Select Page

Masculinity 2.0. Why is it so hard to move past toxic masculinity?

24 minutes


Pauline Grosjean

Associate Professor of Economics
University of New South Wales

Episode Notes

Episode Notes

Toxic masculinity and rape culture are in the headlines again. And women are furious. So how can we reset masculine norms? We met two men working to help others embrace an expression of masculinity that is healthy for all genders. We also look to the past to understand the present as Professor Pauline Grosjean explains how gender imbalance in the arrival of the First Fleet still impacts behaviours today.


Hey it’s Ginger here. We do talk about suicide in this episode, which I know can be distressing. So if you need resources or support go to or you for 24 hour free counselling in Australia, the number for Lifeline is 13 11 14, please look after yourself.

I met a builder recently who repeated something from the banter between the boys on the site, and it was both unsurprising, but also just really shocking.


Common site chat was talking about, you know, how hot the smoko moll was or something like that. And like all the things they’d like to do that and that sort of thing.


How hot who was? Sorry, can you repeat that?


It’s the girls who drive around into little trucks that sell food. Yeah, there’s a lot of different names for them, but where, where I’m from they call them smoko molls.


I know, I know, why am I so surprised? Except I honestly thought we had come such a long way. And none of the men in my life would ever dream of calling a woman, a smoko moll, would they? Maybe it’s just something they wouldn’t say when I’m around. Chris runs own home construction business. And if you’re into this sort of phrasing, you might call him a typical bloke. But lately he’s been questioning the idea of so-called typical bloke behaviour, or at least the behaviour that he’s used to on building sites.


The industry is full of hot-headed young males basically, I think probably the biggest problem within the industry is the fact that to be a man you have to never show your emotions, never cry, never talk about your feelings. All of those things can, yeah, just a massive list of things that you can’t do otherwise you’re a pussy or a girl or whatever it is. I’ve been lucky enough that I don’t have to deal with that sort of culture as often anymore because I have my own team of guys and I like to run things a bit different to the standard carpenter or builder.


In other words, as a manager, Chris has set a standard for acceptable behaviour in the workplace, which sounds kind of reasonable. But maybe it’s not actually such a simple idea when you realise like a lot of us has actually descended from generations of ingrained ideas of masculine norms. So things like “men are strong”, that “winning and dominance is of utmost importance” and “talking about your feelings makes you sound like a girl”, which is apparently the worst thing in the world to a bloke.


One of my employees and I we went to the pub. One night, before we went fishing the next day. We had a fair few drinks and he just opened up to me and started telling me all about his life, basically. And for the first time in my life I actually listened. I was well and truly out of my comfort zone. But I sort of just pushed past that, because I wanted to the best from my employee. Literally from that point on he has been an unbelievable employee. I noticed massive change is how he treated me as a boss. He gained a lot of respect to me in that moment. That’s literally the only thing that changed – I gave him a safe space.


Toxic masculinity and rape culture are in the headlines once again. And every woman I know is furious. But if it’s okay with you I’m not going to delve into the specifics. What I really want to talk about is actually how we got to this point. What is it about our history that socialisation that’s gone on for generations that means we still think masculinity is about strength and competition and aggression and power? And why can’t we see how damaging those traits are not just for women, but even more so for men?


A lot of men in the construction industry that are just suffering. There is a large number of them that will eventually attempt suicide or commit suicide.


Later in the episode I’ll fill you in on how Chris, and some other men too, are working to shift those masculine norms. But first we need to understand what are masculine norms? And in Australia one way to do that is to go way back to 1788, and the arrival of the First Fleet.

Professor Pauline Grosjean:

So masculine norms are the standards or imperatives that imperatives of behaviour that dictates how real, quote unquote, men should behave.


Professor Pauline Grosjean is a Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Professor Pauline:

So boys shouldn’t cry. It’s weak to go and see a doctor or psychologist, you need to toughen up, being a nurse or a teacher is a girl’s job…

Ginger: And on and on and on, right?

Professor Pauline: Yeah, one more set of masculine norms is women should take care of the house and children, and men should just work, so the primacy of work over family life, I think is another important one.


And why masculine norms a problem in your view?

Professor Pauline:

Some people define hegemonic masculinity as the legitimisation of norms that maintain a strict social hierarchy, in which women are dominated, as well as other men who don’t adhere to these norms of masculinity so you know who try to be men in other ways.

That also implies that you legitimize a position of power of some groups over other groups.

