What does it mean to be young and male today? How do today’s young men think about and experience ‘masculinity’? In 2016, Promundo, a global agency that promotes gender equality by working with boys and young men, partnered with Axe/Unilever to explore these issues in three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico. Email and telephone surveys were used to reach a representative, random sample of young men, reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of each country. Combined with these surveys, qualitative studies were organised in each of the three countries, in which focus group discussions were used to listen at length to young men’s own views and perspectives.
The Open University was commissioned to convene the focus groups in the UK, and I worked on this with independent researcher Sandy Ruxton and consultant David Bartlett last autumn. We brought together four focus groups, two in London and two in the north of England, made up of young men between the ages of 18 and 30 from diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, religion and social background.
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It’s difficult to summarise our findings in a few sentences, but you can read a full report on our research here and Sandy Ruxton and I have published an article at The Conversation which you can read here.
Briefly, the wider international study found that most young men are supportive of movements towards gender equality, but many still find themselves stuck in what researchers have called the ‘Man Box’, a construct of ideas and expectations about what it means to be a man – and this can have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing, as well as on their personal relationships. Our focus groups tended to echo these findings, and we believe that our study has interesting and important things to say about young men’s attitudes to family, friendships, sexuality, violence, work and community.
The international study, of which our focus groups formed a part, argues that breaking free from the ‘Man Box’ is ‘not something young men can do on their own’. It concludes that ‘parents, educators, the media, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and others need to be part of the process of reinforcing positive, equitable, unrestrictive ideas of manhood’. On the basis of our group discussions in the UK, we agree that young men need support if they are to break out of the ‘Man Box’ and achieve their full potential. Policy makers and professionals would do well to listen to the voices of young men and attend to the complex realities of their experience, which undermine the often simplistic messages in the media about the so-called ‘problem’ of boys.