Men and Gender Equality: An Evolving Union

Article Date

05 January 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) on Jan. 26 will release the results of a three-year, multi-country household survey that offers one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of men’s attitudes and practices on a variety of topics related to gender equality. It also includes women’s opinions of men’s behavior.

ICRW and its partners interviewed more than 8,000 men and 3,500 women about their intimate relationships, health practices, parenting, sexual behavior and use of violence for the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). The questionnaire was conducted in one to three cities in Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India and Mexico and in urban and rural settings in Rwanda.

“This is the first survey of its size to offer a comprehensive picture of what men think and do,” said Gary Barker, who spearheaded IMAGES and directs ICRW’s programs that involve men and boys. “These initial results really just scratch the surface. But it provides a needed starting point – one that uses statistical rigor and evidence – to help inform practitioners’ work with men as allies in women’s empowerment and gender equality.”

The results also can help shape policies and programs aimed at fostering more equity between women and men, Barker said.

Over the past 15 years, engaging men in efforts to achieve gender equality and help improve women’s health, economic and social status has gained increasing recognition from civil society organizations to the United Nations. A key element of this global agenda to create more equitable societies involves trying to change the social norms that influence men’s use of violence, how they participate in family life and how they treat women overall.

Initial findings from IMAGES suggest that men in all countries except India and Rwanda support more equitable relationships and opportunities between women and men. Age plays a factor, too, with young men showing more support for gender equality and more just treatment of women. Among its results, the study also found that men who view women as their equals are more likely to be happy, communicate well with their partners and have better sex lives.

Overall, IMAGES results demonstrate the complex – and at times contradictory – nature of men’s behavior. And they suggest that while most men accept the notion of gender equality and understand it intellectually, they don’t necessarily change their behaviors – at least not quickly.

“Men’s ideas about gender are far more complex than what we think,” said Ravi Verma, director of ICRW’s Asia Regional Office and an author of the report. “By having a better understanding of their attitudes and factors that determine these practices – and IMAGES helps with that – we’ll be able to design more relevant programs that meet men where they are in terms of living a more ‘gender equitable’ life.”

How it worked

IMAGES is a component of the Men and Gender Equality Policy Project. Led by ICRW and the Brazilian nongovernmental organization, Promundo, the project aims to provide evidence for how to change public policies so they may encourage more equity between men and women. The effort also includes a multi-country policy analysis, “What Men Have to Do with It: Public Policies to Promote Gender Equality,” published in 2010 by ICRW and Promundo.

For IMAGES, 250 questions were posed to men and slightly fewer to women ages 18 to 59. They were framed around an understanding that gender is not only about women, but rather the relations and power dynamics between and among women and men. Through the survey, researchers sought to learn more about how men are socialized into certain roles, and how those roles may change over time and in different social contexts – all while men interact daily with women. Within that vein, the survey also examines men’s perceptions of manhood and the pressures they feel to adhere to societal expectations. The study pays particular attention to the stress men feel from the expectation that they must be financial providers for their families.

Researchers designed questions around selected topics that covered the intimate and family relationships between men and women as well as issues related to men’s health and lifestyle. These topics included employment, education, attitudes toward women, parenting and use of violence, among others.

Men and women from the same neighborhoods, but not the same households, were interviewed for IMAGES. This was primarily to protect women: the survey contains numerous questions about violence that were asked of both men and women. ICRW followed ethical guidelines established by the World Health Organization which recommend not interviewing couples, since it might lead to women under-reporting violence or suffering reprisals from a violent partner for disclosing his use of violence. 

Finally, IMAGES was carried out in countries that represented diverse geographic regions and that already had some efforts underway to involve men in work that promotes gender equality. Research partners in each location also had strong relationships with civil society groups and policymakers in their respective countries.

Initial findings, next steps

Although new policies and laws have been enacted over the last decade to help create more equitable societies, ICRW researchers say that initial data from IMAGES demonstrate that laws alone don’t lead to behavior change.

“Men are increasingly aware of shifts toward greater gender equality in their countries and communities – they are aware of laws against domestic violence, for instance, and generally feel that ‘men don’t lose out’ in the pursuit of gender equality,” said Manuel Contreras, an ICRW gender and public health specialist and an author of the IMAGES report. “At the same time, this awareness does not always coincide with changes in men’s individual behaviors.” 

The information provided by IMAGES fills a gap in knowledge about men, he said, and provides a blueprint for how to shape or revise policies and improve existing programs.

Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Younger and more educated men adhered less to restrictive social norms around manhood and demonstrated behavior that upheld women as their equals.
  • Men who felt stress or depression about work or income harbored more suicidal thoughts and reported more use of violence against women. This occurred at a statistically significant level in four of the countries studied.
  • While women continue to do more child care work and domestic activities, unemployed men and younger men are participating more than is commonly acknowledged.
  • In Brazil, Chile, Croatia and Mexico, men with higher education levels were more likely to accompany their partner to prenatal visits.
  • Women with partners who share in domestic duties reported that they are more sexually satisfied.
  • Rwandan and Indian men showed the most inequitable attitudes. For instance, 61 percent of men in Rwanda and more than 80 percent of men in India agreed that changing diapers and feeding children are the mother’s responsibility.
  • In all six countries, men reported more use of violence against their intimate partners if they experienced violence in their childhood, are stressed at work, abuse alcohol and view women as subservient to them.

The study’s initial findings are just a beginning: IMAGES also will be carried out in 2011 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, an effort that will be coordinated by Partners for Prevention, a joint program of the United Nations. Yet even as the results from more countries will expand researchers’ understanding of men’s attitudes and behaviors, experts say a deeper comparative analysis is needed of the initial data.

“IMAGES gives us a good sense of where men are at the moment, which seems to be one foot toward accepting gender equality and one foot stuck in rigid, inequitable views,” Barker said. “We need more research like this, over time, to assess how much men are truly changing toward accepting and living gender equality and how we can speed up that change.”

* Next week: A snapshot of IMAGES data from India.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.