I think it’s also a problem because you see a number of outcomes that are impacted by the strength of these masculinity norms and you can see this, for example, there is a survey that is done in Australia which is called “10 to men”, which is specifically a survey of masculinity that follows men from 10 into adulthood. And that measures masculinity as adherence to a set of behavioural prescriptions and beliefs about how one should behave and things like unhealthy behaviour, smoking, drinking, thoughts about self harm, suicide, assault of other men, sexual coercion of women, or other men. And you see that these things are really strongly correlated.

Men who adhere strongly to these norms of masculinity are also men who are more likely to report that they have attempted suicide or have thought about attempting suicide and are more likely to report having engaged in sexual coercion over other individuals; they are more unhealthy because they smoke more than drink more, etc.

Another set of outcomes as well, is what we call in the paper, occupational gender segregation. So the willingness of men to do masculine jobs. And these masculine jobs are generally in the “brawn” sector so they use physical force. And if we think about technological evolution, or trade shocks the future of jobs is not in these traditionally masculine jobs. The future of jobs is in the education and health innovation sectors. And so that can also create a mismatch between what jobs are available and what jobs want to do and that can create unemployment.


Pauline wrote a paper recently which looks at how Australia’s convict past has shaped the masculine norms that we live with today.

Professor Pauline:

At the start of white settlement in Australia, there were much more men than they were women.

So you have this imbalance in the sex ratio, due to several things. The first reason is convict transportation itself, which is disproportionately male bias so you have a lot more men convicted, compared to women convicts. But even free migration initially is very male biased because it’s mostly men who moved to take advantage of economic opportunities in Australia which are in agriculture, even later these were all traditionally male activities.

So you have these very biased male sex ratios. And that has for quite a long time and I think another important aspect of it as well as that it’s really at the start of white settlement so it’s really this, what some historians and economists called critical junctures is that the potential for these type of events you have a long term influence and culture is big because you sort of set the initial culture.

And then people later on will come and migrate, but they will tend to adopt the views, the behaviours that are already there. And so here the idea is that because you have this very specific circumstances, people start behaving in a certain way because they respond to incentives and they respond to the environment that is around them.

And so they behave in a certain way and these behaviours then become cultural norms, because other people copy them, or because you transmit them to your children or because as children you tend to do the things that your parents did. And so you have these historical shocks that influence behaviour at a point in time, and then it becomes imprinted on to cultural norms because they become standards of behaviour.


So when you looked at the impact of convict transportation and you looked at the unequal sex ratios and you were trying to work out the social consequences of that, what did you actually find?

Professor Pauline

So we found that in areas that were more male biased in the past because of convict transportation (so we really go back in the census to the times of convict transportation or as close as possible) we found that in those areas that were more male bias in the past today there is higher levels of violence. There is higher rates of male suicide but not female suicide. There is higher rates of partly preventable male mortality – so behaviour that we associate with help avoidance behaviour, in particular prostate cancer. Because as you know that tests used to detect present cancer is violating certain standards of masculinity.

And we also found higher segregations of men into stereotypically male occupations, and so typically this is, you know, metal workers, carpenters and car mechanics. We were trying also to look at the political manifestations of these norms and for this we used the 2017 referendum of same sex marriage, and we find that in areas that are more male bias in the past, fewer people voted for “YES”.

12:07 – Ginger

Yes. Let me get this straight. You’re saying that basically because of convict transportation we’ve inherited these gender norms which are negatively impacting us today.

12:21 –  Professor Pauline

Not necessarily because of convict transportation. But just because there were so many more males compared to women, that created very intense male-male competition. And when guys compete with other guys, they tend to do these kind of things and tend to be more violent.

Another important outcome that we looked at is bullying in boys. We found higher rates of bullying in boys, not girls, boys. So it’s really this manifestation of intense male-male competition.

12:49 – Ginger

But Pauline how is it possible that with all the outside influences of modern day culture, we’re still hanging on to this stuff from hundreds of years ago? We’re still perpetuating it, and not just across the whole society but in these particular pockets that had higher male ratios?

13:09 – Professor Pauline

Yeah, so there is a number of studies that now show the very long term persistence of historical events. There are studies in Europe that show the persistence of anti semitism in Germany over 600 years. I’ve written myself about the persistence of violence in the US South due to settlement of Scots/Irish people in the 18th century. Also with violence is that these things tend to be persistant, because if you have no inclination for violence personally, but you’ve moved into in an area where there is a lot of violence and men behaving a certain way, people tend to adapt to these thing.  It’s very costly individually to deviate from these norms.

13:54 – Ginger

These are many questions I’ve got here. First of all I want to know how is this passed on, like, and where is it passed on is it passed on in the media is it passed on in families? What is the mechanism?

