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The Impact of Gender Expectations on Boys and Young Men

Norms have shifted, but expectations for boys remain.

Key points

  • Many countries around the world are experiencing shifts in gender stereotypes.
  • Research reveals the detrimental impact of rigid gender constraints on boys and young men.
  • Boys and young men often grow up with traditional male expectations restricting emotions.
  • A common expectation is not what boys and young men should be, but what they should not be - feminine.
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Gender expectations have a profound impact on the development and lives of boys and young men. From an early age, they are often subjected to traditional notions of masculinity, which are reinforced by various social institutions such as family, education, religion, and mass media. These expectations not only shape their understanding of what it means to be a man, but also impose unhealthy restrictions on their emotional expressions (psychological well-being) and limit their range of experiences.

Recent research has illuminated the detrimental outcomes of traditional gender expectations. In a study published by Di Bianca and Mahalik in American Psychologist, the authors address the harmful socialization of boys and men and argue that societal expectations of traditional masculinity contribute to health issues, relational oppression, and social injustices. They assert that these issues stem from disconnections between individuals and society, which reinforce rigid notions of manhood[1].

Traditional Masculinity: Defying Femininity

One of the most prevalent gender expectations imposed on boys and young men is the notion of avoiding anything deemed feminine. They are bombarded with messages that associate femininity with weakness, vulnerability, inferiority, and contempt. Through casual teasing and derogatory expressions such as “you fight like a girl,” “you cry like a girl,” “you’re such a sissy,” and the many “your mother” jokes, young boys are taught to distance themselves from anything associated with femininity. This social conditioning often sews the seeds of anti-feminine prejudice and misogyny. Consequently, they are conditioned to suppress their emotions, particularly those that are considered feminine, such as empathy, sensitivity, and the ability to establish meaningful connections with others.

On the other hand, boys and young men are often encouraged, both by adults and their peers, to embrace traditionally masculine qualities. Prodded by male social expressions such as “be a man,” “boys don’t cry,” “don’t be a wimp,” “tough it out,” “suck it up,” and “shake it off,” They are expected to be strong, tough, self-reliant, and dominant in various aspects of life. As they become adults, the pursuit of physical and sexual prowess, financial success, and the acquisition of power and status become benchmarks of male achievement, and the measure of male self-worth based on their ability to conform to these ideals.

However, rigid over-adherence to traditional masculinity can have significant detrimental consequences. The unbridled pursuit of power, control, and dominance often leads to a sense of separateness, hostility, aggression, and violence (psychological and emotional, if not physical). Toxic masculinity, a term that has gained prominence in recent years, refers to the harmful aspects of unchecked masculine behavior. It is characterized by traits such as antagonism, encroachment, emotional suppression, and a disregard for the well-being of others.

Well-Rounded Masculinity: Holistic Success

Fortunately, not all men subscribe to these social norms. Many well-rounded men defy the confines of traditional masculinity and embrace a more expansive understanding of what it means to be a man. They recognize the value of feminine qualities and do not see them as threats to their masculinity. These men exhibit traits such as empathy, compassion, and the ability to foster meaningful connections. (Significantly, some of the most admired and beloved men in human history possess such qualities, including Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.) By embracing both masculine and feminine qualities, where one can be strong and assertive when necessary, and sensitive and empathetic when important, men can attain personal and professional success with a holistic and inclusive approach.

“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” —Emma Watson, United Nations Speech

Dismantling Narrow Gender Expectations

The impact of gender expectations on boys and young men cannot be underestimated. The pressure to conform to traditional notions of masculinity restricts their emotional expression and limits their potential for personal growth, which may lead to physical and mental health issues and many relational difficulties. However, there is hope in the growing recognition of the need for more inclusive and holistic definitions of masculinity.

Research by Priyashantha, De Alwis, and Welmilla published in the Journal of Humanities and Applied Social Sciences indicates that in the last five decades, many regions around the world have experienced shifts in gender norms (including countries in Europe, North America, East Asia, Africa, and the Arab World), resulting in a decline in traditional gender role stereotypes[2]. By challenging rigid gender expectations and embracing a broader range of qualities and experiences, we can foster a healthier and more equitable society for boys and young men to thrive. For tips on how to be well-rounded in communication and relationships, see references below.

© 2023 by Preston C. Ni.


Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006).

Ni, Preston. 7 Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success. PNCC. (2013)

[1}Di Bianca, M., & Mahalik, J. R. A Relational-Cultural Framework for Promoting Healthy Masculinities. American Psychologist. (2022)

[2}Priyashantha, K.G., A. De Alwis, A.C., Welmilla, I. Gender Stereotypes Change Outcomes: A Systematic Literature Review. Journal of Humanities and Applied Social Sciences. (2021)

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