By David Bartlett
David Bartlett is an internationally-known freelance consultant, researcher and trainer on gender equality, masculinities and fatherhood. He works with statutory and third sector organisations and businesses to support strategic approaches to promoting gender justice and positive masculinities.
It’s International Men’s Day this Friday, 19th November. Had you heard?! Well, most people still have not….but it is getting bigger every year, and represents an important opportunity to explore and support all that is – and should be – positive about being a man.
According to the official IMD website, the 6 “Pillars” of International Men’s Day are:
- To promote positive male role models
- To celebrate men’s positive contributions to society
- To focus on men’s health and wellbeing
- To highlight discrimination against men
- To improve gender relations and promote gender equality
- To create a safer, better world
International Men’s Day rightly celebrates the ways in which men enrich the lives of those around them – but it’s never been just about celebration. It has also always focussed on tackling the problems and challenges men face. Unfortunately, people marking IMD haven’t always given enough attention to challenging the negative impacts men have. For example, the Crime Survey for England and Wales records a massive 1.6 million women aged 16-74 (about 7%) suffering domestic violence in England and Wales in the year to March 2020 – the vast majority carried out by men. Just like any other aspect of gender equality, men are of course an essential part of the solution – alongside women – of creating a culture where male violence, abuse and harassment against women are simply not acceptable.
So, for 2021, it’s fantastic that IMD’s global theme (derived from Pillar 5, improving gender relations and promoting gender equality) is “Better relations between men and women.” This is a fundamentally important focus for this year – especially given the renewed awareness about the huge impact of male violence against women and girls in the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa.
Many men are starting to question their own behaviour in new ways – and want to be part of the solution. And organisations like Beyond Equality are offering opportunities for men to do just this. Male (and some female) volunteers provide safe spaces for teenage boys, and young men, to explore what sort of boy – and man – they want to be. One volunteer, Amer Chadha-Patel, explains: “We let them challenge or be challenged by their peers on each other’s opinions. But we do try to dispel misconceptions, for instance on the true rates of sexual assaults of women and of suicide among men.”
This is a world away from my experience growing up as a boy in England in the 1960s and 1970s, when it often seemed that few people were questioning – at least in my hearing – what it meant to be a boy or a man, and impact of masculine stereotypes on our society. There seemed to be more answers, and complacent unspoken assumptions, than questions.
Being a “real” man, according to familiar stereotypical ways of thinking, meant being physically strong, tough and courageous; risk-taking and adventurous; competitive and achievement-oriented; individualistic and self-sufficient (although also often team player, in some versions of the story); aggressive, violent and controlling; not showing vulnerability or weakness; providing financially for their family (family caregiving and domestic tasks being carried out disproportionately by women); heterosexual, sexually active and homophobic.
Of course, this has never been even close to the whole story. Few men fully lived out this version of masculinity. You could say that it was an unattainable but dominant cultural myth that most men did not conform to – men who are gay, queer, non-binary, or do not fulfil any of these rigid conceptions of what it is to be a man.
Now, 50 years on, there is much more exploration and debate about boys’ and men’s lives – and growing understanding of the huge impact that masculine stereotypes and norms have in our society. Many studies have shown that these ideas about being a man still exert a very powerful influence. Promundo’s The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK and Mexico (2017) puts it like this. Young men in the “Man Box” are those who:
“most internalize these messages and pressures. They tell us that “a guy who doesn’t fight back when others push him around is weak,” or that “a gay guy is not a ‘real man’,” among other messages. Young men “outside the Man Box” are those who have broken out of the box, who reject these ideas and instead embrace more positive, original ideas and attitudes about what men should believe and how they should behave.” The Study goes on to state that the Man Box “is alive and well in the US, the UK, and Mexico, with severe, real, and troubling effects on young men’s and young women’s lives”.
These messages and pressures of course impact on men themselves, not just on those around them. So it’s also really important to support and explore the core themes for IMD in the UK this year – which include making a positive difference to the wellbeing and lives of men and boys, and promoting positive conversations about men, manhood and masculinity. We need to explore more fluid, open ways of being a man, so men can fulfil their potential free from rigid definitions of masculinity.
What it means to be a man is already changing, and the future of masculine identity is up for grabs. But we have a long road to travel. For example, men’s mental health continues to be a really important issue – the number of suicides per 100,000 construction workers (the vast majority male) rose from 26 to 29 in the four years to 2019 – even before the pandemic. People in the construction industry were three times more likely to take their own lives in 2019 than those working outside it, researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University found.
Construction Industry Council Chief Executive Graham Watts says: “When I joined the construction industry in 1979, no one talked about mental health. Sites were even more male-dominated then than now and … macho attitudes meant that workers suffering from mental health issues would bottle them up in the workplace”. There are now beacons of good practice – for example firms with visible and available ‘mental health first aiders’ (displayed on email sign-offs, posters etc).
More women working in construction would go some way to tackling deep-rooted masculine cultures that value banter and stoicism, not help-seeking. But the crucial cultural shift still needed is in men’s own attitudes and behaviour. Promoting men’s mental wellbeing before crisis points are reached is a vital pathway towards men (and those around them) being healthy and happy. All men need to treat mental health like many of us treat physical fitness – it’s essential for our wellbeing, and we should be proud and committed to looking after it, and seeking help when needed.
For example, Tom Forster – qualified electrician and founder of mental health coaching company Bemeta – sought early support for depression, anxiety and panic attacks. He is now a full time coach, specialising in mental wellbeing in the construction industry. Tom says: “There is a lot of stress in construction…..I was hit with a mental breakdown and I didn’t ring a helpline. A helpline means a man or woman in a macho environment has to admit they need help’. He argues we need to think carefully about how to present help services, so men will take them up. Bemeta’s vision is to be “cool and current”, something people are proud of engaging with to maintain positive wellbeing. Tom explains: “You don’t go to the gym after a heart attack; you go so that you don’t have one”.
New and expectant fathers also face many challenges and stresses – sleep deprivation, financial insecurity etc – and one in ten face depression, which continues to surprise many people (see eg Paulson and Bazemore 2010). Awareness is growing that, like mums, dads need to be able to access information and support along the way, so they can fulfil their hugely important role as parents and partners – and look after their own well-being. Just one example of the sort of support now developing is the Best Beginnings Baby Buddy app.
So we can all make a difference on IMD 2021. It’s a great time to think about the men in your life, how they inspire you and all the great things they do for you. It’s a wonderful day to spend quality time with some of the men in your life – your brother, father, mates, boyfriend etc. And it’s a great day for men to challenge old stereotypes and negative behaviour. Just like every other day!