This year, I decided to “Man Up” and grow a moustache for Movember.com, helping raise awareness of men’s health issues, such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men’s suicide – https://uk.movember.com/mospace/14512175
Having lost close male friends throughout my adult life to suicide, drug addiction, prison and depression, I began to research the commonly known phrase “Toxic Masculinity”, trying to make sense of the impact traditional gender roles play within modern society and business.
Being a ‘man’ can be tough. There are rules about how you should dress, behave and present yourself; how you should deal with business, conflict and express your emotions.
Innovation Unit conducted a “Be a Man” study into toxic masculinity, violence and social media in my hometown of Manchester in 2019.
Henry Stafford states – we found time and time again expectations of ‘being a man’ have led to more and more young males finding their way into serious violent crime. We also heard how this pressure to uphold a masculine image based on strength is becoming intensified through the increasing influence of social media.
The statistics tell a clear story: perpetrators and victims of violence are overwhelming male. Nationally, 74% of offenders and 69% of victims connected with serious violent crime were male in 2018. When we look at younger males, 87% of weapon users were male 2017. In Greater Manchester, 88% of perpetrators and 74% of victims were male in 2019.
Before social media, young men had time when they could let their guard down, calm down and cool off, not having to conform to the hard man image. Now, because of the 24/7 nature of social media, there is pressure to never stop performing. To keep curating and recreating online, a public image of masculinity that is associated with violence and aggression. No escape = more pressure.
The German Sociologist Harry Brod (1987), pioneered thought about society’s expectation of individuals based upon gender, devoting much of his life to “showing people that damage to men’s psyches is the result of the power we have over everyone else.”
He described the “Real Man” as follows
“Persisting images of masculinity hold that “real men” are physically strong, aggressive, and in control of their work. Yet the structural dichotomy between manual and mental labour under capitalism means that no-one’s work fulfils all of these conditions. Manual labourers work for others at one end of the class spectrum, while management sits at a desk. Consequently, while the insecurities generated by these contradictions are personally dissatisfying to men, these insecurities also impel them to cling all the more tightly to sources of masculine identity validation offered by the system.”
Male role models are often strong athletes, superheroes, or war heroes who have gained their infamy through violent actions. Most adverts are geared towards white working-class men. Those with less access to more abstract forms of masculine validating power, like economic power or workplace authority, so the physical body and its potential for violence provide a concrete means of achieving and asserting manhood.
The “Real Man” that Brod talks about, portrayed in advertisements is almost impossible to fully achieve. So, why do males strive so hard to achieve this physically strong, aggressive, masculine persona? Is it the feeling of dissatisfaction and insecurity that make men so compelled to grasp tightly onto violent male icons?
The Australian sociologist, Raewyn Connell also theorized that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards in Masculinities (1995).
Falling short can make boys and men insecure and anxious, which might prompt them to use force in order to feel, and be seen as, dominant and in control. Male violence in this scenario doesn’t emanate from something bad or toxic that has crept into the nature of masculinity itself. Rather, it comes from these men’s social and political settings, the particularities of which set them up for inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement.
It’s important to note that depression is often created by anger turned inwards. The suicide rate amongst men in the UK was the highest for two decades in 2019, accounting for 16.9 deaths in every 100,000 – 4,303 males compared to 1,388 females.
Suicide is most common in males aged between 45-49. Interestingly, according to ONS statistics provided by the government, less than 3,000 males within this age bracket have died due to covid-19.
So, where do our sexist attitudes come from?
Are men and boys just the victims of cultural brainwashing into misogyny and aggression, requiring re-education into the “right” beliefs?
Or are these problems more deep-seated, and created by insecurities and contradictions of men’s lives under gender inequality?
The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy, it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture.
Men must ask themselves; What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a friend do I want to be? What kind of a leader do I want to be?
Business coach Jo Emerson argues that it’s not just men; “I have seen women displaying domineering, aggressive, dismissive and aggressively competitive behaviours just as much as I have seen in men,” she says. “The root of any toxic behaviour is fear.”
Emerson recommends a four-point plan to root out “Toxic Workplaces”
- Raising awareness, led from the top.
- Undertaking an audit of workplace behaviour.
- Agreeing on a plan of action; and, crucially,
- Regular reviews.
Businesses now have a role to play in redefining what masculinity needs to become, by revolting against outdated cues associated with gender.
The lowest reported industry percentage of female employees in the UK is construction at 12.5%. And given that in 2018 the charity Lighthouse Club’s research revealed that, on average, two construction workers take their lives in Britain every day, it highlights the problems of a male-dominated workplace, if left unchecked.
“Toxic masculinity plays its part in that shocking statistic,” says Adam Christopher, co-founder and director of Active Training Team (ATT) , which uses immersive and experiential programmes to reshape behaviour. “An environment full of bravado, banter and one-upmanship stops people speaking up about unsafe practices because they don’t want to be a ‘grass’. Saying ‘just man up’ is an example of belittling behaviour that stops people talking.”
ATT’s workshops empower individuals, break down systemic barriers and encourage people to start caring. Christopher continues: “We believe that how people feel informs their actions. We aim to make people aware that regardless of rank or role, if they accept responsibility for their behaviour, and the health, safety and wellbeing of themselves and others, then they are leaders, whether they’re a 16-year-old apprentice or a long-in-the-tooth veteran approaching retirement.”
Models of ‘tough’ guys behaving in kind and caring ways are scarce in the public domain. The Good Men Project seeks to address that gap. It taps into the natural nurturing drive of male partners and friends by celebrating ethical, caring actions at home, at work and in the community. Tom Matlack, the Project’s founder, maintains that “we let guys be guys, but we do it while challenging confining cultural notions of what a “real man’ must be.”
Toxic masculinity prohibits men from participating in acts of care that reinforce our human connections, interdependence, and dependencies. It’s not “manly” to care about people, care about the environment, or care about our physical, mental and emotional well-being – “MAN UP bro, have another drink!” – play the tough guy.
Altruistic acts in the interests of an ailing environment or family member give us satisfaction, not to mention the return of affection because caring is always a reciprocal affair – if you don’t give you don’t get. Everyone and everything needs care. If we don’t embed support for that care into public and private institutions, we risk our hopes for any sense of individual and collective wellbeing as humans .
If we continue limiting caring on the basis of gender, it will be impossible to create cultures of care that remind everyone how much we need one another, and how we are all worthy of care – and responsible for providing it – in 2021, we will need to care for each other more than ever.
I care. I didn’t used to. But I do now.
Please sponsor my moustache and help raise funds to combat the impact of toxic masculinity https://uk.movember.com/mospace/14512175
[email protected] – reach out if you’d like to discuss any of the issues I have raised above, or life in general – if you wake up in the morning, you’re winning!