Promoting Healthier Masculinities in Primary & Secondary Schools

I want to start with the rationale for this work. Why are we trying to promote healthy masculinities? What is the problem?

To answer that, I have to start with gender.

Gender means…

I’m using the term ‘gender’ here for the patterns of men’s and women’s lives, boys’ and girls’ lives.

Gender means: the meanings we give to being male and female, and the social organisation of men’s and women’s lives.

Now increasingly you see the term ‘gender’ used only for identity, for how people see themselves. But gender is much more than that. Gender also includes:

  • The meanings and values attached in society to being male or female;
  • The behaviours and practices which members of each category are supposed to adopt;
  • Images and representations of women and men;
  • How the lives of members of these categories are organised: social patterns of power, work, sexuality, care, and so on.

There’s a problem with the patterns of gender in society

If we look at the patterns of gender in society, we can see two problems.

The most important problem is a problem of gender inequality. A problem of a widespread pattern of gender inequality – of female disadvantage, and male advantage or privilege -  in our patterns of political power, in economic decision-making, in cultural representation, in men’s and women’s everyday lives and relations.

Some terms that get used for this pattern are gender inequality, gender injustice, patriarchy, oppression, subordination.

  • Patriarchy: A society or system characterised by men’s domination over women

And one of the bluntest expressions of this gender inequality is violence: everyday forms of sexual harassment, violence, and abuse.

Men and boys are directly implicated in this. Gender inequalities are sustained in part by men and boys – by our attitudes, behaviours, identities, and relations.

Some boys and men perpetrate sexism, harassment, and violence directly against girls and women (and indeed against other males). Other boys and men condone this, or turn a blind eye, or do nothing.

So gender inequalities are one problem. But a second problem is that, while men and boys receive various forms of unfair advantage, unearned privilege, we also pay some costs.

Boys’ and men’s own lives are limited by dominant constructions of gender. Boys and men, especially those who conform more strongly to traditional masculinity, suffer poorer health and shallower relationships. And boys and men are subject to gendered policing and abuse particularly by other males. Matt will bring us back to this later today.

I want to note two things I’m not saying here:

  • First, men and women are not equally disadvantaged by gender roles and the gender order. Men are limited, but not oppressed, as men.
  • Second, to the extent that boys and men do suffer, the problem in general is not women or feminism, but destructive and unhealthy models of masculinity.

Particular constructions of masculinity contribute to these problems

Masculinity is at stake in these two problems I’ve described, of gender inequalities and of costs to men and boys. Masculinity refers to the meanings given to be being male, and the social organisation of boys’ and men’s lives and relations. So masculinity is part of identities, behaviours, images, patterns of interaction, cultures among friends and peers, and the formal and informal workings of institutions: workplaces, sports, the government.

In any context, some versions of masculinity will be dominant – the most influential, given the most status.

Notice here that I’m defining masculinity in an open-ended way. For whatever meanings and patterns we find for men and boys. Masculinities can be healthy or unhealthy.

Now, it’s possible to imagine a context – a school, a community, a country – where the dominant version of masculity is a healthy one, based on norms of respect, equality, nurturance, and so on. But in most contexts that is not the case. In many contexts, still, dominant versions of masculinity contribute to the two problems I have described.

In many contexts, masculinity is based on dominance over women, a disdain for anything feminine, and entitlement. Boys and men are often under pressure to be strong, stoic, in control, dominant in relationships and households, competitive, aggressive, and so on.

Masculinity and the gendered drivers of violence against women

One framework that makes the connections between masculinity and violence against women very clear is the Change the Story framework. Change the Story is a national framework for violence prevention, developed by Our Watch. It is, or it should be, a bible for violence prevention. It is a very good framework.

Change the Story identifies four key drivers of men’s violence against women. A ‘driver’ is a risk factor: when it is present, then men’s domestic or sexual violence against women is more likely.

The four drivers are:

  1. Condoning of violence against women
  2. Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life
  3. Rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
  4. Male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

So what does that mean?

It means that when men:

  • live and work in contexts where domestic or sexual violence is excused, or played down, or victims are blamed;
  • When men are the dominant ones in relationships and households, and live in communities where women have less independence and autonomy and men run the show;
  • When men grow up with rigid and stereotypical gender roles;
  • When men have friends, mates, and relatives who treat women with aggression and disrespect,

Then those men are more likely to use violence against a woman themselves.

What’s clear is that particular forms of masculinity are part of this:

  • Masculine norms of sexism, of loyalty to your mates, of ‘boys will be boys’
  • Masculine practices: getting male status for sexual conquests, using pornography, ‘bros before hos’
  • And masculine structures: men’s monopoly of most political and economic power, men in charge.

Toxic. Unhealthy. Patriarchal

What do we call that particular, all-too-common version of masculinity based in dominance over women, sexual entitlement, hostility to women, homophobia, aggression, rigid stoicism, and so on?

Some people call this ‘toxic masculinity’. We could equally talk about patriarchal masculinities. Gender-inequitable masculinities. Sexist masculinities.

But whatever terms we use, it is clear that some forms of masculinity are a problem. They contribute to sexism, gender inequalities, and violence. And they limit men and boys themselves.

Yes, gender is not the whole story. But it is a central part of the story.

Healthy masculinities

So let’s turn now to the question of healthy masculinities.

In the first report on the Man Box survey, I described three tasks to promote change in dominant formations of masculinity in Australia

  1. First, let’s raise awareness of the harms of dominant masculinity or the Man Box
  2. Second, let’s weaken the cultural grip of the Man Box.
  3. Third, let’s promote healthy and ethical alternatives.

