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080—Unpacking "Traditional Masculinity" and How It Relates to Resilience

In late 2018, the American Psychological Association put forward a set of guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. The drafting process started way back in 2005 so it's far from a flash-in-the-pan project.

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
11 min read
080—Unpacking "Traditional Masculinity" and How It Relates to Resilience

🖼 Power Move - Scotch & Bean 033 (featuring a new character!) + 👉 Male Role Norms Inventory (quiz)

This the 80th edition of Cultivating Resilience, a weekly newsletter how we build, adapt, and lead in times of change—brought to you by Jason Shen, a PM, resilience coach, 1st gen immigrant, ex-gymnast, and 3x startup founder.

I love getting reader email and take note when a newsletter edition gets a healthy dose of it. #066: How Masculine Ideals Affect Resilience was such an issue. I thought I'd follow up on that piece with some more exploration around that topic.

066: How Masculine Ideals Affect Resilience
🖼 Lessons Learned (Scotch & Bean) + 👉 Flow Club (focused virtual coworking)

🧠 Unpacking "Traditional Masculinity" and How It Can Hurt / Help Boost Resilience

In late 2018, the American Psychological Association put forward a set of guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men [1]. The drafting process started way back in 2005 so it's far from a flash-in-the-pan project. But isn't psychology already centered around men, particularly WEIRD men? Well, yes. But that doesn't mean there aren't still things to be learned from these guidelines.

So let's dig in shall we?

Being Male: A Mixed Bag

Although boys and men, as a group, tend to hold privilege and power based on gender, they also demonstrate disproportionate rates of receiving harsh discipline (e.g., suspension and expulsion), academic challenges (e.g., dropping out of high school, particularly among African American and Latino boys), mental health issues (e.g., completed suicide), physical health problems (e.g., cardiovascular problems), public health concerns (e.g., violence, substance abuse, incarceration, and early mortality), and a wide variety of other quality-of-life issues (e.g., relational problems, family well-being). [Bolded parts mine]
Additionally, many men do not seek help when they need it, and many report distinctive barriers to receiving gender-sensitive psychological treatment.

As the APA lays out in its opening remarks, the dudes are not alright. Despite having so much gender-based power and privilege, men still suffer from what appear to be addressable concerns that relate to their gender.

There is a "Traditional Masculine Ideology" Found in Western Men

Masculinity ideology is a set of descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive of cognitions about boys and men (Levant & Richmond, 2007; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1994). Although there are differences in masculinity ideologies, there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. These have been collectively referred to as traditional masculinity ideology (Levant & Richmond, 2007). [bolded parts mine]

These norms aren't to say that men can or should only value these things, but that men in particular are expected to value or live up to these things. Or better put, a man who does not express or live up to these norms may have his masculinity called into question.

It's worth noting that a lot of the research that underpins these norms was first articulated in the 60's and 70's and built upon through this masculine norms inventory that has been tested with men and women, mostly within the United States across a range of geographies and ethnic & racial groups. (More on that in our "Check Out" section).

Calling it "traditional masculinity" is perhaps controversial as many men have taken affront to this description and see it as casting men as being toxic or inherently bad. [2] Here are some of the responses men had around the guideline announcements.

Of course these responses appear not to have read the actual guidelines themselves, which make it clear that it is not being male, but a number of the norms we might associate with masculinity. Their reactions show just how closely tied the norms really are to what men perceive as essential parts of their identity.

Adherence to "Traditional" Masculine Norms Leads to Worse Health Outcomes

From the APA Monitor article accompanying the guidelines:

Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors. For example, a 2011 study led by Kristen Springer, PhD, of Rutgers University, found that men with the strongest beliefs about masculinity were only half as likely as men with more moderate masculine beliefs to get preventive health care
And in 2007, researchers led by James Mahalik, PhD, of Boston College, found that the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to consider as normal risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables, and to engage in these risky behaviors themselves
Research led by Omar Yousaf, PhD, found that men who bought into traditional notions of masculinity were more negative about seeking mental health services than those with more flexible gender attitudes

It's not simply that men seem to have problems, it's that men who more strongly adhere to those norms have more problems. The part about avoiding vegetables cracks me up but overall the points about heavy drinking, avoiding preventative health care, and lots of other dumb things that guys, especially in highly male-coded (aka "testosterone-laden") situations, seem to engage in do appear quite dangerous.

