What is Gender Role Conflict?

I’m researching the role of masculinity and specifically, gender role conflict, in men’s mental health. But what is Gender Role Conflict exactly?

James O'Neil, Gender Role Conflict Theory

Professor of Educational Psychology and Family Studies Psychology at the University of Connecticut, James O’Neil, created the theory of Gender Role Conflict in the 1980s.

Gender Role Conflict is defined as;

A psychological state in which socialised gender roles have negative consequences on the person or others. Gender Role Conflict occurs when rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles result in personal restrictions, devaluation, or violation of others or self. The ultimate outcome of this kind of conflict is the restriction of the human potential of the person experiencing the conflict or a restriction of another person’s potential.
— James O'Neil, 1981

The phrase, “the restriction of human potential,” is what first attracted me to O’Neil’s Gender Role Conflict theory because that is what we are seeing daily on the ground; men restricting themselves and men restricting others. I wanted to know how we could break this cycle.

Another reason why I liked Gender Role Conflict theory so much is because it is operationally defined by four psychological domains, three situational contexts, and three personal experiences, which represent the complexity of gender role conflict in people’s lives.

It is experienced differently and in multiple ways. It is messy. It is real life.

Here are the domains broken down;

Psychological Domains

Psychological domains of Gender Role Conflict are cognitive, emotional, unconscious, or behavioural problems caused by socialised gender roles. It operates on four levels: 

  1. Cognitive – how we think about gender roles.

  2. Affective – how we feel about gender roles.

  3. Behavioural – how we act, respond, and interact with others and ourselves.

  4. Unconscious – how motivations beyond our awareness affect our behaviour and produce conflicts. 

Situational Contexts

Gender Role Conflict is contextual and experienced different in numerous situations. O’Neil says men experience Gender Role Conflict directly or indirectly when they;

  1. Deviate from or violate gender role norms or the premises of masculinity ideology

  2. Try to met or fail to meet gender role norms of masculinity ideology. 

  3. Experience discrepancies between their real self-concepts and their ideal self-concepts, based on gender role stereotypes and masculinity ideology. 

  4. Personally devalue, restrict, or violate themselves for failing to meet masculinity ideology norms.

  5. Experience personal devaluations, restrictions, and violations from others for conforming to or deviating from masculinity ideology.

  6. Personally devalue, restrict, or violate others because they deviate from or conform to masculinity ideology norms.

To simplify these six situational contexts, they can also be identified in three ways: 

1.Gender role conflict within the man

Gender Role Conflict within the man is the private experience of negative emotions and thoughts experienced as gender role devaluations, restrictions, and violations.

2.Gender role conflict expressed toward others

Gender Role Conflict towards others is men’s expressed gender role problems that potentially devalue, restrict, or violate someone else.

3.Gender role conflict experienced from others

Gender Role Conflict from others is men’s interpersonal experience of gender role conflict from people interacted with that result in being personally devalued, restricted, or violated.

I hear you ask, why do the words ‘devalued, restricted, or violated’ keep popping up? Well, this is how O’Neil’s defines the personal experiences of Gender Role Conflict:

Personal Experiences

Gender role devaluations are negative critiques of others or oneself when conforming to, deviating from, or violating stereotypic gender role norms of masculine ideology. Devaluations result in lessening of status, stature, or positive regard. 

Gender role restrictions occur when there is a confining of others or oneself to stereotypic norms of masculinity ideology. Restrictions result in a limiting and confining people’s behaviour, personal potential, and human freedom. 

Gender role violations are harming oneself or being harmed by others when deviating from or conforming to gender role norms of masculinity ideology. To be violated is to be victimised and abused causing psychological and physical pain.

It is the emotional-psychological outcomes of these devaluations, restrictions, and violations that are thought to produce mental health problems including anger, stress, depression, anxiety, fear, self-hatred, guilt, loss, and shame.

Over the last 35 years, Gender Role Conflict has been assessed through a Gender Role Conflict Scale. It was through the scale that led O’Neil identify four factors for measuring Gender Role Conflict.

1.Success, Power and Competition

Describes personal attitudes about success pursued through competition and power.

2.Restrictive Emotionality

Defined as having difficulty and fears about expressing one’s feelings and difficulty finding words to express basic emotions.

3.Restrictive and Affectionate Behaviour Between Men

Having limited ways to express one’s feelings and thoughts with other men and difficulty touching other men. 

4.Conflict between Work and Family Relations

Experiencing difficulties balancing work-school and family relations resulting in health problems, overwork, stress and lack of relaxation.

The picture below shows the major concepts in Gender Role Conflict.

In the centre is men's gender role socialisation and the masculinity ideology and norms are shown as conceptually related to men's fear of femininity.

According to O’Neil men’s fear of femininity is central to understanding men's gender role conflict. The fear of femininity is negative thoughts and emotions associated with stereotypical feminine values, attitudes, and behaviours. These fears are learnt in early childhood when gender role identity is being shaped by parents, peers, and societal values.

Gender Role conflict

The image also shows the four derived patterns of Gender Role Conflict, including success, power, competition issues; restrictive emotionality; restrictive and affectionate behaviour between men; and conflicts between work and family relations.

Finally, on the outside, personal and institutional sexism and Gender Role Conflict are shown as interrelated realities that shape men’s lives.

This part of the model implies that sexist structures in society and men's gender role socialisation are directly related to men's Gender Role Conflict and psychological problems.

This is the third reason why I decided to focus on Gender Role Conflict, because it is an opportunity to examine the nuances of our society to see if we can affect positive change not just for men, but for all.

Gender Role Conflict is regarded as the “most well-known instrument within the traditional counselling literature” that focuses on masculinity and has made an important contribution to men’s health research.

For example, 11 out of 13 studies reviewed by O’Neil documented a negative correlation between Gender Role Conflict and self-esteem, 12 out of 15 studies reported a positive correlation between Gender Role Conflict and anxiety, and 24 out of 27 studies found positive correlations between Gender Role Conflict and depression.

Overall, this paints a sobering picture of how Gender Role Conflict can impact men’s lives.

It is, however, not without criticism which typically centres around the theory’s Gender Role Conflict Scale, such as, (a) the lack of information relating to the development of scale items; (b) the fact that not all items measure conflict; (c) the observation that elements of devaluation, restriction, and violation are missing from scale items.

The adolescent version of the scale for the purpose of the Happylands study is particularly pertinent. O’Neil adapted the original items from the adult Gender Role Conflict Scale, but the big stumbling block for me is that he did not consult with any ‘real’ teenagers when developing the scale.

This means some of the phrasing and wording of items on the scale are inappropriate. Ensuring the questions on the teenager scale are age and cultural appropriate will be paramount for this study.

Interestingly, many researchers have called for more international research on the Gender Role Conflict theory because it is vitally important to recognise that men’s gender roles, and the inter-play with men’s gender role conflict, are complex processes and not only differs within one man across his different life contexts but also will differ between men with different cultural contexts.

It begs the question, do men in other countries experience this construct in similar or different ways?

The Happylands will aim to find out!

You can listen to me talk about Gender Role Conflict, the Gillette Advert, and my experience with a Spanish wanker with German from Modern Manhood here, or listen to the podcast any where you find your awesome podcasts.

Does any aspect of the Gender Role Conflict theory resonate with you?