Act Like a Man, Act Like a Woman

The aim of this activity is to increase awareness of differences in rules of behaviour for men and women and understand how gender roles affect the lives of men and women.

This activity will help you think about perceptions of gender norms in your country or region. Remember that these perceptions can be affected by class, race, ethnicity and other differences and will be somewhat different for other people than for you. It is also important to remember that gender norms are constantly changing in many countries.

As you go through these steps, realize that they are meant for both men and women to consider. Even though you may feel that you have more knowledge about the norms for your own sex, you should still be able to reflect on norms for the opposite sex. Gender norms are generalized and shared by the majority of society, and both men and women can pressure their same-sex peers and can pressure peers from the opposite sex to “act like a man” or “act like a woman”.

Act Like a Man, Act Like a Woman

  • Have you ever been told to “act like a man”?
  • If yes, think about how it made you feel.
  • Have you heard men or boys being told to “act like a man”?
  • Have you ever told someone to “act like a man”?
  • Why do you think people say this to men or boys?

Act Like a Man, Act Like a Woman

  • Now, have you ever been told to “act like a woman”?
  • If yes, think about how it made you feel.
  • Have you ever heard other women or girls being told to “act like a woman”?
  • Why do you think people say this to women and girls?

Act Like a Man, Act Like a Woman

Sometimes people are told to act like a man or woman because they are behaving in a way which is traditionally thought of as unmasculine or unfeminine. As an example, for boys, it may be because they were crying or because they were not being “tough” enough. For girls, it may be because they were playing/dressing too much like a boy. There are many times and reasons when people use this. The important thing is to think what this construction of being a man or woman generally means in your context—not only what you yourself believe, but what you understand are the expectations in your context for men and women.

Act Like a Man, Act Like a Woman

We are now going to look more closely at these two phrases. By looking at them, we can begin to see how society creates very different rules for how men and women are supposed to behave. These rules are sometimes called “gender norms” because they define what is “normal” for men and women to think, feel, and act. These rules often restrict the lives of both women and men by keeping men in their “Act like a Man” box and women in their “Act like a Woman” box.

Act like a Man

Now, let’s begin to think of a list for expectations or behaviours for "act like a man." What are men in your community told in terms of how they should behave or what people expect of a man? Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer; the idea is to begin to list and reflect about these expectations regarding men and women. Also, keep in mind that we should be listing what are common expectations regarding manhood in your community/society, not specifically what you personally believe should be expected of men (though both may coincide at times).

To help, we are going to give you one example: “Strong”. In many societies, men are often expected to be strong: This does not just mean strong in terms of physical strength (though it can), but also strong in the sense of having power or not displaying weakness. Does “Strong” fit on your list, yes or no?

Act like a Man

Great! Let’s go on; now you can begin to list some behaviours or characteristics which you think are expected of men in your context.

Fine, that was just an example, and as we mentioned, expectations for men can vary between regions, among countries and even within countries. Please go on and list some characteristics which you believe are generally expected from men in your context.

When you are finished, click DONE.

Add Field

Act like a Man

Great, we are going to go over a short list of some other examples of characteristics of men that often mentioned as being expected; accept them to your list if you believe they are relevant and if you did not already include them in your list.

Possible additions to your “Act like a Man” list

  • Strong
  • Tough
  • In control
  • Does not back down
  • Brave/courageous
  • Does not cry
  • Provider
  • Aggressive
  • Violent
  • Decision maker
  • Has had multiple sex partners (female only)
  • Is always ready for sex
  • Drinks and/or smokes
  • Needs to prove he is heterosexual
  • Is self-reliant/independent
  • Takes risks

Act like a Man

This is your final list! You will notice that the list is now presented as a box. This is to help emphasize that these expectations work like a box in that they constrain what we are able to do or feel comfortable doing. Outside the box are arrows pushing inwards, and these represent different actors in society that at different times may seek to keep us in these boxes. The arrows can be:

  • Peers (i.e., friends, co-workers, school mates)
  • Family members
  • Partners or spouses
  • Public institutions (i.e., teachers, employers, medical staff, police)
  • Government policies and laws
  • Media
  • Religious institutions

Act like a Man

What do you think about your Act like a Man list? Is it realistic to expect men to live up to these expectations?

