Unpacking and Reconstructing Masculine Norms in Australia

What is the state of gender norms in Australia? To what extent are traditional norms of masculinity still dominant, and to what extent are they shifting or breaking down? Do young men agree with stereotypical constructions of masculinity, and if they do, what implications does this have for their lives and their relations with others? To answer these questions, this webinar draws on two recent Australian surveys, one among young men aged 18 to 30 and another among people in Australia. The webinar then explores how we may reconstruct masculine norms.

The text of Dr Flood's webinar is below. The slides are here. Links to the surveys and other resources are provided at the bottom of this piece.

Citation: Flood, M. (2020). Unpacking and Reconstructing Masculine Norms in Australia. The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Webinar, August 20.


1. Introduction to the area of masculinity, and to attitudes and norms

There is growing attention in Australia and around the world to the gendered attitudes, practices, and relations associated with men and boys and their implications for health, violence and gender inequality. There are various signs of this: intensified public debate over codes of masculinity, increasing scholarship on the links between masculinities and various social issues, activism and advocacy, and growing streams of health promotion self-consciously aimed at men and boys. In short, men and masculinities are on the public agenda.

There is a wealth of evidence that masculinities – the social organisation of men’s lives and relations and the meanings given to being male – are influential determinants of men’s health and wellbeing, their likelihood of perpetrating domestic and sexual violence, their involvements in fathering, their risks of suicide and a host of other issues. Given this, there is increasing interest in addressing those aspects of masculinity that are unhealthy, limiting, or dangerous and in promoting other, healthier masculinities.

One key dimension of masculinity is attitudinal – to do with men’s and women’s attitudes, their personal beliefs about manhood and gender. Another dimension, overlapping with this, is normative – to do with ‘norms’ of masculinity, that is, beliefs about what (other) men do and what is expected of men.

Various terms have been used in scholarship and popular commentary for societal expectations of men: ‘sex roles’ and ‘gender roles’, ‘sex role stereotypes’, ‘traditional masculinity’, ‘hegemonic masculinity’, and lately, ‘toxic masculinity’. Whatever term is used, it is clear that men’s conformity to masculine norms has important consequences. I’ll come back to this in a little while.

Masculinity is not comprised only of attitudes and norms. Other important dimensions of masculinity include the behaviours or practices associated with being a man, the interpersonal relations among men and between men and women and children, and the institutional and structural organisation of men’s lives. Although gender attitudes and norms are the focus of a growing range of health promotion and violence prevention efforts, to focus single-mindedly on them is to neglect the institutional and structural determinants of gender relations. Addressing masculine attitudes and norms is, nevertheless, a vital part of a wider project of change.

2. Patterns of attitudes among young men and their impact / significance

So let’s start by looking at the attitudes of young men in Australia. Note that the final slides in this presentation provide links to the full reports.

The Man Box survey is a national survey of 1,000 Australian men aged 18 to 30, completed by The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services in 2018. It gathered data about young men’s conformity to stereotypical or traditional ideas of manhood, and about their behaviour and well-being.

The survey asked men about their endorsement of a series of statements linked to seven stereotypical masculine qualities: self-sufficiency, toughness, physical attractiveness, rigid gender roles, heterosexuality and homophobia, hypersexuality, and aggression and control.

General patterns of men’s conformity to masculine norms

  • Young men’s endorsement of such qualities is higher for qualities such as strength, physical attractiveness, control over women, and breadwinning, although only one-third to one-half of young men personally endorse these qualities as being part of manhood.
    • Substantial minorities of men endorse the ideas that men should always act strong (47%), be the breadwinners in households (35%), and fight back when pushed (34%).
  • Young men’s endorsement is lower for other qualities such as avoiding household work, using violence to get respect, and hypersexuality.

What are the implications of this?

  • Endorsement of most elements identified in the ‘Man Box’ or similar measures may not be the dominant response among men. Large numbers of men may report attitudes and behaviours that depart from ostensibly ‘dominant’ notions of masculinity.
  • The most common forms of masculinity among men, therefore, may be somewhat different from those identified in the Man Box or other widely used masculinity measures. Many men’s attitudes and practices may be more egalitarian, and healthier, than those represented by the Man Box.

At the same time, young men showed a troublingly high endorsement of some patriarchal norms

  • Significant minorities of young men agreed that men should have the final say in relationships (27%) or know their partner’s movements (37%).

The impacts of men’s conformity to masculine norms

An earlier report by The Men’s Project on this data, released in 2018, documented the influence of overall conformity to masculinity. It found that

  • Young men who conform to traditional definitions of manhood are more likely to suffer harm to themselves.
  • Young men who conform to traditional definitions of manhood are more likely to do harm to others.

I won’t go into the detail now.

But in our recent report, Unpacking the Man Box, we looked at the degree to which conformity to the Man Box norms has an impact.

The 2020 study used regression analyses to determine the unique contribution of Man Box attitudes (and the separate Man Box pillars described earlier) to the behaviour and well-being of young men, including controlling for demographic factors that may also shape these.

  • A key finding of this research is that: Men’s endorsement of masculine norms has a unique and powerful influence on a large number of harmful attitudes and behaviours, over and above other possible influences.
  • Belief in rigid masculine norms was;
  • 20 times more important than demographic variables in predicting the use of physical violence, sexual harassment and online bullying
  • 11 times more accurate at predicting binge drinking
  • 10 times more accurate at predicting negative mood.

These findings should be a wake-up call to policy makers and advocates addressing these social problems to pay attention to masculinity. But they are not at all surprising. Over 500 studies over the past three decades have consistently documented that men’s belief in and conformity to masculine norms is linked to poor health outcomes.

Issue of ‘which norm’?

We also explored the impact of conformity to specific norms. We found that:

  • Some elements of traditional masculinity have far stronger relationships than others with negative outcomes, and some elements even have associations with positive outcomes.
    • While some masculine norms contribute to men’s poor health, others are protective.
    • Some masculine norms are more harmful than others. That is, they have stronger associations with men’s poor health or with men’s harmful behaviour towards others.
    • E.g., the norms of Rigid Gender Roles and Aggression and Control were the strongest predictor for most of the outcome variables, particularly the violent behaviours

Issue of ‘which outcome’?

The influence of men’s endorsement of traditional masculine norms also depends on the outcome in question. Unpacking the Man Box documents that:

  • Specific unhealthy outcomes and behaviours are shaped more by some masculine norms than others. E.g.;
    • The perpetration of violence, for example, was associated most strongly with men’s conformity to “rigid gender roles” and “aggression and control”. That is, men who agreed more with statements such as
      1. if a guy has a girlfriend or wife, he deserves to know where she is all the time
      2. men should use violence to get respect if necessary
      3. it is not good for a boy to be taught how to cook, sew, clean the house or take care of younger children
    • Suicidal thoughts were associated most strongly with men’s conformity to “hypersexuality” and “self sufficiency”. That is, men were more likely to have had suicidal thoughts in the past fortnight if they endorsed statements such as
      1. men should figure out their personal problems on their own without asking others for help.

But also: Which men in what context?

I’ve said so far we must consider two factors:

  • the specific norms (a variable- or predictor-centered perspective); and
  • the specific outcomes (an outcome-centered perspective).

There is a third factor, however; the men and their contexts. A person-centered perspective emphasises that the consequences of conformity to masculine norms differ for diverse groups of individuals.

We could extend this work by examining groups or profiles of men themselves – by examining how men themselves are clustered in terms of their endorsement of masculine norms and their participation in particular behaviours.

  • I.e., examine patterns of masculine beliefs and behaviours among men in order to identify the groups or clusters of men who engage in high-risk behaviours and the men who do not.

But in focusing attention on groups, categories, or types of men;

  • Let’s avoid racist and classist accounts of ‘other’ men;
  • Let’s avoid the notion of fixed, static categories or ‘types’ of masculinities

3. People’s attitudes to masculinity

The second survey I want to discuss also tells us about norms of masculinity in Australia. This survey, commissioned by VicHealth, is a nationally representative survey of 1,619 respondents, 16 and older. It has some differences from the first survey. It was:

  • Among men and women rather than just men;
  • All ages rather than 18-30;
  • Looked only at agreement with statements, rather than perceptions that this is the message they receive from society;
  • Didn’t collect data on behaviours or wellbeing.

The VicHealth survey gives us a stocktake of Australians’ attitudes towards men, masculinities, and gender.

Gender and attitudes

There is a continuum of gendered attitudes, from progressive to conservative

There is a continuum of attitudes towards gender, from those highly supportive of feminist or progressive understandings of gender to those highly opposed to these. The VicHealthy survey describes this continuum in terms of supporters, persuadables, and opponents.

Supporters, about one quarter of the population, show the highest levels of support for gender equality. Persuadables, about half of the population, show lower level of support, and opponents, the remaining quarter of the population, show the lowest levels – they are ‘opposed’ to typical feminist positions on men and gender.

This analysis chunks people therefore into three groups. On the ground, however, we will see more uneven, blurry patterns.

There is a consistent gender gap: Men have worse attitudes than women

This survey finds a consistent gender gap in attitudes towards gender, echoing findings in other research. Men’s attitudes to gender are consistently less progressive than women’s. This and other research finds that compared to women, men are:

  • Less supportive of principles of gender equality
  • Less likely to see sexism against women as extensive and systematic
  • More likely to endorse men’s dominance, in relationships and families

And, ironically, compared to women, men are:

  • Less aware even of the constraints of masculinity on men themselves – of the pressures on men of masculinity and the impacts of conformity to this.

Coming back to the attitudinal segments, twice as many women as men are supporters, and twice as many men as women are opponents. Looking at this the other way around, if we look just at the supporters, two-thirds of those are women. Looking just at the opponents, two-thirds are men.

Attitudes towards masculinity in Australia

So what does this national survey tell us about attitudes towards masculinity in Australia?

Beliefs about men and masculinity in general

There is widespread agreement that traditional gender stereotypes are limiting and harmful for boys and men. Most people agree that there is pressure on men to live up to traditional masculine stereotypes; that masculine expectations or outdated ideas of masculinity constrain men and prevent them from living full lives; and that traditional ideas about masculinity contribute to social problems.

Specific masculine norms

What about some specific masculine norms?

Support for traditional definitions of masculinity in terms of compulsory heterosexuality and homophobia is weak in Australia.

There is also only weak support for the patriarchal idea that men should dominate and control women in relationships, although large minorities of men and particularly young men do support this.

Gender as biologically determined or socially constructed

There is broad support for an understanding of gender as socially constructed – that boys’ and men’s lives and relations are shaped by social forces as much as they are by biology.

At the same time, there is also support for the notion of ‘natural’ differences between men and women. And there is greater endorsement of biologically essentialist and determinist ideas when presented in these biological terms instead.

Changing gender roles

There is widespread recognition of the need to open up gender roles for men, particularly because they constrain males’ own health and wellbeing.

Men’s roles in positive change

Most people agree that progress towards gender equality, and breaking free of gender stereotypes, will be good for men.

There is very high agreement, almost universal, among respondents that men can play a role in preventing violence against women.

A war on men

Finally, what about anti-feminist messages? This survey finds substantial support for some regressive attitudes, including the notions that “Criticising masculinity is unfair because most men are good and decent”, and “Men are being lectured too much about toxic masculinity.”

Anti-feminist views have a general currency among people in Australia, as this and other research finds, despite some other encouraging findings in this survey. Overall levels of sympathy with some regressive views are troublingly high, and not just among opponents, including notions of a feminist war on men and that men in general or masculinity are being unfairly criticised or tarnished.

Framing matters

Another key finding is that framing matters. How we frame messages about gender has a real impact on whether people agree with them.

When people are offered anti-feminist messages, substantial proportions of the population will endorse them. And people with pre-existing conservative views (‘opponents’) will endorse them much more than persuadables and supporters. On the other hand, when statements on gender are framed in progressive terms, the opposition agrees as much as persuadables.

Findings: Responding to frames (Dial testing)

Alongside the survey, this research involved an examination of people’s responses to specific framings of masculinity. The survey respondents were presented with five 30-second audio messages about men and masculinity, using a dial they could turn to signal their agreement or disagreement with each message as it played aloud.

Five spoken messages were used to test different framings of men and masculinity. The first four messages represent alternative ways of framing positive messages about men and masculinity, whereas the fifth represents an oppositional framing.

