Blogs / 11 Jun 2024 11 min

Breaking the chains of traditional masculinity: another hidden driver of gender inequality 

My personal story and three actions for organisations 

By Dr Priscila Pereira, Director of Research & Innovation, Shape Talent  

Masculinity is a complex, multifaceted concept that has evolved and encompasses a wide range of behaviours, traits and roles associated with being a man. Several studies have identified multiple forms of masculinities1, showing that “masculinities can and do change”2 and the contrasts between traditional and modern masculinities. Connell defines the difference stating: 

“A traditional masculinity (often understood as patriarchal and in some cases violent) is contrasted with a modern masculinity (often understood as more expressive, egalitarian and peaceable)”. 

In recent decades, there has been a notable shift towards a more modernised conception of masculinity, epitomised by figures like David Beckham during the ‘metrosexual’ or ‘New Man’ era of the 1990s. This evolution has continued to unfold, with contemporary views of manhood increasingly embracing active and nurturing fatherhood as a virtuous and integral aspect of masculinity. Moreover, there has been a growing wave of enthusiasm among men for self-care practices, reflecting a broader cultural shift towards prioritising mental and physical well-being. 

However, despite progress, the reality is that traditional masculinity seems to prevail and dominate in many areas of society, particularly the workplace. Furthermore, in this day and age, there is still an unfortunate extreme end of traditional masculinity often referred to as toxic masculinity.  

Toxic masculinity encompasses a rigid view of manhood that emphasises, and values typified hyper-masculine traits such as dominance, aggression, emotional suppression and the rejection of stereotypical or traditional ‘feminine’ traits. Just to put things into perspective so we can grasp the size of this problem, in 2022 the UN published a report3 on female homicides, while 55% of all female homicides are committed by intimate partners or other family members, only 12% of all male homicides are perpetrated in the private sphere. And if we bring this issue to the corporate setting, the International Labour Organization global survey on Experiences of Violence and Harassment at Work4 stated that more than one in five people have been affected, with women and youth at greater risk.     

When we can disrupt toxic masculinity and dismantle the parts of traditional masculinity that no longer hold meaning or value in our modern society, we can promote a more inclusive, healthy conception of masculinity. When organisations foster environments where men feel free to express themselves authentically, we can contribute to a societal shift where gender roles no longer define our behaviours as individuals. 

My story as the breadwinner mother 

When my daughter was just three, my husband and I decided that he would take a career break and focus on fatherhood for one year. This experience ended up lasting three years, and for me was filled with mixed emotions.   

I stood as an observer to my daughter and husband experiencing daily joy and building an intense bond. In some ways I felt left out of this. And my husband was not great at house chores, which drove me mad. He was having fun, and I was still doing a lot of the housework while working full time! Every day I got home, the living room was covered in dens, my daughter’s entire year group was invited for dinner after school, or they were picnicking beside the river mid-week for their dinner. I felt so happy for her; I never had that with my dad. However, then, at the same time, I resented my husband because I wanted this for me.  

I realised that for my husband, fatherhood was fun, and for me, motherhood was a job. Of course, it was a job that I loved, but it was a role, and I was watched by society on how well I was performing this role. It covered far more than fun and frivolity. I now think that I was taking motherhood too seriously and often felt judged that I was not doing my gender role in the way society wanted me to do it.  

In public, my husband was praised for his ‘hands-on fatherhood style’ while I felt judged for leaving my child to work full-time. As the primary breadwinner this felt so unfair. During a coffee outing with my mother-in-law, the waitress complimented her by remarking, “you have a wonderful son,” while turning to me and commenting, “you are so lucky to have a husband who is so helpful.” I was furious, and without thinking, I replied to her, “no one ever says to me, well done for paying the mortgage,” and I walked out! I regretted it afterwards because on reflection, although intergenerational transmission reinforces traditional belief structures, I recognise that it might be hard for those who are still conditioned to outdated ways of thinking to change.  

It became very clear to me that both men and women are victims of gender roles, expectations and stereotypes. While he was praised, my husband was also constantly undermined about his parental capability when socialising with the other mums. I think, in fact, he could write a book on fatherhood microaggressions! Surprisingly, he was determined to have so much fun with my daughter that nothing would stop him, plus I think secretly he loved the attention for being the novelty.   

Three ways that organisations can foster inclusivity when it comes to gender roles and particularly masculinity 

Here are some suggestions on how organisations can disrupt unhelpful traditional norms of masculinity.  

1. Pay attention and dismantle the ‘gender order’ from all areas of life. 

Have you ever heard about gender order? This is common terminology used in gender studies to understand how traditional power patterns between men and other genders still influence how we design society and organise paid and unpaid work. A great example of this is occupational segregation, when men take the leading role and women take the supporting role, for example, male doctors and female nurses. Aboim5  describes hegemonic masculinity as very much still the case in the modern world. In other words, although there are multiple masculinities, men are still privileged over women in terms of gender order. 

Michael Roper in his book Masculinity and the British Organisation Man since 1945, highlighted how paid work has been designed to serve men to be successful in whatever their fields are and exemplifies this by stating ‘from housewives to PAs’, women were expected to serve men at home and in employment.  

