• The Gender Security Project

Shifting Masculine Norms to Achieve Equality

Addressing the most pressing issues confronting equality and peace, Global Peace and Prosperity Forum hosted a virtual event entitled “Shifting Masculine Norms To Achieve Equality.” This article captures the key ideas, views, and thoughts exchanged on the event.




Moderated by Neda Salmanpour, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Global Peace and Prosperity Forum, Ms. Salmanpour noted, “Looking at global rates of violence by men against women, violent crime, war and conflict, and violence against children, it would be easy to conclude that humans, and men, in particular, are naturally violent and that violence is inevitable.” Ms. Salmanpour further remarked, “However, there is a growing body of research that supports the finding that violence is preventable, gender equality is achievable, and that there are social norms, patriarchal ideas and socialization about manhood and power dynamics that drive harmful practices in interaction not only with women but with other men. Both women and men live within patriarchal power structures, are harmed by these structures, and are responsible for transforming them.” Ms. Salmanpour noted, “However, this does not mean that men and women are harmed equally by patriarchy. Women and girls generally start from a position of disempowerment, societal constraint, internalized subordination, and lack of control over key aspects of their lives and bodies.” Ms. Salmanpour emphasized the importance of this conversation, “Deepening our understanding of the full spectrum of these power imbalances and their ripple effects enables us to address key factors to pursue and realize standards of social norms conducive to the creation of a unified and just environment that reflect the inherent nobility and innate dignity of every human being.”


In addressing the gendered operations of power and injustice, the uses to which masculinities are put in the maintenance of social hierarchies and their intersection with other systems of inequality, Mr. Vivek Rai, Deputy Director of the Civil Society Division at UN Women Headquarters in New York, and representing the Office of the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, reaffirmed the vision of the Beijing Platform for Action, that a critical piece for advancing the gender equality agenda is engaging men and boys as a necessary means to transform unequal relations of power, and the social, economic, and political institutions through which such power is structured. However, Mr. Rai noted that it was essential to conceptualize and frame working with men within feminist principles that must ground and guide this work, as at the heart of the work of transforming patriarchal masculinities is the broader efforts to secure women’s rights and gender equality. In advancing this work, Mr. Rai shared, UN Women now considered the terminology of engaging men as far too generic and at times confusing in terms of strategy and a goal, and where now building a narrative of framing transforming patriarchal masculinities to provide greater clarity on both purpose and process. Mr. Rai noted, much of the work on gender equality with engaging men and boys has focused on trying to change individual attitudes and behaviours, which should continue, but this work must be accompanied by enhanced efforts to mobilize men to challenge structures and transform the patriarchal practices and cultures of social, economic and political institutions, which is where the United Nations as an institution can play an active role. Mr. Rai emphasized “Structural change is going to be critical, if we are really going to bring about this transformative change that we are talking about.” Mr. Rai stressed the focus on intersectionality is also a crucial element in structural change and working with men and boys must also take into account intersecting marginalization. Mr. Rai then expressed the imperative of holding leaders accountable to change as central to the work of the United Nations and an outcome of deliberation from the recently concluded rounds of Generation Equality Forum. Finally, Mr. Rai concluded, “We want to build political commitment from leaders and policy makers to speak out and condemn discrimination, invest in women’s organisations, enhance law enforcement, allocate more resources to evidence-based programming, to enhance social services and support, to tackle backlash from anti-feminist and anti-women’s rights movements.” He further emphasized, “Men’s engagement must embody this macro-level accountability. Men need to call out the media, political office, spiritual and faith offices, and economic leaders on the whole issue of power imbalance and shift in power structures.”


Ms. Bathylle Missika, Head of Divisions, Networks, Partnerships and Gender at OECD Development Centre, shared the findings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in recently published report, “Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment” and highlighted the role constructs of masculine norms and ideologies determine the behaviour and actions of men and women. Ms. Missika explained understanding these social norms and the power dynamics behind them is a prerequisite for understanding individuals’ access to and distribution of resources, the ability to make decisions and the way women and men, boys and girls are affected by political, economic and social processes and institutions. For instance, Ms. Missika shared, “The norm that ‘real men’ should be the breadwinner explains the labour force gap. We call it occupational segregation. In 2017, across the 28 European Union, 43% respondents declared the most important role of a man is to earn money, and in Bulgaria up to 80% agreed to this.” Ms. Missika noted that while legal reform and responses are key factors for transformation, it is clear that the law alone is insufficient. “Laws”, Ms. Missika stressed, “are very important and indispensable, but norms are stronger. They stall progress. For instance, in Korea, there is a very generous paternity leave package, but only 20% of men have taken it. Paternity leave uptake is still very low in the world, because where OECD have data in 27 countries, 18% of respondents on average declared that a man that stays home to take care of his children is ‘less than of a man’. In Korea, that was 76% of respondents.” Ms. Missika emphasized, “You cannot change norms if the community is not on board.”