Which of these messages can be potentially harmful? For example, believing that as a man you must be Strong all the time can keep you from admitting when you are ill (a specific form of being weak) and can be part of what keeps men from seeking health care or even help from others with their problems. Being Strong can also lead a man to cover up any weaknesses including expressing fear or sadness, emotions that at times can be equalled with weakness.

Using the cursor, click to highlight each message that you believe can be harmful to men's, women's, or children’s health or to society.

Act like a Man

Now think of the next few questions yourself.

  • How does living in the box impact a man’s health and the health of others, especially in relation to reproductive health, unwanted pregnancies and the use of contraception?
  • How does living in the box limit men’s lives and the lives of those around them?
  • What happens to men who try not to follow the gender rules (e.g. “living outside the box”)? What do people say about them? How are they treated?
  • How can “living outside the box” help men to prevent unplanned pregnancy and improve SRH, including reducing STIs and HIV infection?

Act like a Woman

Now, if you could begin to think more about "act like a woman." What are women told in their community in terms of how they should behave or what people expect out of a woman. Please list some of this behaviors now.

To help, we are going to give you one example: “Submissive”. Women are often expected to be submissive (especially to their husbands) in many societies; this does not just mean that they are always submissive, but that in general if there is a difference between the spouses, they are supposed to accede to their husband’s decision (as the head of the household). Does “Submissive” fit on your list, yes or no?

Act like a Woman

Great, then let’s go on; now you can begin to list some behaviours or characteristics which you think are expected of women in your context.

Fine, that was just an example; as we mentioned, expectations for women can vary between regions, among countries and even within countries. Please go on and list some characteristics which you believe are expected from women in your context.

When you are finished, click DONE

Add Field

Act like a Woman

Great, we are going to go over a short list of some other examples of characteristics which are often mentioned as being expected of women; accept them to your list if you believe that they are relevant and if you did not already include them in your list.

Possible additions to your “act like a woman” list

  • Weaker/ need to be protected
  • Passive/submissive
  • Must be attractive/sexy but not too sexy
  • Must dress “respectably”
  • Must care/nurture her marriage/relationship
  • Must please her partner sexually
  • Caregiver (for children, partner and sick relatives)
  • Homemaker (responsible for the house work/cooking)
  • Must obey husband
  • Must produce children (in some cases, male children)

Act like a Woman

This is your final list! You will notice that the list is now presented as a box. This is to help emphasize that these expectations work like a box, in that they constrain what we are able to do or what we feel comfortable doing. Outside the box are arrows pushing inwards; these represent different actors in society which at different times may seek to keep us in these boxes. The arrows can be:

  • Peers (i.e., friends, co-workers, schoolmates)
  • Family members
  • Partners or spouses
  • Public institutions (i.e., teachers, employers, medical staff, police)
  • Government policies and laws
  • Media
  • Religious institutions

Act like a Woman

What do you think about this list? Is it realistic to expect women to live up to these expectations?

Which of these messages can be potentially harmful? For example, believing that as a woman you must be “submissive or passive” can keep you from asserting your own views or taking decisions which are in your best interest. If you believe that you should use condoms as a couple but your partner does not, being submissive can mean that you will end up accepting his decision instead of asserting your right to use protection in a sexual relationship. In the end, this can be harmful to the woman, to her partner , or to their family.

Using the cursor, click to highlight each message that you believe can be harmful to men's, women's, or children’s health or to society.

Act like a Woman

Now think of the next few questions yourself:

  • How does living in the box impact a woman’s health and the health of others, especially in relation to reproductive health, unintended pregnancies and the use of contraception?
  • How does living in the box limit women’s lives and the lives of those around them?
  • What happens to women who try not to follow the gender rules (e.g., who try “living outside the box”)? What do people say about them? How are they treated?
  • How can “living outside the box” help women to avoid unintended pregnancies and improve their SRH, including reducing STIs and HIV infection?

