Priorities in critical masculinities studies – lessons for gender equality

Categories : Blog


Author: Pierre Brouard

In the introduction to a special edition of NORMA, the International Journal for Masculinity Studies, Shefer and Ratele[1] conducted a scan of past, current and emerging priorities in South African critical masculinities studies. Here are some reflections on this review which can inform how we think about gender equality in Africa more broadly, and gender equality in the workplace more specifically.


  • Their review notes that it’s critical to take an intersectional view of men and masculinities – men come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, classes, orientations, and abilities – and to homogenise them would be a mistake.


  • The influences of colonialism, racism (taking a special form in South Africa as Apartheid), capitalism, war, migration and displacement are unquestionable. Men, like women, are the product of social forces which shape their identities and life possibilities.


  • One of the most profound times for men is boyhood, the time when they learn about the requirements of masculinity, as no one is born knowing how to do masculinity. Families, schools, community, culture, and faith are shaping influences, and therefore spaces for change and innovation. A key pressure for young men is achieving “successful” and “acceptable” masculinity, not always guaranteed and is therefore a time of anxiety and vulnerability.


  • Being well fathered may help men to become good fathers, but often the weight of poverty and inequality can be a negative influence: when men have to migrate for work without their families, this can be a significant rupture. It is critical that governments,and workplaces, create conditions for family stability, whatever form that family takes.


  • Much of the literature has positioned heterosexual men as risk-taking drivers of HIV, as inherently violent if they exhibit what is called hegemonic or dominant masculinity, and as constantly seeking multiple partners as proof of masculinity. Shefer and Ratele ask if these depictions of men are helpful or discriminatory – it’s not just that “not all men” act like this, it’s that we may need new ways of thinking about variations in men and masculinity that allow us to find more creative solutions to violence. Linked to this, men are often victims of violence from other men, and we ignore this fact, which is a serious oversight


  • There has been insufficient focus on men as affective (and emotional) beings, partly because of false narratives that men are creatures of logic and stoicism. In fact, exploring men as deeply affected by their life circumstances is much more fruitful because it removes the stigma of “emotionality” and allows them to be fuller and more rounded beings. Men do feel tenderness, shame and love, and space to express this is a direct antidote to the harsher requirements of masculinity which leave men feeling cut off from themselves and others. Resistance to restrictive depictions and requirements of masculinity has emerged across our continent, often in the arts.


  • Thinking and working across borders (theoretical borders as well as country borders) is an opportunity to find new solutions to the challenges of a “common” language for men and masculinities work. It is critical that African scholars do not only look north for their ideas but that they also look inward for new tools and methods to build healthier masculinities and more equal societies.


In conclusion, how can this set of ideas inform work to build gender equality and gender equity in African workplaces?

We need to think about men and masculinity, and their impact on gender in the workplace, in the language of hope and possibility. If we position men as inevitably problematic, we not only alienate them, but we also shut down possibilities of change and collaboration. In the same way that masculinity is largely learned through social life, workplaces can become sites of change and new learning, if we bring men along the journey, by meeting them at a starting point which makes sense to them. This could be facilitated by asking questions like “are you happy and fulfilled in life and work?” and “what would need to change for this to become a reality”? Given space and time, most men would articulate the need for connection, meaning and mutual respect.

We need, also, to recognise the diversities of men and masculinity – while most men benefit from patriarchy (albeit unevenly) the fruits of power and dominance are not accorded to all men. Working with this complexity requires us to see men as diverse beings, invested not only in power but also in creating a fairer and more equal society for all.

In building more equal and equitable workplaces, let us draw on innovative ideas, while not simply rejecting what is traditional, so that we can fashion a way forward that feels inclusive for everyone. Power is not a zero-sum game; it can be shared. And it can co-exist with compassion, empathy and profit.

[1] Tamara Shefer & Kopano Ratele (2023) South African critical masculinities studies: a scan of past, current and emerging priorities, NORMA, 18:2, 72-88, DOI: 10.1080/18902138.2023.2206683


Pierre Brouard

Deputy Director

Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender – University of Pretoria


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