Life in the Glass Mancave

It’s been 27 years – I know, time flies! – since John Gray first published “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”. To mark this anniversary, I was recently asked to report on how the gender landscape has shifted since then, and what it REALLY means to be a man in the 21st century.

My research – looking at existing literature as well as the most recent data and statistics – paints a shocking picture: a picture of men largely unable to engage healthily with their male identity. What is male identity these days, anyway? For centuries it was based on the premise that men demonstrate their purpose by going to war, doing dirty and dangerous jobs, and by being “the provider”. 

Military recruitment has declined, coalmines are now heritage museums, former steelworks are retail parks and the dockyards now house swanky hotels and art galleries.  Yet many men still cling onto notions of manliness created hundreds of years ago, and are struggling to enact them in a healthy way today.  In his fabulous book “Man Up”, Jack Urwin states that men are now “crushed under the weight of expectation society lays on them – forbidden from becoming emotionally mature and taught to repress any negative thoughts”.

You’ve heard of the ‘glass ceiling’, right?  Let me now introduce you to what I am calling the ‘glass mancave’. Many men are trapped in this mancave (and, as it is glass, often do not even know that it exists), and they are unable to express themselves without recourse to the tropes of toxic masculinity. 

Urwin describes how masculinity can fall under two headings – active and passive.  Active masculinity is seen in the overt displays of sexism, risk-taking, self-harm, violence, dangerous driving and drug-taking routinely witnessed in any town centre in the UK.  The effects of this are plain to see: men are vastly over-represented when it comes to violent crimes (actually, most crimes), homicides, road traffic deaths, drug and alcohol dependency, rough sleeping, and of course – suicide. 

Passive masculinity is potentially even more dangerous. It is characterised by the stiff upper lip, the buried emotions, the limited emotional vocabulary, the not-asking-for-help, the self-medicating. I didn’t realise it for years, but my late uncle was a poster-boy for this kind of masculinity. Having spent much of WWII as a POW of Japanese troops, he had seen suffering that no person should ever have to experience. I remember visiting him in the 70s and 80s, and being under orders not to annoy him: his occasional rages, built perhaps on a lifetime of repressed anger and helplessness, were legendary. He would sit at home every night and drink. Again, the stats tell their own story: men are over-represented on the roll-call for premature death by strokes, cancer, coronary heart disease, and illnesses exacerbated by stress and/or alcohol.

In his 2016 book “The Descent of Man”, Grayson Perry says that it’s as if men are still fighting a war that ended decades ago – and I absolutely agree with him. Men need to learn about new ways of being, to find new ways of making meaning and finding purpose; to break out of the glass mancave, so to speak. If, as Urwin suggests, ‘masculinity’ is merely a reflection of how the majority of men behave at any point in time, a real tipping point could be achieved.

In the half-day workshop that I run on this subject, I ask participants to identify what needs to happen – both personally and organisationally – to make this important breakthrough. Every organisation is unique, and so too are the solutions. However, the issue of language is often cited: noting how easily words and phrases are gendered, and how carelessly applied.  Also mentioned is the need for role models of ‘new’ masculinity, who are dependable, tender and congruent. The desire for policies which allow men to play a more active (dare I say ‘non-traditional’) role outside of work, is also an increasingly popular output from these sessions.

The benefits of this movement are immense. The ‘push’ factors are the moves away from the horrendous current reality of male mental and physical ill-health and criminality. These are only enhanced by the ‘pull’ factors of better relationships, more hands-on fathering and generally a nicer working and living environment for us all.

So – who’s ready to smash through the glass mancave with me?