Should Psychologists be doing more to help men and women?
Dr. John Barry
It is a truism that ‘there are more similarities than differences’ between men and women, but that doesn’t mean that the differences are unimportant to psychologists. Male psychology is the study of issues that predominantly impact men and boys, or are understudied in men and boys. It aims to develop our understanding of the way in which the male mind and behaviours work, and how they differ from that of females. Dr. John Barry is a founding member of the Male Psychology Network which aims to promote the awareness and understanding of male psychology. The Male Psychology Network explores predominately male-affected issues such as suicide, homelessness and addiction and argues that by understanding gender differences, we can create more effective gender-appropriate psychological interventions.
Dr. John Barry’s BPS ‘Psychology in the Pub’ talk explored the concept of masculinity. He proposed the question to us, is masculinity toxic and therefore a problem to be cured? Arguably society as a whole puts an unrealistic expectation on to males to conform to the stereotypical view that they should be tough and stoic all the time. This understandably leaves some men struggling to cope with trying to be something that they’re not and forcing them towards mental illness and suicide.
Could this pressure be having an impact on men? Three quarters of suicides are by men, but research has shown that men are less likely than women to seek help when times are hard. John argued that perhaps the current procedures and therapies we have in place to help those suffering from mental illness, are just too specifically designed towards the needs of females. Perhaps we need to understand the differences between men and women so that we can develop therapies that are just as effective for the male population. The pressure to be stoic often means that men don’t like to talk about their feelings, so it is evident that talking therapies are not necessarily the best option. However, organisations such as the NSPCC still use taglines such as ‘you can talk to us’ which almost feels ironic, as we know part of the problem is that males will not talk.
The 21st century is a time where men and women are constantly striving to be treated as equals; but perhaps we need to step back and understand that there are important gender issues that just cannot be properly addressed if gender differences are ignored. The Male Psychology Network’s own research with life coaches showed that 90% of people interviewed reported that there were sex differences in the needs of their clients (Russ, Barry, Ellam-Dyson & Seager, 2015). Yet 65% of the coaches showed ambivalence to making gender generalisations. It appears that we are too caught up in trying not to be offensive, that we ignore the fact that men and women ultimately are different in some respects.
John also highlighted the issue of male gender blindness, where it is often found that the problems men are having often go unnoticed. Consequently, this results in a large gender empathy gap. By ignoring that men can have the same problems as women, we feel less empathy for men in general. This is extremely evident in issues such as domestic violence. The media in particular is quick to tell the story of a woman who has been abused by a man, but very rarely do we hear of a man being abused by a woman. We know that it can and does happen, but why is it that when we think of domestic violence we automatically assume that the female is the victim? One argument John made for this was the ‘women are wonderful’ effect (Eagly & Mladinic, 1994) where women’s stereotypical nurturing and loving character is compared to the harshness and violent nature of a man. This kind of halo-effect means that we often consider the female population to be too precious and in need of constant protection, therefore denying males of empathy.
As a result, we must reconsider the way therapy is designed in order to make it more effective for the needs of men. What if we can use the traits of masculinity, through positive psychology, to make therapy better suited for men? We know that men are inclined to develop intimacy through shared activity and are very group orientated individuals. Organisations such as Men’s Sheds are already putting this concept into practice. They provide places where men can join together and share an activity such as carpentry or furniture renovation, in a safe and friendly environment. This kind of practical work allows men to feel a sense of achievement, all whilst building friendships and engaging with others. Perhaps humour could also be used within therapy. Men often use banter to form a bond with another individual, so perhaps by making therapy sessions more humourous, men can really begin to engage and form a bond with the therapist. By forming this bond, men will feel that they are being seen as an actual human being and not just someone on a long list of people with a problem.
Overall, I felt John’s talk was extremely thought provoking. I myself am victim to male gender blindness and consequently can think of many times where I have felt less empathy for men. I think that the desire to form to a stereotypical character is unrealistic, and a major downfall of today’s society is putting the pressure on to conform to what men ‘should’ be like. I also think that is not just an issue for males, but also females. We too are also still stuck under the pressure that we should be feminine and nurturing, and mothers and devoted wives. It is extremely encouraging to see that organisations such as the Male Psychology Network are aiming to overcome some of these pressures in order to create a more open, happy and healthy society.
Eagly, A.H., & Mladinic, A. (1994). Are people prejudiced against women? Some answers from research on attitudes, gender stereotypes, and judgments of competence. European Review of Social Psychology, 5, 1-35.
Russ, S., Barry, J. A., Ellam-Dyson, V., & Seager, M. (2015). Coaches’ views on differences in treatment style for male and female clients. New Male Studies, 4(3), 75-92.