Around the world, men are expected to display agency (assertiveness, independence) but not weakness (submissiveness, vulnerability), and women are expected to display communion (warmth, caring) but not dominance (bossiness, arrogance). These "gender rules" may seem old-fashioned, but they serve a practical function by preparing people for success in the gender-based roles that still exist nearly everywhere. In much of the world, men do most of the physically demanding and competitive, high-status work (requiring high agency and low weakness), and women do most of the caretaking, homemaking, and low-status work (requiring high communion and low dominance).   

In our research, we asked two questions.  

First, we asked if gender rules for men ("Be agentic!" "Don't be weak!") are stricter than gender rules for women ("Be communal!" "Don't be dominant!"). That is, we wondered if it's more important for men to be agentic than for women to be communal, and for men to avoid weakness than for women to avoid dominance.  

Second, we asked if the strictness of these gender rules differs along with a country's gender equality. We were lucky to be part of an international collaboration that allowed us to answer these questions using data from over 27,300 college students in 62 countries.  

To determine if gender rules are stricter for men than women, we asked people to rate how desirable it is in their country for "men to be assertive," "women to be warm," "men to be weak," and "women to be bossy." We then compared ratings of what men should and should not be to ratings of what women should and should not be. Summarizing across all 62 countries, we found stricter gender rules for men than women: Most people rated it more desirable for men to be agentic than for women to be communal, and more undesirable for men to be weak than for women to be dominant.  

Why do people hold men to stricter gender rules than women? We believe that this reflects a concept called "precarious manhood." Precarious manhood is the tendency to view manhood, but not womanhood, as a social status that is hard won and easily lost. Men in many cultures are taught that they must prove their masculinity regularly, often by risk-taking, acting aggressively, and avoiding anything feminine. When men fail to prove masculinity, they are punished—they may be bullied or ridiculed, or they may struggle to get promotions at work. Although women also face difficult gender standards, they are not expected to prove their femininity as routinely as men must prove masculinity.  

Next, we looked at the strength of gender rules for men versus women as a function of countries' gender equality. Gender equality is a country-level index of women's and men's equality in physical health, education, politics, and economic domains. Because labor divisions are more traditional in less gender-equal countries, men in such countries face more pressure to "be a man," and to act as protector and provider. Therefore, we wondered if gender rules would be stricter for men than for women especially in countries lower in gender equality.   

Here is the pattern we found for what men and women should be: In less gender-equal countries, agentic rules for men are much stricter than communal rules for women, and in more gender-equal countries, agentic rules for men and communal rules for women are similarly strict.

However, we found a different pattern for rules about what men and women should not be: Regardless of country-level gender equality, people around the world view men's weakness as much less desirable than women's dominance. These findings emerged even when controlling for country-level acceptance of LGBT individuals, indicating that they cannot be due entirely to homophobia. These different patterns of findings across the different types of gender rules were unexpected and require additional research for us to understand them. 

Why Does this Matter?  

People's lives are affected every day by gender rules. If men around the world are held to stricter gender rules than women—at least on some traits—then men likely encounter more daily pressure than women to follow those rules. Such pressures may then motivate men to prove masculinity by taking risks with their health. Illustrating this, in another study we found that men have poorer physical health, and even live an average of 7 fewer years, in countries where people believe more strongly in precarious manhood. The pressures on men to follow gender rules may also discourage them from pursuing gender-atypical jobs or activities that may suit them personally, such as early education, nursing, or homemaking. But to achieve real gender equality, we need more men in these roles. Because gender rules can impact people's life choices and outcomes, it is important to understand why the rules for men are sometimes stricter than those for women. Ultimately, understanding how gender rules differ for men and women, and around the world, is crucial for the advancement of gender equality. 

For Further Reading  

Bosson, J. K., Wilkerson, M., Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Jurek, P., & Olech, M. (2022). Harder won and easier lost? Testing the double standard in gender rules in 62 countries. Sex Roles, 87(1-19). 

Vandello, J. A., Wilkerson, M., Bosson, J. K., Wiernik, B. M., & Kosakowska-Berezecka, N. (2022). Precarious manhood and men's physical health around the world. Psychology of Men & Masculinities.    

Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2013). Hard won and easily lost: A review and synthesis of theory and research on precarious manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(2), 101-113.  

Jennifer Bosson is a social psychologist at the University of South Florida who studies gender roles, stereotypes, sexual prejudice, and identity. 

Mariah Wilkerson is a PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of South Florida working with Dr. Jennifer Bosson. Her research focuses on how culture, race, and sexual orientation influence our expectations for men and women.