Ms. Missika further elaborated how norms have clear cross-cutting consequences. The belief that “real men” should be the breadwinner for their households, or that “real men” should not do any unpaid care work or domestic work, meant that demands of childcare, cleaning, parent/teacher conferences, caring for the elderly, fall on women’s shoulders at home. These norms are also strongly embedded within many organisations, through occupational segregation, gender pay gaps, parental leave policies. These are norms that prevent businesses from hiring women and/or promoting or fairly remunerating them. These are also norms that encourage violence against women and girls and LGTBQI+ people/sexual harassment in workplaces, norms that prioritize investments in the marketized economy over the non-market/unpaid economy (care work) and norms that perpetuate women’s underrepresentation and decision-making in the public, economic and private spheres. This model, Ms. Missika noted, “No longer works and is actually detrimental to the economy.” Ms. Missika shared the OECD is embarking on a data collection journey in selected countries with a focus on collecting three types of data, i) attitudinal, ii) practices and iii) legal frameworks, in order to assist policy makers when they develop policies that are gender equitable to measure whether transformation is taking place on the ground in political, economic and private spheres.


Mr. Gary Barker, President and CEO of Promundo-US addressed how gender norms enter the equation of violence. Mr. Barker shared, “We know that globally one in three women will experience violence from a man at some point in her life. We know the roots of that is in the ways boys are raised.” Being biologically male is not the cause of men’s power dynamics that leads to inequality and oppression, but the way we socialize boys to become men is clearly a factor. Boys and men are often raised, socialized, and/or encouraged to be violent, depending on their social surroundings and life conditions. Mr. Barker then shared, “We know that globally 80% of boys and men, as we have seen in surveys around the world, experience some physical violence from other men growing up. From data we have in the US, 5% of us experience violence from another man every month.” Mr. Barker continued, “This stew of norms is where we see the root of men’s violence. It’s perhaps seen first in the silence that we create every day about men’s violence against women. Of all the silence of other men and sometimes other women around that violence…. This violence causes harm to us as well.”


Echoing the position of UN Women on the importance of feminist work, Mr. Barker explained Promundo’s training modules, described as “gender transformative curriculum”, has been modeled on the work of feminist activists in Brazil who raised awareness of the systems of oppression and harm surrounding women and girls. Referencing the work of Promundo with educational systems, Mr. Barker explained, “Partly what we are trying to frame our work around is to say that our sons come into the world like our daughters, longing for connection, love and caring, and to be empathetic. We don’t come into the world as men, as violent. We are made so. So, I think that puts it on all of us, governments, schools, the online creators, all the spaces where boys and boyhood is made for us to let boys have that legacy of being loving, caring, human beings.” Mr. Barker expounded on the importance of engaging men in childcare and caregiving activities as it helps to develop connection and empathy. He impressed the need for bigger imagination around care work as men’s economic and political power over women is a major root for patriarchy. He noted, “It is telling that no country in the world has a policy on the books to achieve equality in care work. Even the UN documents and the Sustainable Development Goals does not say we believe we will get to the moment where men and boys will do 50% of the care work.” Mr. Barker emphasized if our aim is to shift power dynamics, then we need to address the care economy or unpaid care work, as it is a crucial part of the equation of shifting the political and economic power and control over women.


Mr. Justin Baldoni, Co-founder of Wayfarer Studios, director, producer, actor, social activist and author of the book “Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity” reflected on his own journey and shared when he first broke the code of silence on what men go through in his Ted Talk in 2017, he was initially attacked publicly by men, while privately he received messages of affirmation from men for his bravery as they too felt the same hurt and pain. Boys and man, Mr. Baldoni explained, live under intensified pressure to conform to the ideal male code from early childhood. The strains of these norms often lead to behavioural discrepancy, dysfunction and trauma in men. Seeking medical help or therapy is stigmatized for the weak, and therefore out of the question because that would mean as a man you are broken and worthless because of the pyramid scheme of patriarchy. Mr. Baldoni referred to Bell Hooks book “The Will to Change” where he mentions, “When we engage in that act of soul murder, that psychic act of self-mutilation, when we sever ourselves from our heart, we lose empathy, compassion and sensitivity, not just for others, but also for ourselves.” He noted, “The first act of violence is against ourselves.” Mr. Baldoni explained, “All that repression sits in our bodies and gets expressed in the only acceptable thing we’ve ever learned, an emotion that we can share, which is anger, rage and violence…. that’s how we prove our masculinity and our worth. Not emotional intelligence, not sensitivity, not compassion. If these things were rewarded, it would be different.” Dealing with patriarchy therefore requires dealing with the root cause, not just the symptoms. Addressing the importance of dealing with patriarchy, Mr. Baldoni emphasized, “Every ailment that plagues this world stems from an imbalance of masculinity, which means it is our most urgent issue. Everything in society has its roots in patriarchy, whether it is climate change, or violence against women.”