Transformed Men/Women:

Now we are going to think of another list, this time for “Transformed Men/Women”: men and women who do not live within the Act like a Man and Act like a Women boxes which we created.

In the end, the characteristics which belong to men who are living outside the box should be similar to or the same as those for women who live outside the box. In other words, gender expectations and roles should be flexible, with either person (male or female) being able to be strong, show emotions, care for children, be a breadwinner, be assertive, discuss their relationship, etc. The important thing is not to create another box, but instead to convey that individual men and women can choose what roles and behaviours they want for themselves throughout their lives. It also allows couples to be flexible and to change roles (breadwinner, caregiver, etc.) as it best suits them. In many ways, it is far less stressful and far less limiting than living in a box.

Transformed Men/Women:

Please list six characteristics of men who are “transformed.”

Transformed Men

Transformed Men/Women:

Here is an example of a transformed men and transformed women list in which the characteristics are the same or similar.

Transformed Men

  • Breadwinner
  • Caregiver
  • Homemaker
  • Strong
  • Able to express range of emotions
  • Willing to ask for help
  • Courageous
  • Assertive

Transformed Women

  • Breadwinner
  • Caregiver
  • Homemaker
  • Strong
  • Able to express range of emotions
  • Willing to ask for help
  • Courageous
  • Assertive

Notice that even though many items above come from the Act like a Man and Act like a Woman boxes, this is not a box. It is meant to reflect freedom of choice and equality, in that both men and women can play any of the roles. That said, it does not mean that men and women must do or play exactly the same roles all of the time. Also, many items were not included (such as Violent or Passive/Submissive).

Transformed Men/Women:

Now, let’s return to your list and make any changes you would like based on the example we just showed.

Transformed Men

Transformed Women

Transformed Men/Women:

Consider some of the following questions:

  • Are your perceptions about the roles of men and women affected by what your family and friends think? How?
  • How can you, in your own life, challenge some of the non-equitable ways men are expected to act? How can you challenge some of the non-equitable ways that women are expected to act?

Transformed Men/Women:

Lastly, do the media have an effect on gender norms? If so, in what way(s)?

  • Can you think of images from the media which portray women negatively or stereotypically (i.e., as the "act like a woman" box)?
  • Can you think of images from the media that portray men or women negatively or stereotypically (i.e., as the "act like a man" box)? For examples, click here.

Here are some examples of ways in which the media can portray men and women in ways that can push men and women to stay in their gender boxes.

  • News media sometimes cover stories about sexual violence against women in a way which begins to judge women and to place responsibility for the crime on the victim. Also, mothers who abandon their children are often treated in a sensationalistic and judgemental way, even though this is far less common than fathers abandoning their children (which is hardly covered as news).
  • Advertisements for beer and liquor in some countries use images which treat women like objects or which promote traditional versions of masculinity (i.e., real men drink).
  • Pop music sometimes portrays sexuality in ways which can be violent and non-consensual.
  • Advertisements for cooking or household products often focus solely on women, even when they are not the sole consumers of the products, thus promoting traditional versions of femininity.
  • Films often portray men as the primary characters and, in action movies, as heroes who settle problems with violence and are the main decision makers. They often portray women as passive and in need of protection or saving.

Closing:

Throughout their lives, men and women receive messages from peers, family, media and society about how they should act as men or women and how they should relate to women and men. Many of these differences are constructed by society and are not part of our nature or biological make-up. Many of these expectations are completely fine, as long as they can apply to both men and women. We should all have the ability to identify norms or expectations which we do not want for ourselves, as well as the right to keep them from limiting our full potential as human beings. We also have the right to decide which roles or behaviours we prefer as individuals, regardless of social expectations based on our sex. As we become more aware of how some gender stereotypes can negatively impact our lives and communities, we can think constructively about how to challenge them and promote more positive gender roles and relationships in our lives and communities.

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