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Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women's Empowerment

Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment | en | OECD

Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment

Masculinities can either support or hinder women’s empowerment and greater gender equality. However, a lack of consistent and comparable data hinders efforts to understand and assess harmful, restrictive masculinities. This report identifies and describes ten norms of restrictive masculinities to be urgently addressed within the political, economic and private spheres. Alongside these norms the report highlights gender-equitable alternatives, which support women’s empowerment in practice. By mapping available and ideal indicators, the report provides a roadmap for efforts to measure changing norms of masculinities. In doing so, this report aims to support policies to transform masculinities by facilitating the creation of more and better data on masculine norms.


Published on March 08, 2021


Executive Summary

Masculinities are social constructs that relate to perceived notions – shared by both men and women – about how men behave and how they are expected to behave in order to be considered “real” men. They are shaped by and are part of social institutions – formal and informal laws, social norms and practices. Diverse forms of masculinities coexist across cultures, geographical locations and time, and some of these masculinities directly hinder women’s empowerment and gender equality.

“Restrictive masculinities” and their associated norms are often rigid and promote inflexible notions and expectations of what it means to be a “real” man. In contrast, other masculinities, defined in this publication as “gender-equitable masculinities”, present a more flexible alternative, permitting men to take on diverse roles and behaviours, while not limiting women’s agency. For example, gender-equitable masculinities do not define men’s role in the household as strictly providers, but rather allow for their fuller engagement in all aspects of household life, including unpaid care and domestic work. Furthermore, by acknowledging women’s economic contribution, gender-equitable masculinities support women’s broader access to education, the labour market and decision-making roles. Indeed, the masculinities that govern a society shape women’s and girls’ opportunities and constraints across all aspects of life, especially within the economic, political and private spheres.

This publication analyses norms of restrictive masculinities and provides a roadmap to measure changing norms of masculinities. It identifies ten norms of restrictive masculinities that produce direct consequences for women’s and girls’ empowerment and well-being across the economic, political and private spheres. It also provides an alternative vision of gender-equitable masculinities across these spheres. In order to facilitate gender-equitable masculinities that promote women’s empowerment and provide support towards gender equality, there is a need to equip policy makers with the tools to facilitate this transformation. One of these tools is the ability to measure masculine norms across cultures and geographies. As such, this report proposes indicators that can be used as proxies to measure and analyse changing masculinities and their impact on women’s empowerment.

Ten norms of restrictive masculinities that are directly obstructing women’s empowerment

The public sphere, especially the economic and political spheres, has historically been the domain of men. Within this sphere, there are five norms that characterise restrictive masculinities and which are widely accepted across cultures. According to these norms, a “real” man should:

  • Be the breadwinner, working for pay to provide for the material needs of the household.
  • Be financially dominant, earning more than women.
  • Work in “manly” jobs, regarding those professions that society defines as “men’s work” and not those it views as “women’s work”.
  • Be the “ideal worker”, prioritising work over all other aspects of life.
  • Be a “manly” leader, cultivating an assertive and space-occupying leadership style.

While the private or domestic sphere has traditionally been treated as the domain of women, restrictive masculinities promote male dominance within this sphere as well. In the private sphere, the five norms of restrictive masculinities entail that a “real” man should:

  • Have the final say in household decisions, positioning him at the top of a hierarchy at home.
  • Control household assets, solidifying his authority at home by controlling and administering household assets.
  • Protect and exercise guardianship of family members, directing it especially at women and girls in the family.
  • Dominate sexual and reproductive choices, initiating sexual encounters and making decisions regarding having children, birth spacing, etc.
  • Not do unpaid care and domestic work, considering this work as generally “women’s work”.

These norms of restrictive masculinities induce direct negative consequences for women and girls. In the economic sphere, for example, these norms promote the devaluation of women’s economic contribution and support the view that men’s labour is more important and valuable than women’s labour. As such, these norms justify women’s exclusion from the labour force, high-status jobs and decision-making positions. In the political sphere, these norms uphold the view that leadership is a masculine characteristic and that men inherently make better leaders than women. In the private sphere, norms defining men’s roles as decision makers minimise women’s and girls’ agency and decision-making power over their time, bodies and resources.

