The (Hi)story behind masculinity

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

As we mark International Men’s Day this year, we have been reflecting on how what it means to be a man has dramatically evolved over the years.  The concept of masculinity has transformed from quite rigid stereotypes to a more open and inclusive understanding of all that it can mean.

Looking Back 
Recent anthropological findings have suggested that gender roles in prehistoric times were not divided in the clear-cut way we have assumed, with men as hunters and women as gatherers and care-givers. But as human society developed over the centuries, gender roles became more fixed, with men generally being in possession of resources and power, in the wider world and within marriage.

Being a man often meant fitting into specific moulds – tough, unemotional, and dominant.  These expectations were deeply rooted in society, shaping how men saw themselves.  The Industrial Revolution and prevailing Victorian attitudes added a new layer, connecting masculinity to being the primary economic provider for the family.

Time for Change 
As we moved into the mid-20th century, things started to shift.  The feminist movement challenged traditional gender roles, encouraging men to embrace qualities like empathy and sensitivity as well as demanding equal opportunities to work and economic independence for women.  If we fast-forward to the present day, we can see the impact of this movement in today’s more inclusive understanding of masculinity, which has broken free from the limitations of a binary definition.

Masculinity Today 
In the 21st century, we’re witnessing a push against toxic masculinity, the harmful idea that men should conform to unrealistic standards. Phil Cox, a Voice At The Table EDI Consultant, psychotherapist and coach, says that society’s long-established ideas of what it meant to be a man – powerful, dominant, aggressive, independent, efficient, rational, competitive, successful, in control and never vulnerable – are no longer consistent with the values that men hold today.  In truth, men value family relationships, happiness at work, openness, being loved and having purpose just as much as women do.

Thanks to the internet and social media, men are exposed to a wide variety of perspectives, challenging old norms.  Men today are more likely to express vulnerability and emotions, rejecting the notion that strength means being emotionally detached, but it’s not always easy.  Not every man lives or works in an environment where they feel psychologically safe to do so.   A new study from Deloitte and NYU, as reported by Fast Company, has found that just as many employees “cover” their true selves at work as they did ten years ago. ‘People who aren’t marginalised also cover, especially if they are perceived as having privilege: 54% of white men reported covering. “As a white man I try to avoid sharing any ‘struggles,’” one respondent wrote. This shows that men often still don’t feel able to share vulnerabilities at work.

It’s far more common for today’s man to take on a more active role in his children’s lives, undertaking (at least some of) the care of children and the domestic workload.  Involved Parenthood is being championed by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, and is something that we all need to support if we are to move towards greater equality in all spheres.

International Men’s Day  
International Men’s Day is the perfect occasion to celebrate the progress society has made in redefining masculinity.  It’s not about abandoning strength or confidence, but recognising that true masculinity comes in many forms.  It’s about embracing the unique qualities that make each man who he is.

We all need to break away from the idea that there’s only one way to be a man.  It’s important to appreciate and respect the diverse expressions of masculinity, whether it’s strength combined with compassion – or any other unique blend.

So, as we mark International Men’s Day, let’s celebrate the men who challenge stereotypes and redefine what it means to be masculine.  Let’s appreciate the diverse qualities that make each man extraordinary and to continue fostering an inclusive society where everyone, regardless of gender, can be their authentic selves.

Suggested Reading

What Gender Equality Can Do For Men

A Look At Gender Equity