Jesuit Social Services made a submission to the Federal Government’s National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality in 2022. We advocated for a strategy that recognises and addresses harmful gender norms. The Strategy is due to be released in the second half of 2023. 

Jesuit Social Services is a social change organisation with a strong focus on gender justice. We have worked with men and boys for 45 years, and know that too many men and boys are in trouble and causing trouble. We established The Men’s Project to address the root causes of male violence and harmful behaviours, improve men’s wellbeing and relationships, and promote social change towards healthier understandings of what it means to be a man. 

We know gender stereotypes are fundamental to gender inequalities. Our submission to the Strategy drew on The Men’s Project’s ‘Man Box’ study, which examined the attitudes and beliefs of young Australian men about what it means to be a ‘real man’, finding that most men feel significant social pressure to conform to rigid and outdated ideas of masculinity. These beliefs are underpinned by patriarchal systems. The study found that men in the ‘Man Box’ (men who hold strong patriarchal beliefs) were more likely to perpetuate violence against women. They were over 20 times as likely to self-report sexually harassing a woman and over 14 times as likely to self-report the use of physical violence. Challenging patriarchal beliefs is at the core of violence prevention. 

Stereotypical gender norms also cause harm to boys and men. Men who believe that a “real man” should be tough, dominant, and in control are more likely to consider suicide, are less likely to seek help, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviours like dangerous driving and unsafe sex,

While most young men feel pressure to conform to stereotypes about what it means to be a man, many do not personally endorse them. This is reason for hope and should be highlighted as part of efforts to challenge stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a man. 

In the drafting of a Strategy, we must engage with men and boys directly if any meaningful progress is to be made. This is essential to confronting the inequalities both they, and women and girls, face in Australia. Developing the Strategy must involve a trauma and culturally-informed response, in which the lived experiences and trauma of boys and men, and how this can influence male violence, is acknowledged and recognised. Progress towards gender equality requires that men must be supported to take responsibility for challenging these attitudes and changing behaviours. This involves building capacity and leadership within the community and the workplace. The Men’s Project’s Modelling Respect and Equality Program is an example. 

In this, we must also avoid divisive approaches to this debate where men and women are on opposing sides. Efforts to promote gender equality must be embedded into all relevant policy efforts guided by both research evidence and lived experience. A binary, largely heteronormative focus of gender also risks excluding the intersectional experiences of gender inequality and violence within the LGBTQIA+ community, so work must continue to understand and include the experiences of diverse communities 

The Strategy must be evidence-based and, given they underpin many inequalities, should include the longitudinal tracking of gender norms through national instruments such as the National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS). Data collection should reflect intersectional experiences gender, which means collecting demographic information like socioeconomic status, cultural background and geographical location. Mechanisms of accountability and reporting within the Strategy should include a focus on changes in men’s attitudes and behaviour that could have a positive impact on all genders. 

Achieving gender equality can only occur if we address the gendered drivers and root causes of violence and inequality through work that seeks to engage with men and boys.