To facilitate social transformations towards gender-equitable masculinities, more data is key

It is increasingly clear that restrictive masculinities must be addressed in order to facilitate women’s empowerment and gender equality. With the right tools, policy makers are well positioned to accelerate the transformation of masculine norms. Data on masculinities is one of these critical tools which can provide insight into the current state of masculine norms and allow policy makers to measure the impact that actions such as policies, legal reforms and campaigns have on masculinities. For instance, with the right data, policy makers can better understand the way norms of masculinities are influencing the low uptake of paternity leave. Equipped with this knowledge, they can create campaigns, national programmes and legal changes to address these norms and promote gender-equitable masculinities, especially when it comes to care. Furthermore, data on masculinities will enable a better knowledge of the role that large-scale phenomena, such as economic crises and the Covid-19 pandemic, play in shaping masculine norms. However, data on masculinities remain unevenly available and incomplete, thus preventing comparisons across countries, regions and time. As such, there is a need for greater investment in data collection. This publication proposes a set of indicators to guide future data collection efforts and an evidence-based approach to policy making.

1. What are masculinities?


This chapter introduces and defines masculinities. It clarifies the choice of terminology used throughout this publication. The chapter also defines the scope of the report, emphasising that while masculinities can and do harm men and boys, the focus of this research is the ways in which some masculine norms negatively affect women’s empowerment. Finally, the chapter offers an overview of the report’s structure.    

Diverse forms of masculinity coexist across cultures, geographical locations and time. Masculinities are social constructions of “what it means to be a man” (Box 1.1), which vary with ethnicity, age and socio-economic background, among other factors (Kaufman, 1999[1]). Masculinities, part of social institutions themselves, can play an important role in upholding discriminatory social institutions – the laws, social norms and practices that perpetuate women’s disempowerment and gender inequality. Masculinities, and gender norms in general, are learnt in early childhood and reinforced throughout one’s life; nevertheless, they are subject to individual negotiation and choice (Waling, 2019[2]). Through individual agency, women and men can and do make different choices about their beliefs and expectations, internalising and adapting their perceptions of what it means to be a “real” man.1

Some masculinities can impede women’s empowerment while others may support it. Restrictive masculinities2 draw on a binary definition of gender and define men’s roles and responsibilities as the opposite of women’s, leading to a gender power imbalance (Connell, 1987[3])(Box 1.2). Even if very few men enact and embody all aspects of restrictive masculinities, their idealisation makes these dimensions widely normative (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005[4]). Norms of restrictive masculinities coexist with other gender-equitable masculine norms, which can be compatible and even supportive of women’s empowerment and gender equality (Barker, 2007[5]). In Brazil, for example, 43% of men believe that a man should have the final word about decisions in his home, while 53% believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook (Barker et al., 2010[6]). This suggests strong support for the gender binary and patriarchal gender norms. However, the same individuals also exhibit gender-equitable norms: 90% believe that changing diapers, giving children a bath and feeding children are not only mothers’ responsibilities, suggesting that they believe fathers should also engage in childcare (Barker et al., 2010[6]).

Box 1.1. Definition of masculinities

Masculinities encompass the various socially constructed ways of being and acting, values and expectations associated with being and becoming a man in a given society, location and temporal space. While masculinities are mostly linked with biological men and boys, they are not biologically driven and not only performed by men (OECD, 2019[7]).

Masculinities are social constructs. They are both shaped by and part of social institutions – formal and informal laws, social norms and practices. They relate to perceived notions, shared by both men and women, about how “real” men behave and, importantly, how men are expected to behave in specific settings in order to be considered “real” men. Masculinities are not innate or linked to biological maleness, but rather learnt through social interactions from early childhood into adolescence and adulthood, and transmitted from generation to generation (Schrock and Schwalbe, 2009[8]). Masculinities develop and operate at different levels, including the interpersonal, communal, institutional and societal levels.