APA Guideline #1: Psychologists should appreciate the social & cultural drivers of masculine norms

The APA published 10 guidelines (we won't go over them all but def  but each put forward important ideas about how psychologists can better support men.

Psychologists aspire to help boys and men over their lifetimes navigate restrictive definitions of masculinity and create their own concepts of what it means to be male, although it should be emphasized that expression of masculine gender norms may not be seen as essential for those who hold a male gender identity.

In #066 I described feeling, as an Asian American man, the "subtle pressure to perform the masculine ideal extra just to be baseline". A reader wrote back noting that in his life as a bisexual man, he found himself less tied to this narrow frame around gender and suggested looking for "entirely new angles" on the topic. Indeed the APA notes that "gender is a non-binary construct that is distinct from but interrelated to sexual orientation".

My response was to acknowledge that gender, like race, money, and law, is a social construct. But this does not mean someone can just "opt out" of the system by dis-engaging with the idea, even if it is socially constructed:

  • Many Black and Brown kids "discover" race as a concept when other people treat them differently because of this quality.
  • Non-gender conforming teens are are considered less acceptable by their peers.
  • I might not believe that a piece of paper with a dead President on it is inherently valuable, but I still need them to acquire food and shelter.

Thus this first guideline is a starting point for a conversation about what "being a man" even means.

What money can teach us about social constructs
A lot of people sneer at the idea that there are many genders. Looking at the concept of money might help us see why they’re wrong to do…

When Masculine Norms Can Aid Resilience

We've focused a lot on where masculine norms are harmful, but can they also be beneficial? Of course. Like all things, these traits can be valuable when used in moderation. One study done in 2010 explored where endorsing masculine norms could boost courage, autonomy, and resilience. [3]

In this paper, they surveyed 250 North American men, mostly White, but with a wide age range from 18 to 79. They had them fill out the Masculine Norms Inventory to see how much they endorsed various traditionally masculine traits. This list included a slightly different subset including:

  • Self-reliance (solving problems on one's own)
  • Emotional control (suppressing one's feelings)
  • Risk-taking
  • Dominance (wanting to get your way)
  • Pursuit of status

Then had them complete other psychologically validated measures of well-being including the Courage [4], Autonomy [5], and Resilience [6].

As we've previously explored, endorsement of a number of the norms came back negative, like those who endorsed emotional control and self-reliance reported lower levels of resilience.

Perhaps keeping one’s emotions private and not asking for help is associated with less likelihood of experiencing collaborative social interaction, through which one can learn and develop adaptive coping skills—the fundamental building blocks of psychological resilience.

Risk-taking was correlated with greater resilience and courage.

On the positive side, men scoring higher on risk-taking reported higher levels of resilience. This makes sense, as resilient individuals demonstrate the willingness to take risks by consistently confronting new experiences with self-confidence.
These risk-taking men were also more likely to report higher levels of personal courage. One possible explanation for this finding is that courage inherently involves the willingness to take a risk by acting in response to a threat, despite the potential for a negative personal outcome

While risk-taking can be dangerous (day trading, driving under the influence) it can also be positive, especially when directed at the right things. This is what we lose when we talk about masculinity as only harmful as it erases the nuances of how these traits are used and to what end.

Dominance was correlated with greater courage and autonomy

Along similar lines, men endorsing the norm of dominance may have also reported higher levels of courage as it often may take a willingness to act boldly and confidently in the face of opposition to insure that others will behave in accordance with one’s wishes.
Since dominance involves getting one’s way and the desire to have others act in accordance with one’s own desires, it necessarily follows that one (a) values and trusts his own opinions and (b) is unlikely to be concerned with the expectations of others— both markers of autonomy

While Dominance may sound immediately like one of those harmful traits, it obviously depends. If you are whistle blowing on a corrupt organization in order to "get your way" and acting against the status quo at great personal risk to yourself, this may be a situation where Dominance is deeply valuable.

