By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) 


The COVID-19 pandemic has, as the biggest international events and talking points tend to do, created something of a ideological war. It is a nuanced issue, but broadly speaking, there are two camps. Those who try their best to stick to the regulations and restrictions in place at any given time and follow the safety advice, and those who don’t.

There are of course a myriad of reasons why people may fall into either camp, and there will be those who jump between them depending on the circumstances. The future will doubtless be littered with academic studies into the hows and whys of people’s behaviour during this period of human history that is, to use a word that has ironically been used prolifically of late, unprecedented.

There have of course been pandemics before. But a pandemic in the age of the internet, ubiquitous screens and fourth wave feminism? This is a first. And so, academics and researchers will have plenty to study about messaging and gender roles during this time. But we don’t need to wait to find out about the factors that are shaping our behaviour during COVID; the work has already begun.

At this year’s British Science Festival, Dr Magdalena Zawisza, an academic psychologist, researcher and author of books on consumer, gender and social issues, and one of her PhD students Sarah Gradidge, gave a fascinating talk based on their groups preliminary research into how gender roles, norms and expectations impacted our reactions to the pandemic, and the regulations and restrictions that came with it.

Gender roles and COVID regulations

It is unfortunate, but maybe not surprising, to see from Magdalena and Sarah’s talk that ideas relating to performative masculinity, also known as toxic masculinity, have played a big role in the way men have reacted to the pandemic.

Performative masculinity is a socially-prescribed set of ideas around what it means to be a man, whereby men must act (‘perform’) in certain ways in order to appear masculine. As performative masculinity can assume male sexual entitlement to women, and perpetuate the need to appear physically strong and ‘brave’ around other men, these behaviours can be harmful (e.g., male violence and sexual assault). The need to appear physically, mentally and emotionally strong, has interacted with COVID regulations in negative ways, as demonstrated within Magdalena and Sarah’s talk.

Sarah explained that early studies have shown that women are more likely than men to engage in COVID safety behaviours like mask wearing and social distancing. She discussed the theories and studies behind why this could be, and how they link to gender and gender roles.

One is that women are generally more risk averse than men, and as flouting COVID restrictions is indeed a risk, women have been more prone to follow them. A lack of risk aversion in men could link to the socially-constructed idea that to be a man is to be bold, tough and devoid of fear in the face of threats, which is not wise when the threat is a potentially deadly disease.

Sarah said:

“A very common stereotype regarding men is that they are perceived as being powerful, they’re perceived as not being able to be weak in anyway… The issue is, in regards to disease, men may end up self-stereotyping themselves, so they may end up viewing themselves as always needing to be strong and not being able to show weakness which of course means if they end up with COVID, they may be less likely to seek out help.”

The need to live up to the perception of strength has already been shown, pre-pandemic, to be incredibly harmful to men. Suicide rates for men are three times higher than for women in the UK, and this has largely been attributed to men’s reluctance to reach out for help when they experience poor mental health. It doesn’t stop with mental health. Studies have shown that men avoid speaking to the doctor for physical health complaints too, and ignoring health problems tends to lead to more severe ones. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic did not buck this trend.

Sarah explained that while men and women appear to be contracting COVID at the same rate (which is odd considering their different behaviours around the regulations), “men do typically have more severe COVID, they’re more likely to be admitted to intensive care, they’re also more likely to pass away from COVID as well.”

How is advertising perpetuating this problem?

Photograph: HM Government/Twitter/PA

So, if ideas about gender roles and ‘manliness’ are causing harm to men themselves, as well as people around them, where are they coming from, what is perpetuating them?

This is a question whose full answer would be incredibly multifaceted, but one source of our ideas on manliness is our culture of advertising and digital messaging.

Magdalena, whose research played a pivotal role in policy changes by the Advertising Standards Authority around gender stereotyping discussed her and her students'* intensive work into gender and advertising. She explained that before the pandemic, despite the UK being a relatively egalitarian society, men and women are portrayed in very stereotypical ways in all forms of media.

Women, she said, are much more likely to be portrayed as:

“staying at home, being the homemakers, surrounded by children in the house and doing house chores. Men on the other hand are portrayed in independent roles, outside working, very rarely with children. If they are portrayed with children, they are usually seen with boys and playing rather than homeschooling or, for example, cleaning.”

The messaging around COVID also fell into this pattern. It is hard to forget the image published (then quickly retracted following backlash), by the UK government encouraging the public to stay at home, which showed multiple women doing housework and homeschooling children, and one man who was reclining on the couch.

This perpetuation of outdated gender stereotypes, coming to us though all forms of media and even from the highest office in the country, is having demonstrably negative effects on men’s relationships with science - in this case how COVID spreads and how best to prevent the spread.

A dramatic overhaul of how society views men and women, how we view ourselves, needs to happen to allow health science to be free from gendered associations, for the sake of men’s health and society as a whole.

To learn more about gender stereotypes in advertising, and the impact this has, check out Magdalena’s book, Advertising, Gender and Society: A Psychological Perspective.

*Ellie Cornwell, Louise Kelly, Pietro Stefanello and Isaac Volpicelli