So what is it that we are trying to promote? Whether we call it ‘healthy’ or ‘positive’ or feminist masculinity or something else, there are some key qualities. And in identifying them, let’s remember those two problems with the gender order I began with, as we need to address those.

So, first, healthy masculinities must be gender-equitable. Based in equality, in respect, compassion, partnership not domination, in care for others, in non-violence.

Second, healthy masculinities must be healthy for men and boys themselves: based in self-care, empathy, purpose, and inner strength.

There are two more qualities of a healthy masculinity.

Third, healthy masculinities must be diverse. Able to accommodate and celebrate diverse, positive ways of being and acting among boys and men.

Finally, they must be non-essentialist. We cannot put forward a vision of masculinity that suggests that desirable qualities are available only to men and boys, and not also to women and girls. And part of our work must be to reduce men’s investments in being a man, in male identity. To reduce men’s and boys’ rigid, defensive opposition to femininity, and the pressure men feel to prove themselves as men.

Principles for Work with Boys and Young Men

So what does this all mean for work with boys and young men? I have written at length about how to engage boys and men in violence prevention, including in my book, free from But today, I want to highlight the principles that should guide this work.

Most efforts among boys and men, just like my talk today, share three emphases: first, a concern with sexism and gender inequalities, second a concern with men’s and boys’ own wellbeing, and third, attention to differences and inequalities among men and boys themselves. We can think of these therefore in terms of three principles.

Feminist / gender-transformative: intended to transform gender inequalities

First, violence prevention efforts among men and boys must be gender-transformative. They should be grounded in principles of gender justice, recognise the systemic gender inequalities that structure society, and seek to transform oppressive gender structures, norms, and practices. A feminist approach should be foundational to the work’s aims and agendas, its content and processes, and its structures. There is a growing emphasis in the ‘engaging men’ field on the need for interventions to be ‘gender-transformative’ – to transform gender inequalities and build more gender-equitable relations. Although the term is used in varying ways, in general it seems synonymous with the term ‘feminist’ (Flood, 2021).

This has implications for our content, our processes, and our structures.

  • Effective efforts among men and boys will have content on the gender-related factors known to drive violence perpetration. Educational programs should include content on power, patriarchal norms and inequalities, and constructions of masculinity.
  • Prevention efforts among men and boys also need gender-transformative processes. They should involve boys and men in critical reflection on masculinities and gender and seek to foster their support for gender equality and non-violence (Flood, 2019a).
  • Finally, work with men and boys requires feminist structures: it must be done in partnership with, and be accountable to, women and women’s groups. Accountability is intended to reduce the risks when we work with boys and men, of reinforcing gender inequalities, colluding with violence, or taking away resources and legitimacy from women’s rights efforts.

Committed to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives

The second principle is a commitment to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives: to address men’s and boys’ distinct needs, recognise them as stakeholders and beneficiaries, and use strengths-based or positive approaches in engaging them.

Prevention efforts among boys and men must be attentive to their distinct needs, including the challenges they may face in accessing and using support services.

We must emphasise that men and boys will benefit, in terms of their own lives, their relations with women, children, and other men, and their workplaces and communities.

Strengths-based or positive approaches are valuable in prevention work with men and boys. Efforts should acknowledge and build on men’s and boys’ existing commitments to and involvements in non-violence and equality, in particular to minimise the likelihood of defensive or hostile responses.

Intersectional: addressing diversities and inequalities

The third principle is to be intersectional: to acknowledge and respond to diversities and inequalities among men and boys.

An intersectional feminist approach recognises that gender intersects with other forms of social difference and inequality, and therefore that men in different social locations have levels of access to social resources and status. When it comes to violence, an intersectional approach highlights that men’s attitudes towards violence, men’s use of violence, and how male perpetrators are viewed and treated all are structured by multiple relations of disadvantage and privilege tied to ethnicity, class, sexuality, and nation.

This has four implications for how we actually work with men and boys.

  • First, with any population of men or boys, we must engage with their specific cultural and material conditions, including both local cultures of gender and sexuality and material and structural inequalities.
  • Second, we must address culturally specific risk and protective factors, including challenging cultural supports for violence, and building on local resources and norms in promoting non-violence and gender equality.
  • Third, prevention work should be developed in collaboration with the communities in which it is being delivered, to help ensure that it is as relevant for participants as possible.
  • More generally, violence prevention among men and boys must acknowledge intersectional disadvantages and privileges. Initiatives among men and boys from ethnic minority backgrounds and indigenous backgrounds should highlight the links between racism, sexism, and sexist violence and address common racist myths about violence.

However, an intersectional approach is relevant for any group of men or boys and not just those who are different from the dominant norm, as every boy, every man, lives a life structured by intersecting forms of privilege and disadvantage.

Final words

To make some final points

Respectful relationships education in schools is an effective and powerful strategy for violence prevention. And, it is crucial that we engage boys and young men as part of this.

We must engage boys and men to reduce their likelihood of perpetration, to harness their positive influence on other boys and men, and to address key drivers of violence.



Flood, M. (2021). Promoting Healthier Masculinities in Primary and Secondary Schools. Presentation, Promoting Healthier Masculinities in Schools Workshop, Eastern Health, Melbourne. October 27.

Note: The Powerpoint slides from this presentation can be downloaded here.

Further resources