A lot has been written about the destructive outcomes of sexism on women but not much on how it affects men. In his new book, James M. O’Neil, UConn professor of educational psychology and family studies in the Neag School of Education, seeks to raise awareness about the perils of sexism for men and boys. Titled Men’s Gender Role Conflict: Psychological Costs, Consequences, and an Agenda for Change (American Psychological Association, 2014), the book covers 35 years of research into how men’s gender role conflict relates to mental health problems including depression, anxiety, sexism, homophobia, substance abuse, and relationship problems.
UConn Today asked O’Neil about his latest work.
Q: What is gender role conflict?
A: Gender role conflict (GRC) is defined as a psychological state in which socialized gender roles have negative consequences on a person. Human qualities are, without question, more healthy and functional than those assigned to men and women by stereotypes that emanate from patriarchal values. Restricted gender roles dehumanize both men and women. Among the multiple effects on men that I explore are success, power, and competition issues; restricted emotionality; restricted affectionate behavior between men; and conflicts between men’s work and family relations. Our capacity to accept new definitions of masculinity and femininity is evolving but painfully slow.
Q: Why is change so slow?
A: Unfortunately, political, economic, and religious factions that want to control human behavior and set society’s priorities according to repressive ideologies endorse restricted gender roles. Before feminism, no collective consciousness existed about the perils of sexist stereotypes that cause GRC. There has been some progress over the years, but even now public awareness appears to ebb and flow based economic realities in our society. My book is a call to action for psychologists and other educators to discuss sexism and educate everyone to the perils of restricted gender roles.
A: Several things.
Deconstruct masculine and feminine gender roles and redefine what masculinity and femininity mean without using sexist stereotypes. For men’s lives to improve, the misinformation and dubious assumptions that reinforce denial about boys’ and men’s problems need to be exposed.
Humanize men. The greatest obstacle to the change is a failure to see men as full human beings. Previous psychology studies have established that men have been studied not as gendered human beings but as generic persons based on stereotypes.
Expose the denial about men’s problems. More than 300 studies reported in the book provide convincing evidence that boys and men have psychological problems, and that there is a relationship between these problems and masculinity ideology. Most everyone knows males have problems, but society as a whole has been slow to acknowledge it and do something about it. More than 100 years ago, the psychology of men threatened the status quo. Until the 1980s, convincing mainstream psychology to study men had been difficult because patriarchal values dominated psychological theory and research.
Help people journey with their gender roles through psycho-educational and preventive programming and in therapy. Men’s problems can be prevented through therapy and programming in public schools and in higher education. On a personal level, re-evaluating gender roles means looking inward and assessing how masculinity and femininity have both enhanced and restricted interpersonal growth.
Disseminate research on boy’s and men’s gender role conflict to educators and the public. Only a persistent and critical deconstruction of these damaging stereotypes in patriarchal societies can reverse the negative effects of sexism, GRC, and restrictive gender roles in people’s lives.
Create healthy and positive aspects of masculinity. A new direction would be to create positive paradigms of healthy masculinity.
Q: Is this an American problem?
A: International studies have shown that GRC is not just an American phenomenon. New culturally specific measures of GRC are needed to fully capture the nuances of GRC in different countries and with different ethnic and racial groups.