Masculinities are diverse. Different masculinities exist across cultures, geographical locations and time periods but also within cultures and are informed by factors such as age, socio-economic background, race, and religion (Kaufman, 1999[1]). Recognising the diversity of masculinities highlights that men are not a homogeneous group and masculinities are not a “fixed, ahistorical entity” (Connell, 2014[9]).

Masculinities are hierarchically ordered according to their conformity to a masculine ideal. The extent to which men adhere to or reject an ideal set of dominant norms of masculinity influences their status in society (Connell, 1995[10]). Individuals who successfully live up to hegemonic ideals enjoy more power in society, thus generating a power imbalance between men and women and among men themselves (Waling, 2019[2]). Furthermore, men, in all of their diversity, experience power differently and often in a contradictory manner – both reaping the benefits of their privilege and experiencing “immense pain, isolation and alienation” as a result (Kaufman, 1999[1]).

Norms of masculinities can be understood as collectively shared social norms and social expectations about what men and boys do and what they ought to do (Mackie et al., 2015[11]). Social norms define what is typical (descriptive norms) and what is appropriate (injunctive norms) for members of a group (in this case men and boys) to do and be (Heise and Manji, 2016[12]). Some of the social practices that hold these norms in place are the approval or disapproval of others, which may include sanctions such as labelling, gossip, intimidation or violence (Mackie et al., 2015[11]). Individual attitudes, although not a perfect proxy, are often used as indicators of social norms (Cislaghi, Manji and Heise, 2017[13]), and are used as such throughout this publication along with data on social practices. The combination of both kinds of indicators is based on the idea that norms, once internalised, are enacted through people’s behaviours and social practices.

Since the 1990s, research, programming and policy making have reflected increasing attention to masculinities. Academic research in psychology, sociology and anthropology has studied diverse masculinities and their related norms [see (Connell, 1995[10]; Morrell, 1998[14]), among others]. The key role of men as allies of women’s empowerment has been acknowledged in international and regional agendas [the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action (BPfA); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and more], as well as in national gender strategies. Various stakeholders have promoted gender-transformative actions to enhance men’s well-being and at the same time to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Thousands of country-level programmes engaging men and boys as key agents of gender equality have been implemented, notably through the initiatives of Promundo, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and the more than 600 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of the MenEngage Alliance. These efforts have been aided by the development of surveys, including the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), which have offered evidence of these social norms and how they are among the promoters of harmful behaviours (Barker et al., 2011[15]).

Box 1.2. Terminology matters for efforts to transform restrictive masculinities

Transforming masculinities begins by using language that challenges the underlying premise of restrictive masculinities, a rigid gender binary. Rather than defining what constitutes a “real” man as the opposite of a “real” woman, the chosen terminology should refrain from relying on fixed gender roles. For this reason, this publication has selected terminology that is impact focused. Specifically, it recommends describing masculinities according to their potential effect: promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality or encouraging men to develop beliefs, behaviours and attributes which undermine these goals.

In order to describe the relationship between masculinities and gender equality, various terms have emerged in public and academic debates to indicate whether masculinities are conducive or obstructive to women’s empowerment and gender equality. Widely used dichotomous terms in this context are “toxic” versus “healthy” masculinities. Less symbolically charged terms include “traditional” as opposed to “progressive” masculinities and “negative” versus “positive” masculinities (OECD, 2019[7]). Other frequently used terms are “harmful masculinities” or “patriarchal masculinities” to describe expressions of masculinity that have adverse effects on women and men themselves. Policy discourses and academic papers have also referred to “gender-egalitarian” (OECD, 2019[7]) or “gender-equitable” versus “gender-inequitable” masculinities (Marcus, Stavropoulou and Archer-Gupta, 2018[16]). This publication has elected to use the following terminology:

