A Life Cycle Approach to Working with Men and Boys to Create Gender-Equal Societies in Partnership with Women and Girls

December 14, 2016 

Globally, now more than ever, we need to have a very strong and a very serious conversation about working with men and boys to create gender-equal and inclusive societies. 

Violence and discrimination in any form, intolerance for diversity, and a lack of respect for the environment are some of the most urgent issues facing our global community. 

The conversation that we need to have is about addressing the root causes of these issues, including patriarchy, and about transforming our understanding of masculinities to create gender-equal and inclusive societies. At the same time, we need to scale up our work to support women’s and girls’ empowerment and to create a society where men, boys, women, and girls work in partnership for gender equality.

In working with men and boys to promote gender-equal and transformative masculinities, it is critical to work from an ecological approach, a human rights framework, and a life cycle perspective

The ecological approach starts from understanding that individual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about gender and diversity are shaped and influenced by social groups, institutions, and systems, such as our family, school, community, and even our media, government, and laws.  

A human rights framework demands that women and girls must be recognized as rights holders and their rights must be protected, fulfilled, and realized. Special measures must be undertaken to change the conditions and positions of women and girls in society. We need to transform the existing power relations in order to create societies that are free from all forms of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

The life cycle perspective recognizes that gender norms are shaped and influenced by all age groups, so we need to work across all age groups to create gender-equal societies


From the moment we are born, we learn ideas about gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes through the process of gender socialization. 

With infant boys, this starts with the typical choices of what color their clothes are supposed to be or what type of toys they are supposed to play with. Instead of reinforcing the gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes during infancy, we can promote a gender transformative approach and allow for infant boys to wear colors other than blue and play with toys other than cars and trucks and action figures. Boys should also be taught that it is okay to cry and to show their emotions.

During infancy, there is also a very important opportunity for fathers to take on the role of nurturing, caring parents. Targeted programs and employment policies, as well as family and community relationships, can help support fathers at this stage to become equal partners in the unpaid and undervalued work of parenting. 


As infant boys move through the life cycle onto boyhood, there will be many moments when they start to recognize how society marginalizes certain expressions of femininity (and other aspects of gender identities) and promotes certain expressions of masculinity. At this stage of the life cycle, instilling the value that all human beings have a right to inclusion, no matter what their identity, is critically important. An understanding of equality, fairness, and human rights can be taught to boys through education, recreation, faith-based institutions, media, and other activities. Boys—along with girls and society at large—will also benefit from being raised in a home free from violence and abuse, and in an environment where their caregivers role model respect and gender-equal relations. 


Adolescence is a critical stage of the life cycle, due to the changes in the physical body and the influence of the social environment. Even before adolescent boys start to go through puberty, it is critical to equip them with an understanding of healthy, gender-equal relationships (as well as an ability to recognize unhealthy and gender-unequal relationships), and to push back on the sexual scripts that they receive through all forms of media and other communication channels. 

Social and peer pressure to exhibit “normal” behaviors is also at its peak during adolescence. To fit in with expectations around gender and masculinity and to police others who do live up to those expectations, adolescent boys’ “performance” of masculinity may manifest in bullying, being discriminated against, or worse. 

At this stage, it is important for adolescent boys to push back against the singular expectation of masculinity and promote a culture of acceptance and appreciation for everyone’s unique identity. Instead of peer pressure to conform, adolescent boys can stand up and speak out against sexual violence, bullying, and exclusion. 

Older Adolescence and Young Adulthood

The social roles of “breadwinner” and “provider” emerge in older adolescence and young adulthood. As they begin to enter the workplace and experience a shift in their familial roles, boys and young men need to broaden their understanding of masculinity beyond stereotypical gender roles in the labor force and within the family. Boys and young men must start to understand the importance of sharing unpaid care and domestic responsibilities in the home and the right of women to participate in equally paid work. There is also a serious and urgent need to address gender-based and sexual violence at this age in settings including, but not limited to, colleges and universities.


As men progress through the life cycle, they must see their peers of other genders as equal participants in the paid workforce economic production and decision-making. If we want to create gender-equal societies—specifically for women to have equal opportunities to take on leadership and decision-making roles in all fields and spheres, it is critical for men to acknowledge their male power and privilege to fully support their female counterparts, partners, and spouses.  At the individual and family level and at the organizational and institutional level, we also need to foster a culture of fatherhood that values care work and shares the burden and the joy of parenting.  Involved fatherhood allows women and girls to achieve their full potential—now and in future generations. By sharing the caregiving and domestic work, men support women’s participation in the workforce and women’s equality overall. Involved fatherhood also carries forward across generations; it has been shown to contribute to boys’ acceptance of gender equality and to girls’ sense of autonomy and empowerment. Research finds that daughters with fathers who share domestic chores equally are more likely to aspire to less traditional and potentially higher-paying jobs. Children, women, and men also benefit when fathers take parental leave. Leave for fathers is a vital step toward recognition of the importance of sharing caregiving for children, and it is an important means of promoting the well-being of children and gender equality in the home, business, and society as a whole. 

“Before I had my daughter, I only knew how to play...Now that I have a daughter, my obligation is to her…if there’s anything missing at home, I have to go after it.” João, young father, Rio de Janeiro 

Older Adulthood

In the last phase of the life cycle, there is also important work for the older “patriarchs” to take on and reorient themselves to transforming gender relations. Interestingly, grandfathers often participate more in family caregiving than they did as fathers. Why don’t they encourage their sons to also take on this role when it’s their turn as fathers? In their families, in their chosen profession, and in all other areas where they have power and influence, we need our elder patriarchs to come out in supporting of gender-equal societies.

Across the world, we need to bring together and inspire all generations of men and boys to create gender-equal societies. 

At all stages of the life cycle, there are opportunities for men and boys to engage in critical reflection and use their power and privilege—along with learning and unlearning about gender relations and masculinities—which, in turn, will help to promote gender equality in solidarity with people of all other genders and identities. 

Adolescent boys, or younger men, or older men working on their own will not be the answer to achieving gender equality. To create gender-equal societies, men and boys must work in partnership with women and girls in all areas, and across all stages of the life cycle.


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.