When organisations embrace and normalise the diverse ways in which societal roles and behaviours can be fulfilled, regardless of gender, they foster an environment where individuals feel empowered to express themselves beyond the constraints of traditional gender roles and order. Therefore, pay attention how your systems are reinforcing occupational segregation and how your leadership models might be reinforcing qualities sometimes associated with masculine traits which in turn implicitly dissociate women to leadership roles. Equally, make sure your working design for leadership roles are not self-deselecting women and fathers who are also carers.  

2. Recognise the cultural pitfalls of traditional masculinity and create an environment that supports gender-inclusivity. 

The Harvard Grant Study is the longest study in history on men. The study started with undergraduates from classes in the years 1938-1940; 268 males were followed throughout their lives, with several still alive and part of the study today. Vaillant6 summarises the findings of this study in his book Triumphs of Experience and observes that love and close connections with others is an influence on joy and success throughout these men’s lives. In terms of love, the author refers to loving and supportive relationships as the main factor enabling success in the context of a whole life.  

Traditional markers of success like career advancement and wealth were not linked to life satisfaction in the study. Instead, positive childhood experiences and healthy coping mechanisms were found to significantly impact well-being throughout these men’s lives. Conversely, coping styles that hindered close relationships were detrimental to their health and overall well-being. 

The study emphasises that the relationship men have with their work is more significant than the money or status it brings. It also suggests that men who lack fulfilling careers struggle with anger management throughout their lives. These findings shed light on why some fatherhood studies7 focus on the shift towards more meaningful and involved parenting roles. 

When organisations cultivate workplaces that prioritise meaningful and fulfilling workplaces that are centred around inclusivity and flexibility, it paves the way for men in the organisation to take a modern approach to fatherhood and caregiving, encouraging men to embrace more active and involved parenting roles. Invest in your work-life balance proposition and culture. Ensure you have family-friendly working practices and benefits; and leaders at the top are visibly adhering them.  

3. Recognise unpaid work and support flexibility for all genders. 

In the context of masculinity and men’s attitudes towards paid work, society has traditionally appended the value and contribution of men to their paid work status. At the same time, men’s contribution to work at home has been trivialised or even mocked by society in general. Men adhering to traditional masculinity may feel emasculated by the expectation to engage in household chores or caregiving, as it challenges societal norms dictating their roles as providers and authority figures. 

The primary challenge for achieving gender equality lies in acknowledging the significance of unpaid work, whether performed within or outside the home8. Traditional masculine ideals greatly influence how men navigate their work-life balance and grapple with inter-role conflict, historically centred on the role of primary financial provider. Consequently, there has been a prevailing perception that prioritising work and attaining high occupational status are markers of masculinity9. However, with a shifting paradigm wherein fatherhood and masculinity are undergoing reconstruction, nurturing roles are emerging as new possibilities of masculinity with breadwinning no longer being a central part of fatherhood. 

Consequently, organisations have a responsibility to support this societal change and create ways for men to manage their work life balance without being penalised.  

 Organisations need to prioritise flexibility for men as much as for women. Men experience prejudice when they choose family over work, even outside their working hours. Men who take up caregiving and household roles can experience the same barriers to career progression that women experience when they are the primary caregiver. Equally, for every person that is given the flexibility to manage their household responsibility, there is usually a partner who benefits from this flexibility – and a significant portion of these are women.  

Without equalising hours of work between men and women, women will always be treated less favourably at work, and men will always be denied being more present at home. Organisations can monitor working hours between men and women, offer more flexibility so part-time women can increase their working hours and discourage men to work beyond their contractual hours by addressing emails and meetings happening outside working hours for example. Of course, the default should always be the avoidance of stereotypes and support for all genders to manage their domestic burdens. 

One of the best moments in my life was when my daughter, who was six at the time, needed to complete some homework about gender stereotypes. Her answers were completely different from what society taught me growing up. The jobs she allocated to me, or my husband were not gendered, and she saw the options for her future expansively. At this point, I realised that the career break – although it put much pressure on us financially and on me, emotionally – was one of the best decisions we made for her. And this was only possible for us because my husband’s employer offered a career break as one of their benefits.        

Priscila Pereira is the Director of Innovation and Research at Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business. 

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1. Aboim, S. (2010). Plural Masculinities- The Remaking of the Self in Private Life. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
Connell, R. (2014). The study of masculinities. Qualitative Research Journal, 14(1), 5-15.

2. Connell, R. (2014). The study of masculinities. Qualitative Research Journal, 14(1), 5-15.


4. Experiences of violence and harassment at work: a global first survey – International Labour Organization (

5. Aboim, S. (2010). Plural Masculinities- The Remaking of the Self in Private Life. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

6. Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

7. Dermott, E. (2008). Intimate Fatherhood: A Sociological Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gatrell, C.J., Burnett, S.B., Cooper, C.L. and Sparrow, P. (2012). Work-life balance and parenthood: A comparative review of definitions equity and enrichment. International Journal of Management, 15(3), 265–358. Miller, T. (2011). Making Sense of Fatherhood: Gender, Caring and Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

8. Gaylin, W. (1992). The Male Ego. New York, NY: Viking. Gatrell, C. and Cooper, C. (2008). Work-life balance: Working for whom? European Journal of International Management, 2(1), 71–86.

9. Huffman, A. H., Olson, K. J., O’Gara Jr, T. C. and King, E. B. (2014). Gender role beliefs and fathers’ work-family conflict. Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 29 (7), 774 – 793.