  • “Gender-equitable masculinities” describes masculinities that are supportive of women’s empowerment and gender equality and that undermine patriarchal structures and unequal gender power dynamics.
  • “Restrictive masculinities” describes masculinities that confine men to their traditional role as the dominant gender group, undermining women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Beyond the adjectives used to describe masculinities, gendered language used to refer to activities, behaviours, etc. must also be addressed with care. Gendered language refers to wording such as “masculine”, “feminine”, “manly” and “womanly”, to name examples present in this paper. In particular, the distinction between masculine and manly is critical. The term “manly”, although often used synonymously with “masculine”, can also be used normatively as defined by “having or denoting those good qualities traditionally associated with men” (Oxford University Press, 2020[17]). Conversely, “masculine” lacks this normative connotation and refers to “having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men” (Oxford University Press, 2020[18]).

This publication identifies and investigates ten defining norms of restrictive masculinities across the public and private spheres that jeopardise women’s empowerment. Some persistent notions of what a “real” man should be sustain the disempowerment of women and girls and underpin inequalities in unpaid care work, parenthood, access to economic opportunities and decision-making power. This notably includes social norms dictating that a “real” man should: i) be the breadwinner, ii) be financially dominant, iii) work in “manly” jobs, iv) be the “ideal worker”, v) be a “manly” leader, vi) not do unpaid care and domestic work, vii) have the final say in household decisions, viii) control household assets, ix) protect and exercise guardianship of family members, and x) dominate sexual and reproductive choices (see Figure 1.1). Moreover, strategies to re-establish male dominance – including the use of violence – emerge, as some men feel threatened by women’s increasing political and economic rights and empowerment (Kedia and Verma, 2019[19]).

Figure 1.1. The ten norms of restrictive masculinities

Note: This is not an exhaustive list of all norms of restrictive masculinities. The objective in the creation of this list was to account for those norms which have the most significant and direct impact on the empowerment of women and girls.

This publication recognises the harm that restrictive masculinities do to men, but focuses specifically on their implications for women. Some men remain locked in the “man box”3 as they feel pressure to conform to rigid gender norms, while those who do not comply with the dominant masculine ideals are further marginalised (Connell, 1995[10]; Heilman, Barker and Harrison, 2017[20]; Waling, 2019[2]). Dominant expressions of masculinities continue to hurt the physical and psychological health of both the men who conform to them and those who cannot (Kato-Wallace et al., 2016[21]). Together, men and women have much to gain from addressing restrictive masculinities. Shifting the norms of restrictive masculinities towards gender-equitable alternatives creates flexibility. For example, where gender-equitable norms are widely accepted, men who engage in childcare or take paternity leave are not stigmatised, and their wives/partners benefit from more equal divisions of unpaid care work, having time to pursue their careers or other interests. The norms of masculinities – whether restrictive or gender equitable – that dominate in societies have tremendous implications for women’s empowerment in both the private and the economic and political spheres. This publication focuses on the norms of restrictive masculinities that directly impact the empowerment of women and girls. As such, these norms are most in need of attention from policy makers, who have the opportunity to address them.

After identifying ten norms of restrictive masculinities that require policy makers’ attention, this report suggests indicators to track progress towards more gender-equitable masculinities. To address masculinities and promote women’s empowerment, policy makers should be equipped with tools and indicators to: i) identify the norms of masculinities that are obstructive to gender equality, ii) design policies and programmes to address these norms, iii) track progress towards more gender-equitable norms and evaluate the efficiency of their actions, and, in doing so, iv) use this evidence to adjust their efforts. This implies measuring the impact of policies and programmes on women’s lives, as well as the shift in both attitudes and behaviours of the whole population, not only of men and women who participate in specific programmes. This paper is organised as follows: Chapter 2 focuses on five norms of restrictive masculinities in the economic and political spheres, while Chapter 3 identifies five norms in the private sphere. Chapter 4 suggests indicators – both “ideal” indicators and available proxies – to track progress towards gender-equitable norms of masculinities within both spheres, and concludes with forward-looking ways this research can be mobilised, such as further data collection and policy analysis.

Source: WUNRN – 15.09.2021



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