14:06 – Professor Pauline

Schools are a socialization mechanism. The media is a socialization mechanism. Your parents are a socialization mechanism. The church is a socialization mechanism. The thing is that once you’re in a cultural equilibrium, it’s very hard, very costly for individuals to deviate from it.

I think there’s evidence from several of these things that we find is strong results and bullying in schools. This is one of the way it transmits over time, young boys are socialized early into the same pattern of behaviour. When you are socializing infancy it’s hard to change behaviour.

Then we also find some evidence of transmission in families, so you know we find that the link from historical circumstances to present day behaviours are only there for people who are of Australian origin, or is stronger for people who are of Australian origin.

15:00 – Ginger

Men police these behaviours in their groups very strongly, so you often see men enforcing these norms, within their groups but from what you’re saying it causes so many damaging outcomes for them. Why would they influence behaviours that are not good for them, within their peer group?

15:18 – Professor Pauline

And I think that’s why our research is important is that you don’t necessarily realise what you’re doing. You’re just repeating behaviour that you observe around you. I think people when they behave they don’t really think about the cost and benefit of each behaviour. They go back to what they know. Yes, so I don’t think it’s necessarily rational.

I also think that you know some people at the top of the hierarchy benefit from these things, you know, think about male female work inequality; I don’t think it’s so much that men really don’t want their wives to earn a wage. I think it’s good as a man to have your wife who works and bring some money. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are some advantages to the situation. So in the face of male female traditional repartition of roles, it’s not so much that you don’t want your wife to work, it’s that you don’t want to do the laundry.

16:18 – Ginger

I have personally experienced this myself. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity and the results of those terrible behaviours are in the news at the moment. I wonder what you make of those incidences, given your research.

16:34 – Professor Pauline

So what’s true is that we find in our research are linked between rates of sexual assault and rates of domestic assault today, and how male biased your sex ratio was in the past. And just to be clear, we don’t find any link for other manifestation of criminal behaviour. So burglaries and property crime, we didn’t find any link there, so it’s really linked to this violence, sexual assault and domestic assault. And here so the idea is that it’s really linked to this hegemonic masculinity and this male-male competition that pushes men to strive for dominance and to adopt certain kind of behaviours in their striving for dominance.

17:22 – Ginger

And why do you think it’s so important for us to be aware of what’s happened in the past to address what’s happening today or change the state of play?

17:33 – Professor Pauline

So I think it’s important to understand that the way we behave, at least part of it, we behave in a certain way because of things that we inherit from the past/ I think understanding, it is the first step to liberate oneself from it.

17:52 – Ginger

And that’s exactly what Chris is trying to do. Liberate himself, his employees his friends, and most of all his children from damaging masculine norms. He’s finding ways to run his business, and support the team differently. Like he’s setting up Team Building Fridays. And he’s also started an Instagram account to talk about the issues, and it’s really working.

18:19 – Chris

I am not really sure what I’m doing what I’m doing, where I’m going, how I’m gonna do it. I don’t know any of that. All I know is what I’m doing is, obviously, well received. I’ve had multiple men actually message me privately, telling me how they feel, feeling the same sort of situation, and how glad they are that somebody’s doing something, or at least trying. I’ve had people from different couple of different trades anyway and they just said it’s not just construction; it’s all these are the areas as well.

18:54 – Ginger

Someone else who’s doing great work in this space in terms of liberating men from toxic masculinity is Martin Fisk. Marty runs Menslink in Canberra which is a not for profit. And among other things what Menslink does is pairs teenage boys with male mentors, especially if they don’t have positive male role models in their own lives.

19:19 – Martin Fisk

When a young boy or a young teenage man sees, perhaps, his father or another male figure in his life using aggression, violence or the threat of violence, to get what they want, an impressionable young boy will go, “Oh, that kind of works.”

What they don’t see is the massive damage to that own person’s relationships, the incredible loneliness they get from their use of anger and what we try and do is work with the young fellows at the earliest possible age to say that violence aggression anger they are not the way to get ahead in life. When somebody actually does something kind for somebody else we need to celebrate that. There are opportunities for all men to act better and to celebrate actions that are good, that are kind.

20:24 – Ginger

And it’s actually quite masked, like, I went to see the movie A Star is Born. It’s ostensibly about a young girl who falls in love with a rock star, she then becomes more famous and a better singer than him and he’s incredibly drunk and jealous. And, look, I thought it was this romantic story but a friend of mine said “Did you look at his behaviour? It was coercive control.” I was quite shocked because I did not, as a feminist, take that analysis away, because, as you say it’s so ingrained in our society I was used to it. I thought that was a romantic story, you know.

