Why Are Men Who Conform to Some Traditional Male Gender Norms Less Likely to Be Happy: A Dissertation Summary

Dissertation overview by Stephanie Scherle, University of West London

From a young age, boys are faced with various ideas of what it means to be a man. These ideas, or norms, are propagated by the society they grow up in, with their families, schools, extracurricular activities and the media shaping the masculine gender-identity they develop.

Boys growing up in Western societies, where ideals of hegemonic masculinity are still dominant, are frequently confronted with messages like “boys don’t cry” and exposed to movies and TV shows like The Wolf of Wall Street and Two and a Half Men, which perpetuate values such as assertiveness, competition, status, independence and emotional stoicism. (Athenstaedt et al., 2008; Blanco & Robinett, 2014; Fish Hatfield, 2010; Newberger, 1999; Vogel et al., 2011).

Boys and men that cannot or will not conform to these norms often face judgment, ostracism as well as other physical emotional and psychological consequences (De Mirani, 2011; Rudman & Fairchild, 2004).

But it is not only nonconformity that carries negative consequences – so does strict conformity to traditional male gender norms, like self-reliance (depending on yourself) and emotional control (not showing any vulnerable emotions to others) (Gerdes & Levant, 2018; Hammer & Good, 2010).

Studies have shown that men who exhibit high levels of self-reliance and emotional control experience less psychological wellbeing. Psychological wellbeing, a concept that is often talked about nowadays, is more than just the absence of suffering. It includes various concepts necessary for long term happiness – such as purpose, positive relations with others and self-acceptance (Bohlmeijer & Westerhof, 2021; Ryff & Keyes, 1995). Some scholars suggest that those who have lower psychological wellbeing do not only face a negative impact on their private lives, but their performance at work also suffers (e.g., Peiró et al., 2019).

While it is of course important to understand that men’s conformity to traditional gender norms like self-reliance and emotional control has a negative impact on psychological wellbeing, the aim of my dissertation study was to understand why.

There is no research that has looked at why these concepts are related to each other and I wanted to change this. It was especially important to me since conformity to traditional gender norms is very hard to change – it is often deeply ingrained in men’s identities. Therefore, if we want to improve the psychological wellbeing – and also, job performance – of those who adhere to these norms, we must understand which mechanisms connect conformity to traditional gender norms and psychological wellbeing.

In my research, I investigated four variables that might underlie the relationship between conformity to the norms of self-reliance and emotional control and psychological wellbeing – gender-identity prominence (how important one’s gender is to one’s identity), emotional support coping, substance-use coping and attachment-avoidance (keeping distance from and not trusting others, not relying on them and being afraid of commitment).

I analysed survey-based data of 174 men with an average age of 31. Most men in my sample had a university degree and were from the UK and Germany. My results showed that attachment-avoidance was indeed a mechanism through which conformity to self-reliance and emotional control are connected with psychological wellbeing. One explanation for this is that boys whose parents conform to traditional gender norms might think that their sons have to be independent from them at a young age and therefore give boys less attention and affection. This early separation from caregivers could feel to boys like their parents are emotionally unavailable and unresponsive to their needs. To cope with this perceived rejection, boys could develop an “I can do it all on my own, I don’t need anybody” attitude which they transfer to all their personal and professional relationships when growing up. This could put a strain on such relationships and in turn negatively impacting men’s psychological wellbeing (Bowlby, 1973; DeFranc & Mahalik, 2003).

I did not find gender-identity prominence, emotional support coping and substance-use coping to be mechanisms connecting conformity to gender norms and psychological wellbeing, but emotional support coping was related both negatively to conformity to self-reliance and emotional control norms and positively to psychological wellbeing. This is possibly the case because those who rely on themselves and have a hard time expressing their emotions are less likely to seek support from others when coping with adversities, even though receiving such support can result in higher psychological wellbeing.

So, what do these findings mean for practice? They are especially relevant for therapists; as mentioned before, it is hard to address and change conformity to gender norms as they are deeply ingrained in men’s identity. Trying to do so could alienate clients in a therapeutic setting. Knowing that attachment-avoidance functions as a mechanism between conformity to gender norms and psychological wellbeing can help therapists address attachment instead by forming a secure bond with clients that allows them to express their vulnerability and learn to trust others – and thereby improve their wellbeing.

Businesses could also benefit from the findings. Since conformity to self-reliance and emotional control norms impacts not only psychological wellbeing but also job performance, organisations could assess the level of conformity to these norms in their workforce and create interventions for men to address it. While it appears tempting to target only men with high conformity to traditional gender norms with workplace interventions to save organisational resources, this might lead to those individuals feeling singled out and reacting with defensiveness, making interventions unsuccessful. Instead, organisations could offer workshops or one-to-one coaching which address conformity to traditional gender norms for all male employees. Workshop facilitators and coaches could initially help male employees to identify strengths of conforming to traditional gender norms. These strengths could include the ability to withstand hardship, loyalty, problem-solving and a sense of responsibility (Levant, 1992). Once employees have identified such strengths, it might feel safer for them to also reflect on situations in which their conformity to traditional norms is less helpful. When these situations are addressed, it is important to encourage employees to set goals for alternative courses of action. Interventions like this could increase both employees’ happiness as well as their performance at work. It could also improve the organisational culture to become more open to expressing struggles and supporting one another.

To conclude, it could be helpful for both therapists and organisations to be aware of the impact that conformity to the traditional male gender norms of self-reliance and emotional control have on individuals’ psychological wellbeing. With this knowledge, interventions can be created to target such conformity and improve individuals’ wellbeing and job performance.

This dissertation was conducted by Stephanie Scherle in 2022 at the University of West London, under the supervision of Dr Henry Lee Johnson.

For further information contact Stephanie Scherle on LinkedIn.

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