Connell on Changing Gender Roles

Connell analyses some of the dimensions of shifting gender roles:

In some milieux, such as younger professional and intellectual networks in Western cities, domestic equality and shared household labour is now common sense. How many men actually take on full-time care of babies depends … on economic arrangements that make it affordable; the point is that many households think it is the right thing to do. Some institutions also are functioning to extend equality. The education system has tended to equalize access, and its economic weight has grown. Within the patriarchal state particular units work in the interests of women, for instance, equal opportunity programmes, women’s services and campaigns to prevent violence against women. Localized institutional change of this kind consolidates the shift in gender ideology.

At the heart of this is a cultural change, deeper than the liberal concept of ‘equal rights’ through which it is expressed, is the emergence of a historical consciousness about gender.’ …

[Following is an overview of] four major dimensions … in gender relations … [reflecting the] current state of play in rich Western countries …

(a) Power

Advantages: Men hold predominant authority in business and the state, with a near-monopoly of top positions. Men and boys tend to control public spaces such as streets and playgrounds. Men hold authority in many families and institutions of civil society. Men have near total control of coercive institutions (military, police) and control of the means of violence (weapons, military training). Men are relatively free from rape and serious domestic violence.

Disadvantages: Men are the overwhelming majority of people arrested and imprisoned, including those executed. Men are the main targets of military violence and criminal assault. Men are more likely to be the targets of economic competition and organizational rivalry.

(b) Division of Labour

Advantages: Men have approximately twice the average income of women, and control most of the major concentrations of wealth. Men have higher levels of economic participation, and better access to future opportunities, e.g. promotions. Men, especially husbands, receive benefits from the unpaid labour of women. Men control most of the machinery (e.g. transport, power generation, computers) that is the basis of a modern economy and specifically multiplies the economic value of labour.

Disadvantages: Men predominate in dangerous and highly toxic occupations. Men include a higher proportion of sole earners (‘breadwinners’) with social compulsion to remain employed. Because of the occupational division of labour, men’s skills are subject to rapid obsolescence. Men pay a higher average rate of taxation, with income disproportionately redistributed to women, through the welfare state.

(c) Cathexis

Advantages: Men receive much emotional support from women about social obligation to reciprocate. Heterosexuality is socially organized to prioritize men’s pleasure, in personal relationships as well as sexualized mass media. A double standard legitimates men’s sexual freedom and a commercial sex industry serves it.

Disadvantages: Men’s sexuality is more alienated, and more sharply constrained by homophobia. A taboo on free expression of emotions, especially vulnerability, continues (this is perhaps now changing). Men are substantially excluded from relationships with very young children.

(d) Symbolism

Advantages: Men control most cultural institutions (churches, universities, media). Religion general, and sometimes specifically, defines men as superordinate to women. Men have higher levels of recognition, i.e. they and their activities are regarded as more important, newsworthy and appropriate to resource. (Example: sport.) Boys and men predominate in high-return and highly resourced areas of education. (Examples: MBA, biotechnology, IT.)

Disadvantages: Boys and men are losing ground in general education. They are under-represented in important learning experiences, e.g. humanistic studies. Mothers’ legitimacy in childcare tends to over-ride fathers’ interests in marital separation disputes.


Connell, R.W. 2005. Masculinities. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. pp. 227, 246–248.


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