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Supporting boys and men to be their best selves

Executive Director of The Men’s Project, Matt Tyler

Following the tragic murder of Courtney Herron, the words of Assistant Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius are indicative of an important shift. Commissioner Cornelius rightly stated that violence towards women “is about men’s behaviour, it’s not about women’s behaviour.” We welcome these remarks which move the discussion towards a better understanding of the underlying causes of violence.

There is growing recognition that some men in our society hold damaging attitudes. Holding men to account for their actions must be at the forefront of any response. Alongside this, we need to do more to prevent violence occurring in the first place. More needs to be done to address aspects of our culture that foster rigid expectations of what it means to be a man. We know that these rigid gender norms and stereotypes can underpin harmful behaviours – for women, children, other men, and also for boys and men themselves. We must engage with our boys and men before it’s too late.

So, what can be done?

At The Men’s Project we believe an important first step is understanding the attitudes of boys and men from all walks of life. Our landmark “Man Box” research found over two-thirds of men believe a “real man” behaves in a certain way. One quarter of young men surveyed endorsed male dominance in relationships, almost half believe they should act strong even if they are scared, and 20% think men should use violence to get respect if necessary.

We’re now building on this research and examining relationships between the sub-pillars of masculinity (e.g. acting tough; aggression and control; and self-sufficiency) and violence, and also measures of well-being such as suicidal thoughts, substance use, and life satisfaction. Over the coming months, we will also release our Man Box in Schools work which seeks to understand how adolescent boys believe they should behave.

This work is informing our community engagement and capacity building efforts. As part of our Modelling Respect and Equality program we are equipping people at the frontline – including teachers, social workers and sports coaches – with the language, tools and frameworks to engage more effectively with men and boys. Every day, these role models have opportunities to open up possibilities for our boys and men to challenge traditional gender norms and behaviours.

For men and boys at-risk or already using violence, we must do better than a one size fits all approach. For instance, we are testing the merits of applying restorative justice approaches to address adolescent family violence where the emphasis on placed on the person using violence understanding the impact of their behaviour while prioritising the victim’s ongoing safety and repairing relationships. We are also progressing program design work for Before it Starts; a new program targeting 8 – 12-year-olds using violence in schools. Critically, this program will engage with multiple influences impacting these boys’ lives including their peers, teachers and school staff, and their families to address concerning behaviours early.

Finally, there is a need for all actors to invest in understanding what works – both for public awareness campaigns and for program-specific interventions. In the desire to take action, all too often there is a tendency to roll out programs with little to no evidence. In the UK, a network of “What Works” Centres are dedicated to translating what we know works into practice and identifying gaps in the research evidence. These Centres test hypotheses that, to this point, may have relied heavily on anecdotal evidence. We would welcome similar government-led efforts in the Australian context.

For deeply ingrained, cultural issues, progress does not just happen. We each have a role to play to improve community attitudes towards gender equality and eliminate violence against women. Yet, with consistent evidence-informed effort, we can make sure men are free from the Man Box and can choose to be who they want to be – their best selves. Men themselves and the people in their lives will be better for it.

Matt Tyler is Executive Director of The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services