Men & Masculinities 101: The Gender Role Strain Paradigm
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
The second inclusion in our new monthly series: Men & Masculinities 101. These brief posts are designed to provide an overview of a variety of entry-level topics in the field of men and masculinities.
The gender role strain paradigm, a central perspective in the field of men’s studies, was introduced by Joseph Pleck in his book, The Myth of Masculinity (1981), as an alternative to the gender role identity model. The gender role identity model dominated social psychology in years prior and was largely supportive of gender essentialism. Gender role strain, on the other hand, adopts the position that gender is socially constructed and indicates that cultural standards for gender norms – particularly masculinity as it pertains to men – have negative implications for individuals. The concept of gender role strain can be broken down into three distinct propositions which explain the link between such cultural standards and their potentially deleterious effects (Pleck, 1995).
Firstly, gender norms, which are based in stereotypes, are often contradictory and inconsistent, making them especially difficult to adhere to; thus, the number of men who violate gender norms is high. Violations (or perceived violations) of gender norms can lead to what Pleck (1995) deems gender role discrepancy, the difference between the culturally ideal man and the actual man, which can result in psychological stress (“gender role discrepancy stress”; Reidy et al., 2016). With the development of Reidy et al.’s (2016) Gender Role Stress Scale, research on this tenet of the gender role strain paradigm has picked up steam. Recent findings have suggested that increased gender role discrepancy stress in men is associated with psychological, physical, and sexual intimate partner violence (Reidy et al., 2014); high risk sexual behavior and risk for contracting STIs (Reidy et al., 2016); binge drinking (Yang et al., 2019); psychosocial maladjustment (Reidy et al., 2018); anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem (Yang et al., 2018); and less engagement in healthy social relationships and stress management practices (Mesler er al., 2022). Importantly, not all men with a high perceived gender discrepancy experience gender role discrepancy stress (Reidy et al., 2016). Thus, these negative consequences are more so tied to the stress produced from the pressure to adhere to rigid masculine social norms (i.e., not being “man enough”) than solely perceiving oneself as gender discrepant.
Secondly, the fulfillment process of masculine expectations can often be traumatic for men, particularly for certain groups, including men of color, professional athletes, veterans, survivors of child abuse, and sexual minority men (Levant, 2011). Pleck (1995) described this experience as gender role trauma. One hypothesized outcome for this rigid masculine socialization is restricted emotionality, termed by Levant (1992) as the normative male alexithymia hypothesis, or the mild-moderate inability for men to communicate their emotional states as influenced by traditional masculine ideology (TMI).
Thirdly, Pleck (1995) presents the gender role dysfunction argument, which proposes that even the successful fulfillment of masculine gender role norms can result in adverse consequences because some aspects of TMI have negative implications for men and others – for example, endorsement of TMI in men has been linked to reluctance to seek psychological treatment, lower family participation, and fewer close male friendships, as well as reluctance to discuss condom use with partners, decreased relationship satisfaction, and sexual aggression (Levant & Richmond, 2007).
Levant, R. F. (1992). Toward the reconstruction of masculinity. Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3–4), 379–402. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.5.3-4.379
Levant, R. F. (2011). Research in the psychology of men and masculinity using the gender role strain paradigm as a framework. American Psychologist, 66(8), 765–776. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025034
Levant, R., & Richmond, K. (2007). A Review of Research on Masculinity Ideologies Using the Male Role Norms Inventory. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 15(2), 130–146. https://doi.org/10.3149/jms.1502.130
Mesler, R. M., Leary, R. B., & Montford, W. J. (2022). The relationships between masculine gender role discrepancy, discrepancy stress and men’s health-related behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 184, 111205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111205
Pleck, J. H. (1981). The myth of masculinity. Cambridge, MA.
Pleck, J. H. (1995). The gender role strain paradigm: An update. In R. F. Levant & W. S. Pollack (Eds.), A new psychology of men (pp. 11–32). Basic Books/Hachette Book Group.
Reidy, D. E., Berke, D. S., Gentile, B., & Zeichner, A. (2014). Man enough? Masculine discrepancy stress and intimate partner violence. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 160–164. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.04.021
Reidy, D. E., Brookmeyer, K. A., Gentile, B., Berke, D. S., & Zeichner, A. (2016). Gender Role Discrepancy Stress, High-Risk Sexual Behavior, and Sexually Transmitted Disease. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(2), 459–465. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0413-0
Reidy, D. E., Smith-Darden, J. P., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Malone, C. A., & Kernsmith, P. D. (2018). Masculine discrepancy stress and psychosocial maladjustment: Implications for behavioral and mental health of adolescent boys. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(4), 560–569. https://doi.org/10.1037/men0000132
Yang, X., Lau, J. T. F., Wang, Z., & Lau, M. C. M. (2019). Prevalence of binge drinking and relationships between masculine role discrepancy and binge drinking via discrepancy stress among Chinese men. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 196, 57–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.12.013
Yang, X., Lau, J. T. F., Wang, Z., Ma, Y.-L., & Lau, M. C. M. (2018). The mediation roles of discrepancy stress and self-esteem between masculine role discrepancy and mental health problems. Journal of Affective Disorders, 235, 513–520. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.04.085