25:25 – Martin

Absolutely. So, so when you when you talk about that movie and so many other movies there’s an underlying premise that when things don’t go right in your life, you take it out on other people and or you take it out on yourself. They are such damaging messages.

And this is why our at Menslink in Canberra is we help young guys through tough times with the least amount of harm to themselves and those around them. That’s trying to counter those messages so you’ve had a terrible experience at home, or you’ve had a really bad day at work, or somebody is cutting in front of you in the traffic or whatever. You don’t take that out on other people. And you don’t need to take that out on yourself. You can accept that something bad’s happened.

We teach the young guys skills and alternative behaviours, on how to accept the fact that there’s going to be tough times, and how to deal with it. We tend to tell stories. And we role model. Now whether that’s with professional counselors, whether that’s with educators or mentors, but I’ll give you an example of one of our young guys and he was formerly in our programs for a few years, still gets occasional help but he’s basically been with us, eight or nine years now.

His last experience with his father was his father holding him down on the ground and punching him in the head. And he talks about his time in the mentoring program. And he said that his mentor taught him how to resolve conflict with words instead of his fists.

How did he do that? By telling stories. By saying “in this situation, maybe this might work differently”. And that young man has also gone from being violent in his own home when he was a young teenager at 13 or 14 to having a wonderful relationship with his mom and other siblings. He talks to his mom every single day, and goes and visits her once a week, and that’s a fantastic turnaround.

We survey moms and schools for all of our programs every six months, and overwhelmingly you know rates from 60 to 90% in some cases say that we’ve had a very positive impact on the young guys own self esteem and in reductions in anti-social behaviour or relationships with staff, peers or family. And I think that’s because we’re showing the the young guys a different way.


Now if you’re a man and you’re still listening, first of all thank you, because I know this is a confronting topic and obviously there are plenty of men who like Martin and Chris, want things to change. And actually that change is really happening in a lot of places. You only have to look at the way fathers today are so much more involved than their own dads were in the day-to-day raising of children, or at how many of today’s teenagers are so accepting of gender diversity. As well as looking at our past, Pauline can see the way these changes are helping to shape our future.

Professor Pauline

You know, my hope is that this is one manifestation of people being tired of boys having to do boys things and girls having to do girl things. I think this is a very positive development.


Yes I saw someone at the petrol station the other day who presented as a man but was wearing a really nice skirt and sandals and actually had long hair and I thought “Wow, that would have been much more difficult when I was young”.

Professor Pauline

Yeah, I mean you know 100 years ago, women were not allowed to wear pants. So we’ve come a long way. We just have to let boys wear dresses. It’s hard to comprehend why women can wear pants and men can’t wear dresses. I mean, in our heads, like, why? There’s no justification for it.


No, and actually I wrote a wonderful article at one point about all the men I know who do wear different kinds of skirts in particular like different kinds of kilts, and I had a friend who he lived in Fiji for a long time. They wear skirts. It was the most wonderful article, it was all these different men wearing skirts and actually then lots more men wrote to me saying “I wish I could wear a skirt” or “I do wear a skirt”, and they just felt it was wonderfully liberating for them.

Professor Pauline – I’m not even talking about traditional skirts. I mean, when women started wearing pants they were not wearing traditional female pants, they were wearing male pants and now it’s completely acceptable. But it’s interesting that we do adhere to something like dresses or skirts in such a rigid way and we just think “Wow that’s an impossibility”. But in fact, there’s no real reason for it when it comes down to it. There’s not.

Ginger: What do you see as the positives of doing something like letting everybody wear skirts or letting everybody wear makeup?

Professor Pauline: What I think it’s showing that other forms of behaviours are acceptable, that are not standards of masculinity or a standard of femininity. And I think this is liberating in other dimension because if you can start wearing a dress, then you can also be a nurse or a teacher and or a stay at home dad or whatever you want, right.

Ginger: And what would the world look like in terms of the social, political, economic problems you outlined, if we broke down some of these norms?

Professor Pauline:

Well hopefully a more tolerant one and one in which people and individuals can do whatever they want.


Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. Check out what Chris is saying and doing to affect change through Instagram. His handle is @ChrisFisherCo. You can also read about Pauline’s work at our website

Next time, like, OMG, do you bristle at the use of emojis in work emails? Whatevs. Just chillax. It’s all part of the evolution of language, next time on Seriously Social. See you then.

Useful Links

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.