1. What are masculinities?

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]).

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]).

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]).

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.


[5] Barker, G. (2007), The role of men and boys in achieving gender equality, https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/w2000/W2000%20Men%20and%20Boys%20E%20web.pdf.

[15] Barker, G. et al. (2011), Evolving Men: Initial Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Evolving-Men-Initial-Results-from-the-International-Men-and-Gender-Equality-Survey-IMAGES-1.pdf.

[6] Barker, G. et al. (2010), “Questioning gender norms with men to improve health outcomes: Evidence of impact”, Global Public Health, Vol. 5(5), pp. 539-53, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17441690902942464.

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[20] Heilman, B., G. Barker and A. Harrison (2017), The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico, https://promundoglobal.org/resources/man-box-study-young-man-us-uk-mexico/.

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[7] OECD (2019), “Engaging with men and masculinities in fragile and conflict-affected states”, OECD Development Policy Papers, No. 17, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/36e1bb11-en.

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[17] Oxford University Press (2020), Definition of manly, https://www.lexico.com/about (accessed on 26 October 2020).

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[2] Waling, A. (2019), “Problematising ‘Toxic’ and ‘Healthy’ Masculinity for Addressing Gender Inequalities”, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 34/101, pp. 362-375, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08164649.2019.1679021.


← 1. The term “real man” is used throughout this paper to denote the ideal man. While this ideal vision of manhood surely varies across contexts – both time and space – this report aims to highlight the similarities among these norms.

← 2. This paper uses the term “restrictive masculinities” to describe masculinities that confine men to their traditional role as the dominant gender group, undermining gender equality; it uses the term “gender-equitable masculinities” to describe masculinities that are supportive of gender equality and that undermine patriarchal structures and unequal gender power dynamics. See Box 1.2 for discussion on the terminology.

← 3. (Heilman, Barker and Harrison, 2017[20]) define the man box as “a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity”.

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