What does it mean to be a man? – Gary Barker © Emmanuel Polanco

What does it mean to be a man? – Gary Barker

Male stereotypes are under increasing scrutiny. Psychologist Gary Barker explains why they are harmful, and what a progressive form of masculinity could look like.

In the past few years, traditional male stereotypes have come under increasing scrutiny.

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These stereotypes often come under the term ‘Toxic masculinity’, which has been widely used to explain certain male actions and characteristics that conform to established gender roles, which do harm to both themselves or the society that they live in.

Gary Barker has a PhD in developmental psychology and studies how we raise and socialise boys and men. In the late 1990s he founded Promundo, which carries out global research into men, boys and masculinities, and recently discovered that that in the UK, this these negative stereotypes could be costing the economy an additional $3.8bn a year.

He speaks to BBC Science Focus editorial assistant Helen Glenny about why these stereotypes are harmful, and what a new, progressive form of masculinity could look like.

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Read the edited interview from BBC Science Focus Magazine

What started your interest in this area?

I witnessed a school shooting in my high school in Houston, Texas, and saw negative views around masculinity in a place that was supposed to be safe to me. Ironically, it felt safer for me to talk about masculinity in some violent parts of Latin America – where I have family ties – than it did in my own high school.

I went on to study for a PhD in developmental psychology, and in 1997 I started Promundo in Brazil, which came out of a close conversation with women’s and children’s rights activists. We realised that we could only get so far with women’s rights without engaging men, too, which led us to start looking at men’s views on gender equality and masculinity.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ keeps cropping up. What does it mean?

It’s the shorthand to refer to restrictive ideas of manhood, like if somebody threatens my honour, I’d better use violence to win it back. Or if I need help or I feel vulnerable, I don’t tell anybody about it. Or the idea that we’re emotionally suppressed, don’t emotionally connect to others, and that we’re inherently in charge. All these things, we’ve clustered together and called ‘toxic masculinities’.

We’ve tended to avoid that term more recently. While it’s a useful shorthand to those of us in progressive spaces, it immediately turns off many of the men who most need that conversation. We say ‘toxic masculinity’ and they hear ‘you think men are inherently bad’. The activist Paul Kivel came up with the term ‘the man box’ to refer to this set of restrictive ideas [because they keep men stuck within a ‘box’ of how they think they should behave]. We’ve been using that term more, as it’s more colloquial and doesn’t feel so anti-men.

Why are these ideas harmful?

That so many men in the world continue to believe these ideas is harmful at face value. But we can also look at how these ideas are associated with harmful behaviours and outcomes like binge-drinking, suicide, bullying, sexual violence, harassment, sexual health, substance use, traffic accidents. We find a strong association everywhere we look – the more you believe in these restrictive ideas about masculinity, the more likely you are to carry out those behaviours.

So it matters tremendously in terms of how men act in their daily life, and in the harm they cause to others. We all pay for it in terms of health services and other negative outcomes.

In what way?

There are lots of other factors in there, but if these restrictive norms of masculinity didn’t exist, we’ve estimated that the UK economy would have an additional $3.8bn annually, and that’s only looking at young men aged 18-30.

These costs come from the amount of traffic accidents, suicide, bullying, depression, sexual violence and binge drinking that you can attribute to harmful masculinities. We look at how much each of those six factors cost in terms of hospitalisation, lost life, lost productivity and work.

It’s a rough calculation based on health economics analysis, but we think it gives an illustration of how these things are real.

What’s ‘good’ masculinity, and what’s ‘bad’ masculinity?

In most of the world, if we ask a group of men ‘what do you think a good man is?’, they say things like honour, being true to your word, protecting and providing for those who depend on you. Sometimes the same men will hold these more positive views alongside the negative ones.

Gary Barker
Gary Barker

Research is showing just how much masculinity is performed. We can think people are judging us based on our versions of manhood. Look at the man who might pick a fight in a bar, then watch him when he gets home with his two-year-old daughter. He might be capable of tremendous connection, care and support for that vulnerable person, but push him up against a wall in a bar and he’ll feel like, ‘The only thing I can do to keep my manhood before the men who are watching me here is to pick up the bar stool or whatever else and use it.’

How can men recognise toxic masculinity in themselves?

What we do in group education spaces is try to show other ways of being a man. We might talk about how sometimes we lose our temper, or feel like we’ve got to talk over people. And we can talk about where that comes from. Maybe you saw some of that with your own father, or perhaps your own mother even reinforced that. It’s starting with the belief that more men do want to tap into what they feel is their good side.

We’ll then think about a moment when you’ve been bullied, you have bullied, or you stood there in silence when you saw somebody else bullied, even though you knew inside that the right thing to do was to speak out.

For example, think about that woman who was belittled in a meeting, and you felt you couldn’t speak out because none of the other men in the room did. Or that party where you saw the way that a group of guys were treating a woman who’d had a few too many drinks. You kind of knew what they would say if you stepped in, so you didn’t.

It’s helping guys go through those scripts that all of us have seen and getting them to say, ‘What could I do differently? And what was it that suppressed me from being the better man, the better person that I would have wanted to be?’

What sort of evidence-based solutions do we have that can tackle the problem?

We’ve got lots of evidence around group education: getting young men and adults in schools, sports clubs and workplaces to have critical discussions around masculinity. We’ve consistently found that this can drive lasting changes in attitudes and behaviours. Bystander interventions also work: training men to speak up when they see something that’s potentially harmful, whether that’s on a college campus, in school, at work. If you can get men to start doing this, then more will think that they should be speaking up, too.

We also have some growing evidence that changing the [social] structures around men can help. So, for example, with prenatal or antenatal visits, we can make the space available for men to be involved with their pregnant female partner, and then encourage them to come back for a follow-up visit for their own health needs. We’ve found that we get high percentages of men who will come back to that, more than almost any educational effort we’ve tried.

Our biggest challenge has been scaling up these promising initiatives to a big enough reach, so we actually see the needle beginning to shift, and we’ve got more guys speaking up, promoting equality, questioning harassment, and believing in healthy masculinity rather than toxic versions.

Do you think the internet is making things worse? ‘incels’ [involuntary celibates] are known to express these negative views around masculinity…

The internet is a space where you can be rude or socially unacceptable in a way that you wouldn’t in another setting. There’s a lack of social control, where you can say things without consequences. So all the things we’ve been doing in the physical, face-to-face world, we need to figure out how to do it in the virtual world, too. It’s got to be a space where we’re promoting positive behaviour – where we have guys saying, ‘Dude, that’s not okay’.

But as I mentioned before, masculinity is a performance. There might not be as many guys out there with misogynous views as we think. Research shows that if you think lots of other people around you believe something, you’re more likely to act based on what you think they believe, and so the voices of the few get amplified. The question is how do we come up with a more thoughtful analysis of just how true some narratives of the internet might be.

In the meantime, we need to oblige the biggest [social media] platforms to do more to call out cyberbullying and misogyny online. It’s slowly happening, but not nearly as much as it needs to.

What’s the end goal here?

It’s about equality and equity. As men embrace the things that feminism and gender equality have brought on, we get to be happier, healthier and more open-hearted human beings who have better intimate lives and better connections with others.

This is a better way of living, when the human beings around us are not afraid of us but see us as carers and caregiving, respectful, supportive and equitable. It doesn’t take deep science to figure out that our lives get better as men when we buy into that version of manhood, and we become better human beings for it.

  • This interview was first published in the July 2019 issue of BBC Science Focus – subscribe here.

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