As a parent of a daughter and two sons I think a lot about the messages I am passing on to my children about gender norms and roles.

Despite my own heightened sensitivity to this as someone who works full time promoting gender equality, there are times I do not apply the same standards at home: Why was it that my first thought was to ask my daughter to come with me on the Women’s March and not invite my sons as well? Why does my son often get asked to help with jobs around the house that involve heavy lifting? In our house, everyone is supposed to be responsible for their own laundry and yet my daughter was quick to point out she started doing her own laundry and making her own lunch at an earlier age than her brother. I have noticed how my children gravitate towards certain gendered behaviours that have not been intentionally taught. Regardless of my best efforts to promote equity in my home, we all still carry unconscious biases informed by culture − and these affect myself as a parent as well as my children.

As we unpack the issue of gender equality and the role of men, we need to consider how notions of masculinity are learned through the media but also within the home. When it comes to parenting and unpaid “care” work or household labour, women still take on these responsibilities disproportionately in contrast to men. According to the International Labor Organization, women perform 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. Cultural norms around what is considered women’s work and men’s work also translate into ideals around the role of mothers and fathers; a “good mother” will stay home and raise her children while a “good father” goes out and earns money to provide for the family. The question I ask myself is: what makes a “good parent”? How might we redefine and shift these gender roles to create new ways of thinking about caregiving?

To get to that place, we need to start by exposing patriarchy for what it is and what lies at its core.

The question I ask myself is: what makes a “good parent”? How might we redefine and shift these gender roles to create new ways of thinking about caregiving?

The term hegemonic masculinity — more recently framed in the media as “toxic masculinity” — was coined to reflect the fact that, for many, the idea of being a “real man” is linked to exerting power or domination over someone or something. In many contexts it is not questioned (hence we have expressions like “boys will be boys”). However, growing efforts are being made on a global level to challenge these assumptions and create space for alternative conversations around the question: What does it mean to be a man?

In the global health space, we need to keep that question top of mind if we want to develop interventions that will transform gender norms. By creating space for this type of dialogue in programs supported by Nutrition International, we are seeing male mindsets shift from traditional notions of manhood and fatherhood.

In Kenya, father-to-father groups we support provide examples of men who are changing gender norms in their communities through active support of their pregnant wives and assuming parental responsibilities for their newborn children. Adolescent boys in Ethiopia and Senegal are being educated on menstruation as a biological process, which encourages conversations to support girls over stigmatizing periods as these same boys grow into men. In Tanzania, an awareness campaign sensitizing fathers to improve vitamin A supplementation coverage in the country reimagined household norms and is encouraging more dads to take an active role in the healthcare of their families.

By creating space for this type of dialogue in programs supported by Nutrition International, we are seeing male mindsets shift from traditional notions of manhood and fatherhood.

Adopting positive or alternate masculinities is a process of coming to view one’s identity and value as a man outside of the traditional hegemonic model of masculinity. This may be through sharing in caregiving and other responsibilities that have been traditionally ascribed to women or using power in ways to promote healthy behaviours and relationships. To be sure, this is about much more than just getting men to do the laundry.

In some ways the COVID pandemic offers an opportunity to create greater equity within the household as more men are at home. Despite this fact, women are still taking on the bulk of caregiving according to a recent Economist article. We need to tackle the root causes to create opportunities for this to change.

Through Nutrition International programs, we have an opportunity not only to influence fathers but also adolescent boys by opening spaces for dialogue on gender norms and roles within the household. Engaging men and boys is just the start; the bigger picture of a more equitable world must always be kept in mind. We need to strive for a future that is grounded in compassion and understanding over violence or net worth. A future that is rooted in empathy for all people, whether in the home or outside of it. That is the kind of world where healthy families will thrive.