Talking to Dads: overcoming the restrictions of gender norms

Gender theories and concepts about masculinity and femininity have evolved substantially during the past 50 years. We have moved from a belief that men and women operate according to fixed biological determinants, to seeing masculinity and femininity as separate, but overlapping ‘sets of mutually created characteristics shaping the lives of men and women’1.

Masculinities are the ‘practices, attitudes and behaviours that are associated with men and boys and how they should act’1. They include social norms — the unwritten rules about how to behave in society. Masculinities exist in many forms, and are expressed and experienced in many ways, depending on age, culture and social group1. Masculinity is learnt and expressed through social observation and interaction, and is embedded in institutions2.

Not all men conform to traditional masculine expectations, but it is common for them to feel pressure, either consciously or subconsciously, to do so. Most men disagree with outdated stereotypes of masculinity but feel pressure to conform to them2.

Traditional, unequal parenting roles are determined by gender and reinforced by social norms, and also influence differences in income levels and access to parental leave. Stereotypes and normative views around parenting, masculinity and femininity can reinforce specific roles within families and exclude people from pursuing other roles. For instance, the hardworking, absent, male breadwinner stereotype can pigeonhole men into external work and subsequent absence from the parenting and caregiver space3. Similarly, the caring, dedicated mother stereotype may be a barrier to women fully pursuing employment aspirations.    

Some of the most significant barriers in engaging fathers in health and parenting services are gender-stereotyped attitudes and biases. Entrenched beliefs about gender roles can be held by parents and health practitioners and operate at institutional or system levels4. When there is a view that the mother is the most competent parent – regardless of whether this view is held by the mother, father or health practitioner – fathers can be treated as an afterthought or, at worst, stigmatised, excluded or alienated. Importantly, biases on the part of the healthcare provider, such as a belief that mothers are intuitively better at caring for a sick child, may be reflected subtly through communication with fathers5. Such attitudes can discourage fathers from fully engaging in their parenting role even if they had hoped to do so.  

The influence of masculinities can also affect fathers’ help-seeking. For example, conformity to traditional masculine norms, such as the idea that men should be strong, can lead to men bottling up negative emotions and ignoring signs of depression or anxiety. Among men, and young men in particular, adherence to traditional masculine norms and beliefs is a barrier to receiving less healthcare and particularly mental health services6,7.

Talking to Dads

Try to use language that avoids reinforcement of gender stereotypes, direct all information to both parents, and acknowledge that they are equally important.

Encourage parents to discuss and negotiate their roles and responsibilities, rather than follow stereotypes without consideration of alternative options.  

When talking to fathers, avoid words like ‘help’ or ‘support’. Instead, talk about ‘teamwork’ and ‘shared parenting’. Rather than suggesting fathers should ‘be strong’ for their partners, talk about creating a ‘strong team’ and acknowledge it is common for strong people to feel uncertain or vulnerable and to seek support. 

Avoid words that reinforce masculine roles, like ‘leader’, ‘breadwinner’ or ‘provider’, and acknowledge their kindness, that they can nurture and be a source of comfort. Avoid suggestions, even with humour, like ‘men are hopeless at this or that’ or that they ‘babysit’. Avoid suggesting the mother is the expert and that she knows best.  

Think about the use of gendered language across the health system and within your health service. Mother-focused terminology can give the impression that fathers do not belong in a space primarily for women. Review how the words and messages your health service uses are perceived by fathers and other non-birthing parents, ideally by asking them. 

Consider whether your physical environment, publications or marketing materials may be reinforcing gender stereotypes about parenting roles. Ensure posters and pictures represent all parents and diverse families.   

By avoiding language that supports gendered parenting stereotypes, you will give space for families to decide together how they will share their roles, and for fathers to make more equal contributions to parenting.  

How can you find out more? 

We have some excellent resources available should you want to learn more about this project. 

  • Find the Plus Paternal webpage here
  • Download the Case for Change report here
  • Check out the Talking to Dads Language Guide here
  • Access the eLearning course here
  • Download the resource kit here
  • Plus Paternal: Conversations webinars: Healthy Male hosted a series of free webinars to explore ways to systematically improve men’s engagement and support as they seek to or become fathers. The webinars featured panellists from a range of disciplines, with opportunities for the audience to raise questions.
A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20 years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and wellbeing. Tim has written for and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.

  1. Gender Theory. Encyclopedia of European Social History. 28 March 2022
  2. VicHealth, Masculinities in Health: A Framework for challenging masculine gender stereotypes in health promotion. 2 May 2022 and resources/publications/healthiermasculinities
  3. Gaucher et al., 2011. Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality. Journal of personality and social psychology.
  4. Maxwell et al., 2012. Engaging fathers in child welfare services: A narrative review of recent research evidence. Child & Family Social Work
  5. Daundasekara et al., 2019. The Importance of Language in Behaviour Change. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
  6. Marcell et al., 2007. Masculine beliefs, parental communication, and male adolescents’ health care use. Pediatrics
  7. Rice et al., 2018. Adolescent and young adult male mental health: transforming systems failures into proactive models of engagement. Journal of Adolescent Health

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