This shit is obviously nuanced so let's stop using the term "traditional"

Men actively do gender in ways that differ across social and cultural contexts, thereby enacting multiple masculinities (Liu, 2005; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Thus, the common use of the singular term “masculinity” may reasonably be critiqued as an oversimplification of men’s daily negotiation of gendered expectations for their behavior. Going further, using the term “traditional masculinity” risks obscuring the fact that different cultural groups have different norms for what is traditionally masculine.
For instance, emotional connectedness may be valued as an expression of masculinity by Mexican American men, while emotional restraint may be more prized among Asian American men. Thus, when the researchers cited above refer to traditional masculinity, the reader should assume they are referring to the “prescribed dominant masculine style” of the majority (i.e., White, heterosexual) culture that imposes its influence on men living within the United States

While way more wordy, the phrase "prescribed dominant masculine style of the majority culture" is way more clear about what we mean when we are talking about these so-called "traditional" masculinity.


🖼 Power Move (Scotch & Bean 033 - new character!)

After much hullabaloo, I present the newest member of the Scotch & Bean family:

Once again, for legal reasons, I must emphasize these comics are totally a work of fiction.


👉 Male Role Norms Inventory (quiz)

As I mentioned earlier, there have been inventories developed to assess how much certain people reject or endorse certain masculine cultural norms. One prominent assessment comes from Ronald Levant, developed first in 1978 and refined over the years with a fair amount of validity and re-testability.

There's a short form version of this Male Norms inventory that you can take right here. I've put my own results upside down below if you'd like to compare!

Male Role Norms Inventory-Short Form


Like this edition of Cultivating Resilience? Help me reach more people who could use these ideas by sharing it!

[1] Founded in 1892, the APA boasts a 122,000 strong membership and has previously put forward guidelines for girls and women, LGBT, racial + ethnic minorities and other groups. Men are in some ways "last on the list" of groups to receive these kinds of guidelines, which the APA says should be updated every 8-10 years to remain current.

[2]  In my previous issue #066 I came across a term known as "hegemonic masculinity" which is similar though refers more to the overt pressure generated by this set of norms, but it suffers from a different problem of being too esoteric.

[3] Hammer, Joseph H.; Good, Glenn E. (2010). Positive psychology: An empirical examination of beneficial aspects of endorsement of masculine norms.. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 11(4), 303–318. doi:10.1037/a0019056

[4] The Woodard Pury Courage Scale (WPCS23; Woodard & Pury, 2007) is a 23-item measure designed to assess courage. Courage is operationalized as the voluntary willingness to act in response to a threat to achieve an important, perhaps moral, outcome or goal. Responses are scored on a five-point scale (1  strongly disagree, 5  strongly agree), with a sample item being “I would endure physical pain for my religious or moral beliefs.”

[5] The Autonomy subscale of the Psychological Well-Being Scale (Autonomy; Ryff, 1989) is a 14-item measure designed to assess being independent and able to resist social pressures. Responses are rated on a 6-point scale (1  strongly disagree, 6  strongly agree), with a sample item being “I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.”

[6] The Resilience Scale (RS-10; Neill & Dias, 2001) is a 10-item measure derived via factor analysis from Wagnild and Young’s (1993) 25- item Resilience Scale. These scales are designed to measure of the ability to successfully cope with change or misfortune.

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More Resources and Fun Stuff

  • Book Notes: Summaries / quotes from great books I've read
  • Scotch & Bean: a webcomic about work, friendship, and wellness
  • Birthday Lessons: Ideas, questions, and principles I've picked up over the years
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Jason Shen

Writer, executive coach, and resilience expert helping founders & product leaders move through adversity and ship things that matter.