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Modern Masculinity: The Atlas Complex

Men may feel like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Key points

  • About 90 percent of people believe that society would benefit from a conversation about what modern masculinity is, according to a survey.
  • Two-thirds of respondents believe that masculinity and femininity are beyond gender and should be defined for each individual.
  • "The Atlas Complex of Men," the idea that men carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, can lead to mental health issues.

In 2020, the Mantorshift Institute conducted a qualitative research project in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, and Jordan. There were over 200 men interviewed of various age groups and backgrounds. In my previous post, I summarized why we conducted this research. Some of the reasons we highlighted were:

  • As longstanding structures and stereotypes are being reevaluated, masculinity and manhood are in crisis.
  • The old masculine stereotypes of being aggressive, privileged, and tough, while also being hypersexual and unemotional, are being dismantled.
  • At the same time, we are also seeing these old stereotypes being embraced and reembraced around the world by many extremist movements.

We have provided an overview of crisis factors from a health perspective, and some of the business and cultural issues around modern masculinity. Some of the key factors are:

  • There are some pretty disturbing statistics coming out about men’s health. For example, males are three to seven times more likely than females to take their own life.
  • Most work cultures today are very masculine, mainly due to the dominance of men in these organizations, especially at the upper management level. The women who want to succeed need to adopt masculine traits, such as being highly assertive, strong in conflict, highly competitive, and emotionally reserved.
  • Conversely, if you are a man leading a mixed-gender team today, you need to decide how you relate to them as a group and as individuals. You and your organization will need to decide what's appropriate and what's not.
  • From a cultural point of view, the images and archetypes of manhood and masculinity that are instilled into us through our upbringing and education are outdated.

Masculinity in the Modern World

We have summarized our findings in nine key points. In this part of our blog series, we will go through the first two findings and provide more information and background on what our respondents shared. We also provide our calls for action as a result of this qualitative research project.

Our first two findings are the following:

David Vives/Unsplash
Source: David Vives/Unsplash
  1. The discussion about modern masculinity is progressive rather than reactionary. Only men and women together can create equality and change the way we treat each other. We are creating a new future together. Our respondents believe that we need to discuss and define what modern masculinity is.
  2. The definition of masculinity is beyond gender. Two-thirds of our respondents believe that masculinity and femininity are beyond gender and should be defined for each individual. One-third believe that gender will not play a significant defining role in the future.

Masculinity Beyond Genders

Ninety percent of our respondents believe that society would benefit from a constructive discussion about masculinity in today's context, especially when it comes to the balance of what positive attributes people should have and which of them should be considered masculine.

About 10 percent of our respondents proposed to talk about modern gender as a collective rather than masculinity versus femininity, which they believe locks us back into the binary of masculine and feminine. They acknowledge the neurobiological differences between male and female as biological sex, but they also believe that gender norms and the expression and experience of gender is also culturally rooted.

There is a consensus that when we talk about modern gender, we're talking about individuals who have begun to process their gender outside whatever they have passively assumed or understood to be true about gender from their society. This can be different based on sexual orientation or gender identity or both. For instance, this means that a transgender person may also be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or pansexual. We need to speak about two different experiences that intersect: sexual orientation and romantic orientation on one hand, and gender identity and experience on the other.

Notions of Masculinity Can Put Extreme Pressure on Men

A significant number of our respondents believe that the old notion of masculinity—defined as being tough and aggressive and protective while being attractive and hypersexual—are still strongly present in society. A softer form of this masculinity is the expectation of being the tough protector and provider in a family or a relationship. This notion puts extreme pressure on men and leads to mental health issues while also affecting relationships at work, at home, and amongst friends. This is what we called “The Atlas Complex of Men,” the notion men carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and it will collapse unless they continue to do so. Starting a conversation about modern masculinity will give us personal insights and the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others so that we can have better self-awareness, feel less alone and live more authentic lives.

Another interesting way of thinking about masculinity and femininity in the modern world relates to the roles men and women should play in a relationship or a family setting. Several respondents brought up the issue that by dismantling the traditional roles of men being distant from home duties, there can be interesting sexual challenges that arise. For instance, some women who spend more time away from home and enjoy a successful career find their partner less attractive when that partner is at home and engaged in more traditionally “feminine” activities. Similar issues were mentioned around the idea of men showing more vulnerability and finding that it creates apprehension and disapproval as a general response from their female partners.

For a small fraction of the respondents, especially in the Middle East or with a Middle Eastern lineage, modern masculinity is understood as a negative term describing those who neglect their families to advance their careers. The so-called “modern men” are seen as selfish, egoistic, and not able to accept feedback.

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