Skip to main content

What does it mean to be a man?

For centuries, there have been strict traditional expectations of masculinity which boys have learnt to adopt in order to be considered a real man. They are taught that certain behaviours make you more manly - strength, stoicism and playing the role of provider, protector, and breadwinner.

Society encourages men and boys to be physical, competitive, assertive, dominant risk-takers and rewards them for these traits. Boys are told to “Man – Up”, never show emotion or discuss their feelings, as this is perceived as a sign of weakness.


Toxic masculinity 

Suppressing natural emotions isn’t healthy and can lead to toxic masculinity. It means that men feel that they are not permitted to say “I’m lonely or worried or lacking in confidence” even though these are natural and perfectly normal emotions in life. Trying to conform to a checklist of “appropriate” traits can bring anxiety, insecurity, and other harmful emotions.

Even worse, when feelings such as disappointment, frustration or grief are suppressed, anger can fill the void. This can lead to chauvinism, sexism, isolation, hyper competitiveness, dominance and even violence.

In extreme situations, those who feel unable to express vulnerabilities can start to adopt unhelpful and unhealthy coping mechanisms – such as substance abuse, alcoholism, withdrawal and aggression.

Trying to conform to the traditional concept of masculinity has a massive impact on men’s mental health, and it is no surprise that suicide is unfortunately one of the leading causes of death in men under 50.


Harmful Gender Stereotypes

The confines of the traditionally masculine role can also lead to a set of behaviours which are not just harmful to men, but society as a whole. The traditional gender stereotype of the man as the primary breadwinner is harmful to women and can lead to an unequal distribution of parental caring responsibilities.

The “motherhood penalty” - the detrimental impact that taking extended parental leave has on career advancement and earning potential -  is well documented.

For any employee, taking extended time out of the office can be a cause for concern. In their absence, valuable client relationships, built and nurtured over many years, are redistributed to others. Practices, policies, and team dynamics change. As a result, returning to work after extended parental leave can be isolating, nerve-racking and give rise to a lack of confidence. Many employees struggle to re-establish their professional identity.

The UK’s inflexible and extortionately expensive childcare system, where nursery places cost upwards of £100 per day, only adds to the problem. As do too, nursery sickness policies which specify that children must be symptom free for 48 hours before returning to care. Employees, who in many cases have only just returned to work after a year, are forced to request more time off unexpectedly and at short notice, and hope that their manager will be understanding and sympathetic.

The combination of sleep deprivation, cost, and the guilt of underperforming as both a parent and an employee leads to many parents, usually women, deciding to give up work or request a reduction in hours.

Those who do manage to hang on to their career and juggle family life on a remote or flexible working basis face unconscious and proximity bias, where those who are physically present in the office are favoured. This all feeds directly into the gender pay gap with many women falling behind their male colleagues in terms of opportunities, promotion, and pay.

The gender pay gap could potentially be eradicated if there was a more equal distribution of the caring load, but even in an ever-evolving modern landscape, men still face stigma and challenges.

The UK has the least generous paternity leave rights in Europe. Statutory maternity leave is up to 52 weeks of leave, 39 of which are paid (six weeks at 90% earnings and 33 weeks at a statutory sum of £172.48).  In contrast, statutory paternity leave is woefully inadequate – just two weeks’ paid leave at the statutory sum. Despite the introduction of shared parental leave in 2015 in a bid to encourage more fathers to become primary or equal carers, take up has been dire, with only 2% of employees using the scheme due to its complexity.

Of course, many employers offer enhanced contractual schemes, but few match the maternity leave benefits, nor are they legally required to do so. As a result, it often makes more financial sense for women to take parental leave than men.

But cost is only one of the factors. Societal and cultural expectations continue to play a role in the stigma and resistance men face in taking on primary or shared caring responsibilities. Traditional gender stereotypes of the “Alpha Male Breadwinner” - a man who is expected to be physically present in the office full time, home late and fully committed to his career at the expense of his family plays into this stigma. Men who do take time off fear being mocked or perceived as less committed or ambitious.

For the brave few who do take extended or shared parental leave, they do not always find the experience to be particularly welcoming or inclusive – from being in the minority at baby groups to struggling to find a baby change station that is not located in female toilets.

Fortunately, the world is changing, albeit slowly. Employers have a pivotal role to play in influencing how families share their caring responsibilities, and we are starting to see more companies equalising their parental leave policies. Senior managers are also recognising the importance of leading by example and taking extended leave to create positive role models and fatherhood champions in their teams.

But more needs to be done. Involved and inclusive parenting demands that society changes their perception of traditional gender stereotypes, whilst also breaking down the barriers of access to affordable childcare and the disparity in extended parental leave schemes. The only way that the gender pay gap will close will be a more equal distribution of caring responsibilities and for men to be truly welcomed and encouraged in this space.


The future of masculinity 

It is high time that we rethink masculinity. The notion that men must be dominant to command respect is outdated and unhelpful and stems back to a patriarchal society.

We are in a very different world to the one in which our fathers grew up. Our children’s opinions will be influenced by new male role models in the digital world of TikTok, Instagram and X. Fortunately, many new role models are emerging to break down harmful stereotypes who are helping to teach the next generation of men about the importance of becoming allies and building healthy and positive relationships, being respectful, tolerant and empathetic. They also teach the importance of calling out sexist or misogynistic behaviour and feeling comfortable in their own identity. Many are openly challenging what the traditional concept of masculinity means and embracing the expression of emotion.

More men than ever are involved in caring responsibilities and whilst there is still work to be done the barriers are slowly being broken down. We know the benefits of equal parental involvement in the early years of a child’s life and the many positive effects on their resilience, education, and well-being. Parents of both genders are becoming more vocal about the challenges they face and the support they need on professional platforms such as LinkedIn and advocating for change.

But we also have a responsibility as parents to shape the future of masculinity, and this includes the conversations we have in our own households.

“Boys will be boys” is a phrase that my mother often uses when I tell her that my son has engaged in rough and tumble behaviour or been told off at school. This seemingly innocuous expression to excuse boys’ poor behaviour also implies that there is only one way to be a boy, and somehow that behaviour is ingrained and unchangeable.

Boys will not just be boys but also future men, husbands, partners, fathers, friends, and leaders. They can be traditionally masculine, traditionally feminine, or anything in between. The most important thing is that they possess the qualities as individuals, regardless of gender, that we value in society - kindness, tolerance, empathy, and respect.

Now is an opportunity for us to model the masculinity that we want to see in the future and raise our children to help create a society in which all genders can thrive.


Need advice and assistance?

We work with businesses to develop Diversity and Inclusion strategies, analyse and prepare gender pay gap and ethnicity pay gap reports, identify areas for improvement and support with implementation. Our team can review your policies and advise on employment law matters, relating to gender equality. Please contact Claire Taylor-Evans, Senior Associate on [email protected] for further information.

iStock 1335162404

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

Get in touch

If you have any questions relating to this article or have any legal disputes you would like to discuss, please contact the Employment team on

[email protected]
shutterstock 531975229 (1)

Stay ahead with the latest from Boyes Turner

Sign up to receive the latest news on areas of interest to you. We can tailor the information we send to you.

Sign up to our newsletter
shutterstock 531975229 (1)