gender-related vulnerabilities are clearly visible (see Ragonese et al. (2019) and the ALIGN guide on this issue). WHO’s 2000 review on the health and development of adolescent boys shows that, in general, boys and young men show higher rates of mortality as a result of violence, accidents and suicide, while girls and young women show higher rates of morbidity caused by sexual and reproductive health issues.

Men have a disproportionate share of the overall disease burden as a result of ill health, according to recent data on Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY), a measure of the burden expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death (see Verma and Kedia, 2018). Much of this disease burden stems from health problems linked to the gender socialisation of boys and men around tobacco use and alcohol consumption, road traffic injuries and violence.

The roles of boys and men change over the course of their lives and the influence of these roles on men’s actions and practices changes with time and context. ICRW’s 2010 report ‘The Girl Effect: What Do Boys Have to Do with It?’ presents the following overview of the links between developmental stages, behaviours and their implications on men and boys and related programming (an area explored in this guide).

  Social development Sources of influence Where to reach them Implications for programmes Key indicators
Early adolescence Increased awareness of social norms around gender; rejection of ‘feminine’ behaviours or roles; growing importance of sports and/or competition; less able to engage in abstract thinking Parents particularly important; teachers; coaches Schools, as almost all attend in some capacity; sports programmes; other youth programmes School and sports-based programming is likely to be more effective at reaching youth; parental buy-in is crucial; programmes should focus on normative aspects of gender Understanding of social construction of gender norms and identities; identifying gender stereotypes; equal valuation of masculine and feminine traits and roles
Middle adolescence Increased individual independence; strengthening personal relationships with male peers; initial romantic relationships; sexual initiation and exploration; beginning to exhibit abstract thinking skills Peers replace parents as main source of influence (particularly male); romantic partners become more important School, though this may become less effective; sports programmes; community centres catering to young males (e.g. video game centres, Internet cafes, etc.) Working with peer groups is particularly important; sports or other shared activities may be useful as entry points; increased emphasis on intimate/sexual relationships Increased desire/ability to challenge gender stereotypes; ability to express sexuality in a manner free of stereotypes; ability to express emotions in positive and non-violent ways; de-objectification of women.
Late adolescence Established romantic relationships; sexually active; increased pressure to be economically independent Romantic partners become more influential; peers continue to be important, but less so than in middle adolescence and smaller peer groups tend to predominate Workplace becomes more important; community centres catering to older male youth (e.g. bars, sports centres) Working through employers may be a useful entry point; understanding the dynamic between romantic partners and peers is important; focus on the nature of intimate relationships particularly important Self-esteem not tied as closely to stereotypical male outcomes (number of sexual partners, aggression, fathering children, or being sole breadwinner); increased intimate partner violence (IPV); self-esteem more oriented towards provider role; more emotionally supportive relationships (both in partnerships and with peers)

The way in which gender norms play out in an individual’s life is shaped by structural factors and the social, cultural, political and economic contexts in which they live. According to ICRW and Promundo’s 2010 report, published as a part of the Men and Gender Equality Project, gender norms may vary across local contexts and interact with socio-cultural factors, including class, race, poverty level, ethnic group, age sexuality and ability. This is emphasised in ICRW’s 2018 report on Gender Equity and Male Engagement, which argues that men do not have a homogenous experience of male privilege. Men from low-income and minority groups experience relatively low power and status, even though they may still have power over the women and children in their households. The way men experience masculinity, therefore, varies in different socio-economic contexts. 

While working with men and boys to challenge gender norms, the context-specific needs and vulnerabilities of boys and men who belong to excluded or marginalised groups, including migrants, boys and men who live in conflict areas, boys and men who identify as LGBTQI+, boys and men who belong to socially excluded ethnic groups, must be considered. Boys and men who belong to such groups deal with a marked contradiction: they are told they are part of a dominant group (male), yet their context, which does not meet the standards of the dominant group, creates a sense that they lack this privilege (Kaufman, 1999).

Book traversal links for 1. Introduction and key concepts

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