If men are ‘failing’ we need to look to the future, not at lazy stereotypes

Boy playing video games on computer

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes society and technology are failing boys, but his views reek of old-school sexism

Philip Zimbardo is one of the first people undergraduate psychologists learn about. His prison experiment in the basement of Stanford University showed a darker side of humanity. So when I saw he was talking as part of Bristol’s excellent Festival of Ideas, I had to go.

Then I read the synopsis: Zimbardo, with Nikita Coulombe has written a new book, “Man (Dis)connected” on the subject of the ‘Demise of Guys’, as he puts it in his 2011 TED talk on the subject. He claims young men are failing like never before, educationally, socially and sexually. Of course the usual modern bogeymen are there: social media, video games, and online pornography. But Zimbardo also blames a society that ‘favours women’.

There were plenty of statistics quoted in his talk, but unfortunately very little evidence to back them up. Sweeping statements about male versus female teaching styles are presented as fact. Even more worryingly are his conclusions on potential reasons African-American boys have historically shown poor performance educationally and socially, blaming female-dominated households rather than, say, institutional racism.

He tells us that there are now fewer men than women at college. In a recent Guardian interview he elaborates, stating that positive discrimination is now needed to increase the numbers of men at university, but this is because ‘one reason you go to college is to find a guy’.

Not only are these kinds of views horribly sexist and outdated, they’re also far too simplistic. While there are currently (slightly) more women than men studying for undergraduate degrees, women are still underrepresented in science and engineering, for example. As well as this, three of the best Universities in the country (Imperial, Oxford and Cambridge) all had more male undergraduates than females in 2010-11.

Amongst his other unsubstantiated claims are that a lack of a father is a cause of this ‘failing’. He claims that a mother’s love is unconditional, but a son has to earn his father’s respect. When a father is absent or rarely around, this striving for a father’s approval does not happen. Quite why he believes this is true I’m not sure, as he presented no evidence to back this claim up. Rather, it seems like lazy gender stereotyping, assuming that women are weak and fluffy and men are tough and strong.

As for what Zimbardo feels about lesbian couples bringing up a son, it’s hard to say, although he touches on this in the book, stating that the increase in women living in what he calls ‘unconventional or bisexual cohabiting arrangements’ is likely to be due to men failing and becoming less desirable, rather than society becoming more accepting of people’s life choices and making such arrangements easier.

Zimbardo also seems to believe that the absence of fathers doesn’t affect young girls. He barely mentions girls in his hour-long talk, and when he does it’s mainly to use them to highlight how poorly men are doing in comparison. Women, he seems to be saying, aren’t interested in video games, pornography…or fathers.

The larger problem with Zimbardo’s views is that, rather than trying to challenge gender stereotypes, he suggests solutions to the ‘demise of guys’ that seek to reinforce them, like ‘play sports’, and for fathers ‘[be]...a source of both incentives and boundaries, reinforcing gender stereotypes. Encourage young men to ‘man up’ rather than help them to realize that they don’t need to conform. One subheading in the book advises men “don’t call women ‘sluts’” as if this needs saying!

I don’t disagree with him that society is currently harmful to young men - you only need to look at suicide statistics to see that young men are being failed, in particular around mental health. However, I would argue that rather than blaming technology, we should aim to challenge gender stereotypes, which will improve life for men and women. If the old ‘boys don’t cry’ adage is maintained, it’s not then surprising when men feel they can’t talk about mental health problems.

When questioned after the talk in Bristol, Zimbardo stated that life is harder for men because women are now equal to men. After a heckler shouted ‘there’s still not equal pay’ Zimbardo conceded that point, but still maintained that as women are becoming equivalent to men, and in some instances out-performing them. He said this like it was a bad thing. A local man discussed a group he has set up in Bristol to offer peer support to male caregivers. To me, this sort of initiative is the way we should be travelling, offering support to those who no longer conform to their designated and antiquated gender roles.

Zimbardo seems to be suggesting that a return to the ‘good old days’ with prescriptive gender roles would reverse this problem with young men failing. Indeed, his advice on how women can help prevent this demise of guys starts “There is a need for hardened men, we will always need rough men to ‘stand the walls’…and tend the land”. This isn’t an uncommon belief among older generations, of course you look back at your childhood, the simpler times, wistfully. But when you’re an eminent professor, you need evidence, and here Zimbardo is woefully lacking. If men are now struggling because women are becoming more equal, we need forward thinking, not wistful nostalgia and fear of technology.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Suzi Gage, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th May 2015 13.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010