Why too many men in the past cast a modern shadow

Norms and beliefs about 'proper' male conduct have deep historical roots

​Masculine gender norms in Australia may be gradually shifting, along with attitudes to the LGBTQ community, but new research has revealed traditional views among men remain prevalent in areas that experienced larger male-female imbalances during the convict era of the 1800s.

Masculine norms and beliefs about the 'proper' conduct of men have deep historical roots according to the paper, 'Men. Roots and consequences of masculinity norms', co-authored by Pauline Grosjean, a professor in the school of economics at UNSW Business School, Victoria Baranov from the University of Melbourne and Ralph De Haas from the University of Tilburg.

In areas that were heavily male-biased in the past, but not the present, more Australians voted against legalising same sex marriage (SSM), an institution at odds with traditional masculinity norms, the researchers found.

The SSM vote results were very serendipitous, says Grosjean, who has previously researched the link between historical male ratios from convict times and modern attitudes by using opinion data on gender norms.

"We had tried to explore other data but when the SSM vote was announced we knew we would have a hard measure of real attitudes to people's sexuality,'' she says.

Analysis of the 2017 postal plebiscite on SSM quickly showed a very strong statistical relationship between the results of the SSM vote in certain locations where the historical data revealed a male bias in the population. And survey data has also shown that the voting pattern (against SSM) was mostly driven by men.

"Homosexuality is at odds with traditional masculinity norms," Grosjean explains. "A real man is not traditionally seen as a gay man by the majority of men."

'If the context you come from is conservative gender norms, it’s not to your advantage to necessarily hold different gender norms'


The dominant view

The research uncovered some other patterns in men's behaviour in these areas: they remain characterised by more violence, excessive alcohol consumption and occupational gender segregation. But these were not necessarily an outcome of convict settlements but of male bias in the population, Grosjean adds.

"Consistently what I find in this work is that convictism in itself is not really what drives the results but having a lot more men than women. It's not necessarily true that where you had the most convicts you had the highest sex ratios. Some places had few convicts and high sex ratios. And it is important to stress it is not a systematic urban/rural divide. We control for all these things."

Regardless of why male bias existed, it has resulted in some noticeable patterns in modern times. Areas once characterised by high sex ratios have higher levels of specific types of violent crime – not necessarily property crime and so they were not necessarily wealthier or poorer areas, says Grosjean.

There is also a tendency for greater occupational segregation. Men in these locales are more likely to have masculine type occupations (such as construction or trade jobs) and women to have definite feminine-type occupations such as nursing or teaching.

These patterns are "manifestations of masculinity norms that emerged due to intense local male-male competition and that persisted over time", the paper states. For example, when men make up the majority in communities there can be intensified rivalry for marriage partners.

Just why the norms remain in place many decades after the population mix in these areas has changed was due to a few factors, Grosjean says.

"Once the population holds certain views it's very costly to deviate from them because there is a tendency to conform to whatever the dominant view is," she says.

"So if the context you come from is conservative gender norms, it's not to your advantage to necessarily hold different gender norms."

Doing the same thing

A recent research paper from Sweden shows that men who took up paternity leave were more likely to get a divorce and Grosjean thinks one of the explanations for that is it's very difficult to switch away from a cultural norm – and much easier to conform.

If you are the stay-at-home wife and all your friends are too, then you have a cohort. But for the husbands, she says, when they are at home with the baby and are the only man doing that, you pay a big social cost.

The cost of deviating from the cultural norms can also be high because it can have an impact on employment or marriage prospects. So masculinity attitudes serve a purpose, Grosjean says, making them difficult to change.

For men at the top of the hierarchy there was no incentive to deviate from norms that serve them well, and men at the bottom of the pile cannot deviate. Everybody would have to agree to make a decision to switch to a new norm, because it's a collective thing, she adds.

The same dynamics could apply to the topic of climate change and how to address it, because when everyone has been doing the same thing there's no incentive to move.

Meanwhile, changes to the population and demographics of districts examined in the research, including from migration, have not been as profound as might be expected. 

"The thing is the population moves around but it's not like everyone in one year decides to move around and pack their bag," Grosjean explains. "It's a few people coming in and it's the same thing if you arrive in an area – you want to fit in. You are going to conform to the existing views … the norms are quite robust to migration."

'We find the historical sex ratio has a significant effect on the way that women are treated in firms with a causal effect on firm performance'


Tenacity of attitudes

Family values can be remarkably robust over generations too. While many of us may want to believe we have independently formed all our views, it turns out the environment we grow up in has a major impact.

"There is vertical transmission so people generally adopt views that are kind of similar to their parents, and then you can also imagine there are all sorts of institutional ways you perpetuate those norms, through schools," Grosjean says.

The findings and the tenacity of traditional gender attitudes in historically male-biased groups have much broader implications. In particular, the business community has many enclaves where men have mostly dominated, including sectors such as resources and construction, and decision-making cohorts within organisations, such as boards.

As the researchers point out, the findings also reinforce recent research revealing that decision-makers who spent their formative years in all-male high schools or neighbourhoods with greater gender inequality, display more gender-biased behaviour during their subsequent professional career.

The implications of this will be the focus of future studies.

"We have firm-level data and we measure how they treat women and the progression of women in firms and relate this to sexism norms," Grosjean says. 

"We find the historical sex ratio has a significant effect on the way that women are treated in firms with a causal effect on firm performance. We are showing the cost in terms of firm performance lost by the fact that you have this legacy and are less favourable to women in firms with less progression."

The results can also help inform discussions about norm setting in heavily male- biased settings such as the army, police force, gender-segregated schools, prisons, or some academic departments.

​ ​ 


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy