Achieving Gender Equity Depends on Boys, And How We Raise Them

To build a truly equitable world, we must understand that gender equality is for everyone, and needs everyone—including boys and men.

Research found boys’ most common fear in sharing complicated feelings with friends is that it would be used against them. Even still, many boys want to find ways to be engaged, respectful and emotionally expressive. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

International Women’s Day presents a special chance for the world to celebrate achievements towards gender equality. While we’ve seen great progress for girls and women, we still have a long way to go.

To build a truly equitable world, we must understand that gender equality is for everyone, and needs everyone—including boys and men. When raised with an understanding that countering harmful gender norms isn’t just for the benefit of others, but for their own benefit, boys will grow to be fulfilled in who they are. And when boys and men can see the necessary roles they play in standing up for equality, they will be engaged contributors in creating a world where all people are free to pursue their full potential. 

Gender Equality Starts in Boyhood

Gender norms are the standards to which women and men are expected to conform to in a given society, ruling everything from dress to behavior. Research shows that boys are more rigidly held to these norms than girls. Bombarded by the influence of family, school, sports, television and society, boys are pressured to “be boys” before they even begin kindergarten—unemotional, aggressive and hyper-competitive. 

Recent Promundo-U.S. research found boys’ most common fear in sharing complicated feelings with friends is that it would be used against them. Two in five teen boys say society expects them to be violent when angry; three in five say they feel pressure to be strong. Such factors put boys’ health at risk—globally, homicide rates for adolescent boys are four times higher than adolescent girls, and their likelihood to engage in harmful alcohol consumption is three times as high. 

Adhering to stereotypical, harmful gender norms hurts both boys and girls—boys as young as six years old were seen to bother girls in the classroom when encouraged by peers. In older groups, 62 percent of boys reported hearing other boys make sexual comments or jokes about girls at least once a week. 

Boyhood is a critical time to prevent destructive and self-defeating behavior. When boys are able to break free from stereotypes and limiting cultural expectations, they are much more likely to invest in their own social, emotional and mental health, developing a stronger sense of self and a greater likelihood to, in turn, care for others.  

And here’s the good news—many boys resist these harmful norms and want to find ways to be engaged, respectful and emotionally expressive. Indeed, when we ask young boys about their definition of what it means to be a man, the responses are nearly always positive—caring, respectful, stands up for others. This tells us that our work to engage boys in society’s collective goal of healthy manhood is in large part about helping boys be the authentic, connected humans they want to be.

Skills for Success

It’s time we provide children the skills they need to lead successful and fulfilling lives. When it comes to boys, it’s critical that they have the tools and confidence to embrace positive traits of masculinity and be brave enough to deconstruct harmful ones. To see change, we must make change—and that begins with engaging all children, from an early age, with this issue.

Room to Read and Promundo-U.S. recently partnered to design a curriculum centered around life skills for boys. The program, provided to public school students and supported by teachers, promotes opportunities for boys to discuss, understand and question harmful ideas about manhood, and build positive habits in return.

Boys are led through a curriculum that is unique, and certainly new in the school setting—including weekly sessions on “Gender and Societal Expectations,” “Understanding My Emotions,” “Types of Violence” and “Power,” among others. They are asked to come up with actionable solutions to fairly manage household responsibilities, describe positive ways to react when angry, identify who they can go to when they are struggling and to challenge norms and behaviors that promote sexism and gender inequality.    

Within just a few weeks of instruction, Room to Read facilitators in Cambodia observed how teen boys started communicating more openly and positively, showing greater respect to classmates and sharing more often with girls. 

In Sri Lanka, a group session on puberty, sexuality and health led to the confession that a boy in the sixth grade was verbally and sexually harassing female classmates. Through conversations and mentoring with Room to Read facilitators, the boy admitted that he had been frequently exposed to sexually explicit content, which had negatively impacted the way he was feeling and behaving towards others. Since gaining this awareness, this boy has been able to refrain from consuming harmful content, invest in his education and commit to respecting those around him.

We know that gender equality and life skills can be learned. Room to Read has seen it firsthand, while supporting more than 3.2 million adolescent girls over the past 22 years. Research found that, in just two years, Room to Read’s life skills and gender equality curriculum helped teen girls in India experience a 40 percent increase in deciding who and when they will marry, a 20 percent increase in their ability to articulate a goal and a 35 percent increase in communicating effectively with parents. Now, we want to make sure that all young people have that same opportunity. 

Hope for the Future

The pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress made towards gender equality and has particularly affected the lives of women and girls as they face additional risks like early marriage, trafficking, violence from men or everyday discrimination. They shouldn’t be facing these challenges alone.

This International Women’s Day, we call upon parents, guardians, educators and school systems to prioritize gender equality by reevaluating how they teach and treat children. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that the rising generation is prepared to shape their future and is unafraid to break limiting social norms, including those around manhood and womanhood. If provided the skills and opportunities they deserve, these young people will change the world.

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About and

Dr. Geetha Murali is the CEO of Room to Read, a leading international education organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children.®
Dr. Gary Barker, Ph.D., is a leading global voice in engaging men and boys in advancing gender equality and positive masculinities. He is the CEO and co-founder of Promundo-US.