As passionate advocates for gender equality, we often write about why and how women should be given an equal opportunity at all levels of leadership. In doing so we also often address how biased thinking based on traditional gender roles can hold women back. When we talk about men, we typically focus on how they can, and need to, support women in reaching gender equality.
Today we are bringing men into focus and reflecting on some of the reasons why men are also disadvantaged by traditional gender roles and how men could benefit from changing mindsets about gender stereotypes. As November 19th is International Men’s Day, we thought this would be a good time to discuss these challenges.
Societal expectations of ‘masculinity’ and its negative consequences
Which gender comes to mind when you hear the words ‘breadwinner’, ‘strong’, ‘decisive’, ‘strategic’, ‘visionary’?
Many of us would think of a male figure. In most societies men are expected to be ‘strong’, not show vulnerability or emotion and not communicate their feelings. It is no coincidence that expressions like ‘man up’ and ‘real men don’t cry’ exist in our language.
These expectations can lead to toxic masculinity. The meaning of this term has been changing and is still developing. The concept is used in academia, media and now a wide range of discussions on masculinity and refers to cultural norms that can lead to harming society and men themselves. Themes that are often associated with toxic masculinity include: mental and physical toughness, aggression, lack of displaying emotion, self-sufficiency and emotional insensitivity.
What impact can these expectations have on both boys and men?
The impact starts early in life. I had a personal experience with this. At one point I noticed that my normally polite and kind teenage boy started talking with his school mates with a certain meanness and at times in quite a confrontational manner. I was duly unimpressed and questioned him, why? His answer to me was the following: ‘If I wasn’t like this, everybody would come after me, you would just die’. In his exaggerated wording he was referring to a form of bullying.
Men are supposed to be “STRONG”. According to many research studies, men seek help for mental health issues less often than women. While men have similar issues to women with depression, they may not actually recognise some of the signs. As men are less likely to admit to themselves or others if they are feeling vulnerable, they may not seek help until it is too late[i].
According to the WHO, more than twice as many males die due to suicide than females (12.6 per 100,000 males compared with 5.4 per 100,000 females)[ii]. This is especially true for adolescent males who are at particular risk of suicide[iii]. It is also interesting to note that while statistics show more women attempt to commit suicide than men, the methods used by men are more often violent, leading to a higher death rate. Singapore statistics show similar trends with 12.9 per 100,000 males committing suicide compared with 7.7 per 100,000 females.[iv]
An additional risk factor for depression can be isolation. As most business and political leaders are men, they are more likely to experience executive isolation. While it can be argued that being in control of the company serves as a buffer to loneliness[v], isolation is still a distinct problem that CEOs face[vi]. High level male leaders may not have many people they confide in and the idea of not showing emotion and showing an external toughness can further exacerbate this loneliness.
Not all men are the same, not all individuals fit these roles and expectations. Those who don’t ‘match’ the ideal stereotype of a man also suffer as they may feel they cannot be themselves or they are inferior to others. Recognising that men are also diverse, with diverse experiences, needs and feelings is an important part of changing our mindset.
Fatherhood and Family Life
According to a McKinsey study[vii] 90 out of 187 countries in the world offer statutory paid paternity leave but in almost every country the paternity leave is significantly shorter than maternity leave. And even though in OECD countries men’s use of parental leave is increasing overall, the number of days taken is still fairly minimal. As women are still often considered to be the primary caregivers for children, men are often discouraged or even penalised for using this benefit.
Looking at Singapore, paid maternity leave is 4 months, while paid paternity leave entitlement is 2 weeks as mandated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). In 2018, The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) found that six in 10 dads in Singapore did not take their paternity leave that year.[viii]
Studies show that men who take paternity leave overwhelmingly view it as a positive experience. In addition to building a much stronger bond with their children, they report that they are also able to strengthen their relationships with their partners and feel energised in a way that positively impacts their work[vii].
The stereotypical gender expectation that it’s the mother who has to be the primary caregiver is often guiding court rulings in divorce cases and means that judges would more often give primary custody of children to the mother, at times even automatically.
There are serious consequences to all this. Men have less time with their families and are less present in their children’s lives. They cannot serve as positive role models for their children and are not able to build connections that will benefit their mental health. Giving men the chance to balance work and family commitments benefits men, women and society in general.
In a May 2021 Straits Times article Corinna Lim, Executive Director of Aware, addressed the issues of the negative norms of masculinity and called for a stop to bullying at schools, a move away from abstinence-only sex education in schools and a ‘weeding out of unhealthy practices’ within the National Service as these all contribute to the image formation of “what we believe a man should be like[ix]”.
Men, just as women, should also have more support groups. In Singapore a good example for this is Dads for Life. Men should be able and willing to share their worries and emotions in these groups where they won’t be judged.
While it’s extremely important to talk about these subjects, I wonder whether using the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is helping solve these issues as much as we would hope. Mr. Tan’s reflection[x] made me think more deeply about this:
“I have to confess that I couldn’t resonate with the term ‘toxic’, and I know this is true for many men, because what is described (as toxic) is so much a part of who we are as men.”
We all grow up with these expectations and changing the way we think about these things requires mindset shifts by all genders. We also have to be careful how this term resonates or doesn’t with men and whether using the word ‘toxic’ may sound as an attack on their identity.
In summary: We need to develop mutual understanding and empathy that these stereotypes harm both men and women at work (e.g. in leadership roles) as well as at home (e.g. in childcare).
Gender equality is only possible if we change our mindsets and give equal opportunities for all genders to share household chores, equal parent benefits and the same opportunities in the workplace. All genders, individuals, organisations as well as governments need to work together towards gender equality.
[i] BBC, Why more men than women die by suicide, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women
[ii] WHO, One in 100 deaths is by suicide, June 2021. https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2021-one-in-100-deaths-is-by-suicide
[iii] BMC Psychiatry, Expressions of masculinity and associations with suicidal ideation among young males, 2020. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s12888-020-2475-y.pdf
[v] The New York Times, Not Lonely at the Top, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/opinion/not-lonely-at-the-top.html
[vi] Forbes, Is it Truly Lonely at the Top?, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2018/09/26/is-it-lonely-at-the-top/?sh=5fa7f97369c5
[vii] McKinsey, A fresh look at paternity leave: Why the benefits extend beyond the personal, 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/a-fresh-look-at-paternity-leave-why-the-benefits-extend-beyond-the-personal#
[viii] Asia One, Why Singaporean dads aren’t taking paternity leave, 2021. https://www.asiaone.com/lifestyle/why-singaporean-dads-arent-taking-paternity-leave
[ix] Straits Times, Review national service to weed out toxic masculinity: Aware chief, 2021. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/review-national-service-to-weed-out-toxic-masculinity-aware-chief
[x] Straits Times, Both legislation and mindset shifts needed to counter toxic masculinity: IPS panel, 2021. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/both-legislation-and-mindset-shifts-needed-to-counter-toxic-masculinity-panel
Want to learn other ways to make your workplace more inclusive? Join one of our upcoming programs to build your skills and support your inclusion journey.