Sexism Sucks for Everybody, Science Confirms

Adhering to masculine norms can be toxic for men, not to mention everybody else

Conforming to masculine norms can leave men isolated and unable to cope with the stresses of life. (boggy22 / iStock)
smithsonian.com

You don’t need science to tell you it sucks to be a woman in a sexist society. While American culture may have progressed since the time of Mad Men, women today inevitably still encounter those who would demean their abilities, downplay their accomplishments or treat them as sex objects. In Sweden, women can even call in to a “mansplaining hotline” to report their experiences of having things condescendingly explained to them in the workplace.

But being sexist, it turns out, also sucks for the men themselves. That’s the conclusion of a meta-analysis published today in the Journal of Counseling Psychology that aggregates the results of nearly 80 separate studies on masculine norms and mental health over 11 years. The meta-analysis, which involved almost 20,000 men in total, found that men who adhered to these norms not only harmed the women around them—they also exhibited significantly worse social functioning and psychological health.

“Sexism isn’t just a social injustice,” says Y. Joel Wong, a psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington and the study’s lead author. “It may even be potentially problematic for mental health”—men’s mental health, that is.

“Masculine norms” can refer to a whole range of characteristics, leading researchers to focus on 11 separate aspects of American masculinity in particular. The researchers found that three specific traits associated with toxic masculinity were particularly harmful to men’s psyches: being self-reliant, being dominant over women and being a “playboy.” Yet other norms, such as putting work and career first, did not seem to have any negative mental health effects.

“We have a tendency to look at masculinity as if it’s kind of homogenous thing,” says Wong. “Some masculine norms are much more problematic than others.”

Clearly, these misogynistic notions have always been extremely harmful to women, Wong says. But they have also served to increasingly isolate the men who hold them. In the past 20 to 30 years, American society has grown more intolerant of behaviors once seen as not only routine, but even positive. “These norms are increasingly becoming outdated in a world that is much more interconnected and in a society where people are not afraid to call you out when you’re sexist,” Wong said. “In today’s world, it’s no longer 'cool' to be boasting about sexually assaulting women.”

The meta-analysis also revealed another troubling trend: When men are taught to be self-reliant, keep their emotions to themselves and seek sexual gratification instead over meaningful relationships, they tend to be less inclined to seek mental health treatment when they need it. In fact, one of the reasons the effects of sexism on the male psyche has been so understudied in the past is that men have historically not sought treatment and thus have gone undocumented, says Michael Addis, a research psychologist at Clark University in Massachusetts.

“I think this has been a long time coming,” says Addis, who is the author of the book Invisible Men: Men’s Inner Lives and the Consequences of Silenceand was not involved in the study. While these conclusions have long been known to him and his colleagues, Addis says, this overarching study could help the broader public see the corrosive effects of masculine norms. Wong also hopes that this meta-analysis will help people realize how harmful the traditional attitudes of masculinity can be. “Especially for men,” Wong says, “it’s a recognition that some of these old ways of being a man may be outdated and may actually be causing you problems.”

Addis believes that the pressure on males to be the “ideal” American man leaves them without the ability to cope properly with the stresses of life. A boy who finds himself overwhelmed in school or scared about his safety or future, for instance, might turn to fighting his peers or teachers as the only “manly” outlet for his emotions. A man struggling in his job might turn to abusing his spouse and children instead of risking appearing “weak” by seeking their support, as one of the studies addressed in the meta-analysis suggests.

When you grow up in a society that discourages seeking out emotional outlets, "you’re effectively cutting off these different options for coping with life’s difficulties,” says Addis. "One of the things we know—regardless of gender—is that people tend to do better in the world when they have a variety of coping mechanisms." Hopefully, a greater understanding of the effect of masculine norms on men could encourage reforms in mental health treatment for men, so that they can work through their problems in healthy ways instead of taking them out on others—like women. 

California Polytechnic State University gender psychologist Shawn Burn warned that combining so many different types of studies into one analysis might lead to problems in the data, but found the study overall to be well-done and timely.

"People are increasingly aware that aspects of traditional masculinity promote violence and conflict," said Burn. "Recognizing that traditionally masculine men pay their own price for conformity to masculine norms may further motivate changes in the traditional masculine role."

Editor's Note, November 22, 2016: This story has been updated to include the comments of Shawn Burn.

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