  1. Free Men: men and boys are restricted by masculine stereotypes and should be freed from them.
  2. Man Made: socially constructed models of manhood are unhealthy for men, and we should build new, healthier models of how to be a man.
  3. Context Matters: masculine traits are suitable for some times and places but not others, and we need more flexible models of manhood.
  4. Gender Bender: men and boys should think of themselves as people or human beings first, rather than as men.
  5. Opposition Message: men are largely good and decent, but are now being attacked and shamed.

Opponents showed the highest levels of support for the opposition message, as we would expect. But their level of support for the first four messages also is reasonably high. That is, when opponents are presented with a desirable message, they are relatively supportive of it, and only slightly less supportive than persuadables. In other words, opponents act like a persuadable audience when we put forward our case.

In turn, when persuadables are presented with an opposition message, that feminists and others are “waging a war on men” and so on, they are reasonably supportive of it. Whereas supporters very much reject it.

Wider reflections on masculinity

I want move now to some wider comments on masculinity.

Gender norms are changing, largely for the better

This data is a snapshot, of a moment in time. But other data tells us that gender norms are changing. Gender norms are changing, largely for the better.

  • There has been an increase in support for basic norms of gender equality, especially in support for women’s participation in paid work and political decision-making.
  • There is more support for men’s domination and control over decision-making in private life than in public life, and it is troubling to note that there’s been no shift in this in at least a decade.

Nevertheless, there has been an overall improvement in gender attitudes over 2009 to 2017. But also increases in some regressive attitudes.

Young men’s attitudes can be the worst of all

What about young men in particular? Where do our sons, the future men of this country, stand on these issues?

Young men (aged 16-17) show better attitudes than adult men on many issues. However, young men’s attitudes typically are far poorer, more conservative, than those of young women and adult women.

And young men have the highest levels of endorsement of men’s use of violence, homophobia, breadwinner roles, and men’s patriarchal power and control in relationships.

Men’s actual performances and negotiations of masculinity are diverse and shifting

The data I’ve described is a snapshot of attitudes towards masculinity. But let’s think for a moment about men themselves. Men’s actual performances and negotiations of masculinity are diverse and shifting, and qualitative research gives us much richer ideas of this than I’ve presented today.

Gender attitudes and norms intersect with gender practices, relations, and structures

I’ve focused today on data on attitudes and norms, but they are only part of gender. Gender also involves behaviours or practices, people’s interpersonal relations, social institutions, and social structures. So, in thinking about gender, and in seeking to foster healthier masculinities, let’s pay attention also to practices, relations, and structures.

To shift the patterns of men’s and boys’ lives, we will need to shift not only attitudes and norms, but also the social structures that sustain these.

4. Reconstructing masculine norms

We must step up the work of changing norms of masculinity in Australia. While there are promising initiatives and approaches underway, we must step up the scale and intensity of this work.

Transform gender

Above all, our task is to transform gender – to work for the transformation of gender roles and relations towards gender justice.

I identified three urgent tasks in my commentary on the first Man Box report: (1) highlight the harms of the Man Box; (2) weaken its cultural grip; and (3) promote healthy and ethical alternatives.

Extending these, we must

  • Disseminate and scale up effective initiatives to engage men and boys.
  • Build attention to masculinity in existing health promotion efforts.

Get specific

We must also ‘get specific’, doing more to address particular norms and particular men.

We must address the specific norms associated with negative outcomes among boys and men and those around them, and target interventions to the groups and contexts at highest risk of harm to themselves or others. We must also ‘get specific’ about the forms of manhood we do want. Let us develop and popularise detailed and diverse models of progressive, healthy, and feminist manhood or personhood.

Support diversity and resistance

We must turn up the volume on the facts of diversity and change in manhood. We must

  • Pay more attention to men’s and boys’ active resistance to masculine norms and relations.
  • Explore the protective or healthy value of non-conformity.
  • Push back against the pervasive policing of masculinity.

Go beyond norms

Finally, changing masculine norms is itself only one part of a wider project. Men’s and boys’ attitudes and behaviours are bound up with patterns and structures of power and inequality.

We must tackle not only the norms that express unhealthy and oppressive forms of manhood, but the institutional and structural forces that sustain these.


Resources and links

On the 2 surveys

On men and gender