Mr. Baldoni reflected on his own efforts as a father to instil values which counter the negative, unhealthy norms. Mr Baldoni noted with passion, “We will always be on a journey of unlearning, so what we need is more men, in positions of power, that other men view as masculine, that other men view as successful, in the pyramid scheme of the patriarchy, to acknowledge that they have insecurities, that they struggle, that they have anxiety, that they experience depression, that they have been broken up with, that they have been cheated on, whatever. We need to show that and normalize perceived weakness, which isn’t weakness, it is actually bravery and strength, so that we can start to heal. But that has to be normalized, just like everything else we talked about.” Mr. Baldoni concluded with a quote from the Bahá’í Faith where`Abdu’l-Bahá says, “The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.” Mr. Baldoni shared, “That is what we are all working for. It is realizing that we are an amalgamation of both feminine and masculine and that is what makes us human.”


Mr. Ted Bunch, Chief Development Officer, A Call to Men reflected on the importance of understanding how masculinity intersects with other aspects of identity such as ethnicity, race, religion, ability, age, class, among others, to produce multiple masculinities and different experiences of being a man. He remarked it was important to understand intersectionality and acknowledge other forms of discrimination and disadvantage that intersect with gender inequality to help drive violence. When gender intersects with other axes of marginalization, women are more likely to experience multiple layers of discrimination. “When we look at masculinity and race,” Mr. Bunch explained, “certainly in the United States, there is clearly a difference around how white men experience race and masculinity, and black men and men of colour experience it.” He shared, “I have male privilege within my community, but I don’t have racial privilege. When we look at black women or women of colour, if we have to address working with men, we have to understand working with women of colour and what impacts them from an intersectional lens… and we need to have their voice, because that’s where the intervention needs to take place. And as we have all said, prevention is the key.” When considering intervention work, Mr. Bunch noted, it is preferable to work with the most marginalized of the marginalized first, and then move towards the less marginalized and oppressed. Mr. Bunch explained patriarchy looks the same everywhere. Women and girls are seen as having less value than men and boys. Women are seen as the property of men. Women and girls are seen as sexual objects. Mr. Bunch emphasized, “Where there is patriarchy, that’s what you will find.


And that’s why you’ll find violence against women. We’ve inherited this patriarchy in the same way in the United States and around the world, we’ve inherited racism. We are all swimming in the same water. But now the layers have been pulled back, we know we have a responsibility.” In a Call to Men” Mr. Bunch noted, “We always say, that the liberation of men is directly tied to the liberation of women.”


Mr. Bunch shared examples of the tools used by A call to Men working with boys in elementary and middle school. In “The Book of Dares”, which is 100 ways for boys to be bold, kind and brave, one example was the love dare, where boys were encouraged to express love to another man. He noted that it was very difficult for most boys and men to engage in this particular dare because of the ingrained collective socialization against expressing affection or emotion such as love for another man. Expanding on A Call to Men’s curriculum entitled “Live Respect” aimed at coaching healthy respectful manhood, Mr. Bunch shared how they seek to inculcate gender equitable behaviour, inclusion and healthy masculinity to assist boys to become their full authentic selves. He noted in one survey they conducted, where 1000 boys were interviewed, only 19% could explain what consent meant. Eight out of ten boys thought if a girl said no, she meant try harder. Mr. Bunch impressed the need for conversations about respect and values, not only with the boys but with the men in their social circles, including teachers, coaches, fathers, to help develop and sustain positive socialization of healthy manhood. Mr. Bunch concluded, each individual has a role and responsibility to translate the vision of equitable masculinity into action, as everyone is endowed with power, the capacity to influence, alter and affect the lives of those around them, whether within their family or social groups. Above all, Mr. Bunch noted, we all have the power to initiate the change from within and work from the ground up to create a better world for all.


Given the world is facing one global crisis after another, it is imperative to dismantle patriarchal norms that perpetuate a hierarchy of dominance and control in all spheres of human activity to allow transition towards collaboration and collective consultation, using individual and collective strengths of all people, in all their diversity, to work together in harmony towards common goals without coercion or domination, for the advancement of human civilization. Dismantling patriarchy will also help change entrenched structures and attitudes and liberate humanity from the scourge of discrimination, violence and conflict. Ultimately, dismantling patriarchy will empower individuals, nurture trust, enhance well-being and promote peace and prosperity for all. More significantly, shifting towards equitable gender norms will nurture and permeate the qualities of love, empathy, trust and compassion for all humanity, the hallmark of a maturing civilization, and enable the advancement of civilization towards its ultimate destiny, of unity in diversity, reflecting in deeds and not just words, the inherent nobility and innate dignity of every human being.

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