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The common media narrative around modern masculinity is that it needs a shake-up. For instance, it’s clear that systemic change is needed to improve the comparatively high cases of violence perpetrated by men against women. 

Less frequently discussed are the many ways that boys and men are struggling. According to Lifeline statistics, 8.6 Australians die every day by suicide and 75% of those who take their own life are male. 

While we’re doing the vital (shake-up) work of redefining and reforming ideas of masculinity, we need to also ensure we’re giving men a leg-up in areas where they’re falling behind and/or struggling. 

Are we failing our boys? 

According to Richard Reeves, author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, we have the “cultural task to reimagine and rescript masculinity for a world of gender equality”. This is because boys and men are struggling, as the “profound economic and social changes of recent decades have many losing ground in the classroom, the workplace, and in the family. While the lives of women have changed, the lives of many men have remained the same or even worsened.”

It’s well documented that boys are falling behind girls in the education system and there are a number of factors that contribute to this. Research into biological differences between boys and girls show that in general, female brains are cognitively and neurologically developing between 1-2 years earlier. Puberty also occurs earlier for girls and yet we continue to educate our kids as though this isn’t true.

Furthermore, the structure of our education system, which requires children to sit for extended periods listening to a teacher without adequate breaks for physical exercise, puts boys at a disadvantage.  

Males in the workplace

The education system may favour girls; however, the labour market is structured in favour of men. For example, when you look at data around wages, women’s earnings in their thirties frequently plummet. This is due largely to a significant number of women stepping back to have children in their thirties. While the pandemic has changed things a little, the traditionally the labour market has not been as conducive to the flexible work arrangements required for women who are primary caregivers.

Although the structure of the labour market favours male earning capacity, it’s noteworthy that males are traditionally given less (or discouraged from taking) time out for care of their children. Take for instance the current standard system in Australia, in which the government gives the primary carer (presumed to be the mum) 18 weeks paid leave and then 2 weeks of what is currently termed “Dad and Partner Pay”.  As of July, this year, Australia will reform parental pay. Changes include the introduction of gender-neutral claiming to allow either parent to claim. A number of businesses have also been redressing the imbalance of time fathers are able to take to care for their child by giving equal paid parental leave for men who wish to take it.

What can we do?

Boys and men need more positive male role models as well as positive definitions of masculinity that are compatible with gender equality. 

Reeves outlines a multitude of ways we can redefine masculinity including the below three key reforms:

1. Changes to the educations system. For example – having boys start a year later than girls and increasing the number of vocational high schools.

2. Modifying paid parental leave. In Australia we are seeing positive steps in this direction, as indicated by the upcoming changes to paid parental leave. It’s important that fathers aren’t typecast as breadwinners first and foremost.

3. More male teachers (and other positive male role models). Certain professions such as teaching, and psychology have seen significant declines in male representation. Redressing this issue will have a positive impact on boys.