Why are depression rates far higher among men? Why are the majority of suicides and gun deaths committed by men?
Why is it that the vast majority of crimes are committed by men, that the vast majority of incarcerations involve men and that the more violent the crime, the more likely the perpetrator is to be a man?
The sexual and gender revolutions of the #MeToo movement and third-wave feminism, as well as increasing awareness of concepts like toxic masculinity, have been changing societal perceptions of manhood. Amidst building tensions surrounding political issues of gender and sexuality in America, people at Stanford and beyond have found themselves struggling to grapple with how to live in today’s world. Stanford students and Americans at large have found themselves politically divided over issues ranging from sexual assault on college campuses to abortion to the gender pay gap in both the private and public sectors. Becoming better men is necessary for the good of our society, be it at Stanford or in the country at large.
It is a basic matter of justice for us to contemplate how we might restructure our inherently broken society to favor all groups equally. How can society work towards accomplishing this lofty feat while also giving men a voice and a platform to be the best we can be for ourselves, for other genders and for society at large? How can we sort out the bases underlying the jarring facts mentioned at the beginning of this article?
Many men, from childhood, are boxed into restricting gender roles. From the moment that blue toys are given to boys, gender biases begin to beset the infantile mind. Many of us grow up surrounded by messages from family, the media and the culture at large on what it means to be a man. Be stoic. Don’t cry. Never show weakness. Make a lot of money so you can be the breadwinner. It’s tougher to fight than to cry. Do not seem “feminine” by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t talk about your problems because it makes you “less masculine.” These are only a few of the many dictates on gender conformity we are fed throughout our lives. Many of us spend the rest of our lives structuring our identities around becoming this “ideal” man. These restrictive constructs prevent us from developing an authentic self from the inside out.
Take the idea that success and achievement is a proxy for becoming a “real” man. Students at Stanford are all inherently motivated; there are rarely any people I’ve seen on this campus who do not frequently devote their entire being into something they are passionate about. In this vein, Stanford is a beautiful place, constituted of multifaceted personalities with the potential to become game-changers for society. Yet there is an ugly underside to the same facets of our community that we celebrate, especially when it comes to how we address masculinity at Stanford.
For many, success and perseverance are crucial parts of “being a man.” But sometimes, we as men single-mindedly pursue success, and this mindset can cause severe damage. More often than not, men at Stanford generally tend to enter high-paying fields such as computer science to embark upon a lucrative career — indeed, such trends have become almost monolithic at this point. According to the 2016 Department of Education, an overwhelming majority (63%) of STEM majors in the U.S. are men as compared to women (37%), yet non-STEM majors have a much higher proportion of women (~60%) compared to men (~40%). While understanding that female discrimination and the flawed stereotype threat that women “can’t succeed” in these areas explain part of this statistical disparity, the data makes sense: higher salaries, on average, in STEM fields are likely to be earned by men, who are tasked with being breadwinners by traditional norms of masculinity. These social standards often effectively force men to go into these fields. After all, how would we as men fulfill our roles as breadwinners if we weren’t making the money to show for it?
From my experience, many feel as if they cannot express what’s wrong in their lives, whether the “Stanford Duck Syndrome” or other factors are to blame. My experience as a graduate of an all-boys high school has informed me that this inability to express oneself rings true especially for many men, who, since birth, are boxed into a narrative that prescribes that they must be strong and cannot express weakness. Few people want to tell others if they’ve failed their midterm, gotten rejected from that club or didn’t get that job. But we as men especially tend to find ourselves without true outlets for expressing our feelings of dejection, simply because we have been told all our lives that real men don’t need them. Instead, we are told that we must be independent.
I know of few organizations on campus that provide safe spaces for men to talk about pertinent male issues that ripple across our culture. We have The Bridge, but what about a male peer counseling group? We have many affinity groups on campus, but none that offer supportive spaces for men to productively open up about how they feel. While fraternities, the only prominent male organizations on campus, definitely provide a close-knit group for many, they are not the solution to problems of false masculinity. Through cultures of hazing, men are forced to fit a certain mold if they want to become part of an exclusive society. High-pressure rushing processes often begin even earlier than freshman spring quarter. One can easily see how fraternities often only reinforce the norms around masculinity that make it hard for us men to be ourselves.
Is the fact that we have been a historically powerful group a barrier to making progress on how to take care of our men? Are people too afraid to focus on men’s health, men’s rights or masculinity for fear of being branded as misogynistic for empowering men? I argue the opposite. Let’s empower our men to be the best they can be — not just for us, but for the benefit of everyone involved in issues regarding masculinity.
Addressing the needs we have as men at Stanford, be it men’s rights or how traditional masculine roles hinder us from being better men, would be beneficial for everyone. As a feminist myself, I argue that if we address how we can be better men — how to talk about our feelings openly and transparently, not see violence as a method for expressing our anger and discard expectations thrust upon us to be socially impervious or financially successful, to name a few — we will also better our interactions with women and other genders. Opening the conversation on how sexual assault interfaces with masculinity can be a kickstarter for mitigating sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Expressing our feelings openly in a safe space for men can ameliorate the impact of “Stanford Duck Syndrome” among men here. Let’s not be scared to talk about masculinity. Let’s talk about being ourselves. Let’s talk about vulnerability and expressing our emotions. Let’s talk about how it’s perfectly normal and fine to fail and be wrong. Let’s talk about becoming the best we can be. We can only make the lives of others better by doing so.
Contact Neetish Sharma at neetishs ‘at’ stanford.edu.