Masculine ideology and group process: Using the psychology of masculinity literature to guide practice

The author discusses the importance of emerging group leaders' knowledge of the psychology of men in equipping them to lead effective male groups

By Sean B. Hall, MA

To the emerging leader, group dynamics offer a unique blend of confounding, observable, and unseen forces that can either impede group progress or propel movement forward. Often, graduate students and early career psychologists are asked to lead various types of groups across a number of different settings. Combined with skillful supervision, each unique experience offers developing professionals an opportunity to expand both group leadership and clinical conceptualization skills. Still the process to become a skillful group leader is long and intentional. Expertise seems to develop through directed attention toward research, training, and applied practice. As with any new experience, emerging professionals may encounter moments where they feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage the intricate dynamics that occur during session. Undoubtedly, developing an awareness of these potential forces may provide emerging professionals with a framework to guide intervention. The aim of this column is to review and discuss current trends, issues, and concerns facing emerging group leaders. Columnists will review the relevant research in an effort to help leaders navigate the subtle and intricate network of factors influencing group interaction. Finally, in an effort to better understand the unique experiences of male group members, for this edition we will introduce this column by reviewing some of the research examining the psychological processes that may affect men’s interpersonal relational style.

Within groups, the experiences of male members appear to vary. While some men show a willingness to form deeper, authentic bonds with the group, other men display resistant behaviors such as silence, tardiness, and emotional restriction. Because of this variation, it is important for group leaders to draw from research to explain how the unique psychological characteristics of men may affect group dynamics. By understanding these characteristics, emerging leaders may be better able to detect, explain and structure interventions to help the group move forward. In the professional literature, there is a growing field of inquiry that specifically examines the psychology of men. This body of knowledge is a useful resource to group leaders seeking to learn more about the science behind male identity development.

As children develop, they learn to recognize socially held expectations for traditional gender roles and their self concept becomes intertwined with a particular gender schema (Bem, 1981). Gender roles are thought to represent socially constructed rules, attitudes, and expectations and strongly influence how we behave and communicate with others (Bem, 1981, Englar-Carlson, 2006). It is thought that men form an understanding of ideal masculine characteristics through gendered social learning experiences (Courtenay, 2000). Current theorists regard masculinity as a multidimensional construct informed by culturally influenced stereotypes and norms (Addis & Mahalik, 2003; Courtenay, 2000; Levant, 2011; Tokar, Fischer, Schaub, & Moradi, 2000). A number of indicators have been combined in the literature to measure masculine characteristics such as restrictive emotionality, aggression, focus on achievement and success, power, control, and ignoring physical health symptoms (Courtenay, 2000; O’Neil, 1981; Thompson & Pleck, 1986). Although each of these characteristics embodies the traditionally held idealized image of masculinity, such attributes may be ill suited for effective communication during group.

Although the degree to which each of the above indicators is endorsed differs among individual clients, men learn that deviating from traditional values could lead to criticism and rejection from significant peer groups (Addis & Mahalik, 2003; Englar-Carlson, 2006; Levant, 1996; Pleck, 1995). In our modern era, men are facing increased social pressure to move away from traditionally held gender roles and adopt a more sensitive, tender, and emotionally expressive relational style (Levant, 2011). Unfortunately, men experience dissonance when characteristics of the environment force them to adopt new roles, attitudes, values, and behaviors that conflict with their ideal image of masculinity (Englar-Carlson, 2006; Levant, 1996; Levant, 2011; O’Neil, 1981; Pleck, 1995). Such dissonance may become apparent during group if men strongly align with a traditionally held masculine ideal that devalues emotional expression and considers help-seeking to be a display of personal weakness.

Although, the psychology of masculinity literature is still building, the knowledge that has currently accumulated can be useful to new and emerging professionals seeking to conceptualize sources of resistance observed in male group members. Group leaders may use this knowledge to inform clinical decision-making during the pre-screening process, and to guide interventions should problematic member behaviors emerge within the group. By enhancing our knowledge of the psychology of masculinity group, facilitators may be able to derive frameworks for unpacking some the unseen forces affecting group dynamics.


Addis, M, E. & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American Psychologist, 58, 5-14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.1.5

Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88(4), 354-364. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.88.4.354

Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men's well-being: A theory of gender and health. Social Science & Medicine, 50(10), 1385-1401. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(99)00390-1

Englar-Carlson, M. (2006). Masculine norms and the therapy process. In M. Englar- Carlson & M.A. Stevens (Eds.), In the room with men: A casebook of therapeutic change, (pp – 13 -47). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/11411-002.

Levant, R. F. (1996). A new psychology of men. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 27, 259–265. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.27.3.259

Levant, R. F. (2011). Research in the psychology of men and masculinity using the gender role strain paradigm as a framework. The American Psychologist, 66(8), 765-776. doi:10.1037/a0025034.

O’Neil, J. M. (1981). Patterns of gender role conflict and strain: Sexism and fear of femininity in men's lives. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 60(4), 203-210.

Thompson, E. H., & Pleck, J. H. (1986). The structure of male role norms. American Behavioral Scientist, 29(5), 531-543. doi:10.1177/000276486029005003

Tokar, D. M., Fischer, A. R., Schaub, M., & Moradi, B. (2000). Masculine gender roles and counseling-related variables: Links with and mediation by personality. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47(3), 380-393. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.47.3.380