Ammar Khalid is Editor-in-Chief of SAIS Perspectives and is a second-year International Development concentrator at SAIS. He is from Pakistan, where he worked for two years as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) before joining SAIS. He tweets at @paharibakra.

Gary Barker is the President and CEO of Promundo, a global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls, with partners in over 45 countries. With over 20 years of experience at Promundo since founding the organization, Dr. Barker has extensive experience in leading cutting-edge research on masculinities and gender equality, developing and scaling up evidence-based programming, and spearheading high-profile advocacy initiatives, partnerships, and campaigns. He is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Men’s Leaders Network and has been honored with an Ashoka Fellowship, a fellowship from the Open Society Institute, and the Vital Voices Solidarity Award.

Through the International Development Roundtable Series,  Gary Barker visited SAIS to discuss, based on Promundo's latest research findings, how men can be made thoughtful partners in advancing the gender equality agenda. The International Development Roundtable Series is one of the premiere speaking venues for development professionals in the D.C. area. 

Gender equality is not just for women, but it is a “good for the world” – in other words, it is pro mundo - said Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo, as a guest speaker at the latest Development Roundtable event held last month. He explained Promundo’s approach to promoting gender equality by making the case to “include men in the conversation on gender equality,” to counter violence against women (VAW).

This strategy is by no means an attempt to de-center the conversation on gender equality away from women, Barker clarified to SAIS Perspectives after the talk. Nor is the work with boys and men “an end in itself.” However, he argued that in order to tackle problems such as violence against women, such initiatives should be complementary to work that focuses on women.


Understanding Masculinity

Developing a more nuanced understanding of masculinity is a crucial first step in addressing the root causes of violence perpetrated by men, said Barker. The dearth of good data on masculinities and male attitudes is detrimental to understanding what is driving male behavior.

He posited that men—especially those in the global South—are often depicted as “barriers to women’s empowerment.” Masculinity is portrayed as “static,” when in fact it is constantly in flux, as it is often based on social factors such as norms around gender. This static view of masculinity prevents a more nuanced understanding of the ways that masculinity can change due to changing norms – for example, in light of developments such as the significant improvements in girls’ education or how fewer women are now being forced towards early parenthood – and how that change can influence how men behave.

To better understand the psychological and social determinants of masculinity and male behavior, Promundo conducted two large-scale, multi-country surveys which have yielded fascinating insights. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) was conducted in 36 countries on a sample of 60,000 respondents (both men and women) and the Man Box study was conducted jointly with Axe, Unilever’s leading male grooming brand, with young men in the US, UK and Mexico as respondents.


Unlocking the “Man Box”

Most masculinities increasingly correspond to what Barker calls a “man box" — a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity which entails “being self-sufficient, acting tough, looking physically attractive, sticking to rigid gender roles, being heterosexual, having sexual prowess, and using aggression to resolve conflicts.”  The studies confirm that harmful ideas about manhood drive violence, asserted Barker. The studies also found that witnessing violence, being involved in fights and age all had strong positive correlations with the likelihood of being a perpetrator of violence against women. According to the studies, men found to be in the “man box" were 3-6 times more likely to have sexually assaulted someone in the month prior to the survey. These men were also more likely to have perpetrated and experienced bullying during the same period. For instance, results from Pakistan show that employed women – more likely to challenge constructs of masculinity based on men as the breadwinners – were more likely to experience spousal violence.

The studies also demonstrate that being in the man box is not just bad for the women around these men, but it is also bad for the men themselves. Being in the man box is correlated with men having suicidal tendencies, binge drinking, traffic accidents and showing depressive symptoms.

On the other hand, more equitable attitudes toward gender among men were associated with less harassment, greater caregiving by men, and more equitable household decision-making – according to the studies, this was often the result of witnessing their fathers partake in caregiving and household chores.


Shifting Policy Priorities

In light of these findings, Barker concluded that the conversation on gender equality needs to be based on a better understanding of masculinities, and subsequently shifting policy priorities. Men’s health also has to be prioritized, particularly preventive care. Barker recalled how once a nurse in Brazil had quipped that men only get medical care “when something is falling off.” He also called for a “reboot” of educational thinking since girls are now performing better than boys, but are still not nearly as well represented in important decision-making.

Men have to be encouraged to contribute more towards caregiving not only because this burden presently falls overwhelmingly on women in most societies, but also because, as research has shown, ensuring men attend pre-natal visits can result in a reduction in violence. Media campaigns and community outreach programs – bringing together men to discuss gender-related issue given that ‘men tend to follow other men’ – can be implemented to make men into better fathers.

Overall, understanding the cultural and social forces that drive men’s perceptions of themselves—understanding how conceptions of masculinity influence men’s behavior—is a helpful tool for learning how to make policy choices that alter the psychology behind men’s behavior in the quest to prevent violence against women.

It was an honor to host Gary Barker, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to hear his insights. Many thanks to the International Development Program for organizing the Development Roundtable. 

To learn about other events in the International Development Roundtable Series, click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Giuseppe Milo from Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0