This isn’t a sexist question. I don’t buy into the notion that “all women are x” and “all men are y”.
I do accept there are male and female tendencies that mean that “women are more likely to be x and men are more likely to be y”.
So when I ask, in the headline of this article, “do men blame themselves and women blame others?”, what I’m really asking is “are men more likely to blame themselves and women more likely to blame others?”
I’m talking generally.
I’m not talking about all men and women and I’m certainly not pointing the finger at any individual man or woman. And I’m really not talking about you. I don’t know you and I don’t pretend to know whether you personally are more likely to blame yourself or to blame others.
Who do we blame for gender inequality?
I do believe there may be some truth in the statement “men are more likely to blame themselves and women are more likely to blame others”. Let me explain why.
Over the years of studying gender inequalities I’ve noticed a distinct pattern:
- When women experience inequality we tend to blame men
- When men experience inequality we also blame men
Violence against women; the “gender pay gap”; the under-representation of women in positions of power—men’s fault.
Boys lower educational outcomes; the high male suicide rate and men’s poor life expectancy—men’s fault.
Our collective view of gender problems is that men CAUSE them and women SUFFER them, that women HAVE problems and men ARE problems—as one video on the matter says “we’re psychologically inclined to separate people into two categories, actors and acted upon”.
Men are actors and women are acted upon
The actor is generally seen as being a masculine role, while the “acted upon” is considered to be feminine. This can be good and bad news for both men and women.
As men, we expect (and are expected) to be strong, assertive actors who are 100% at the cause of our lives—fully responsible and totally to blame for whatever happens to us.
Women in this scenario may expect (and be expected) to be weak, submissive, acted-upon victims who are 100% at the effect of their lives—-never responsible and never to blame.
The downside of these gender binary constructions of femininity and masculinity is that men are denied the opportunity to be vulnerable and get support and women are denied the opportunity to be strong and take full responsibility for fulfilling their dreams.
Where’s the evidence for this?
Of course it isn’t quite so simple. There are men who are able to get help and support and there are women who take responsibility for their lives, but this arises against a cultural narrative that shapes men as the actors and women as the acted upon.
If this is all a bit too conceptual for you, let’s take a look at some data from two recent surveys that inspired this article.
The first was a survey of career aspirations which asked men and women to name the main reasons for falling short of their career goals.
Men pointed to internal factors like laziness and lack of motivation—they blamed themselves.
Women pointed to external factors like family commitments and competition for jobs. They also cite lack of confidence, a problem that is significant enough for there to be a book called the “confidence gap” aimed at women.
Who’s to blame when your confidence is low?
The premise of the book is that lack of confidence holds women back and addressing this can expand a woman’s opportunities and outcomes. The feminist Jessica Valenti does not like the idea that women can be the actors in life and made it clear in her review of the book that when it comes to self confidence, women are being acted upon saying:
“The ‘confidence gap’ is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.”
Of course the authors of the book never said that lack of confidence is a “personal defect”; what they say is that unlike the economy and the number of people competing for the same job (external concerns that you as an individual cannot change), your personal confidence is something you have some control over, because it’s something you can develop in such a way that it will improve your job prospects.
This is what psychologists refer to as having an internal or external locus of control. So “actors” are empowered because they have an internal locus of control, while the “acted upon” are disempowered because they have an external locus of control.
Being the master of your life is empowering
A second example of this at play can be found in CALM’s recent audit of masculinity, which found that men are three times more likely too feel pressure to be the breadwinner.
When asked where this pressure comes from, 81% of men looked inwards and said it comes from myself, compared with 67% of women.
More significantly, the same survey found that 47% of men with depression don’t talk about it compared with 26% of women. When asked why, more men (69%) than women (54%), say its because they prefer to deal with problems themselves.
This is where being the actor (or the acted upon) can work against us. Believing you have mastery and control over your life is empowering, up until the point where you’re faced with challenges that are outside of your control.
Why do men kill themselves?
How does a man beat depression if he believes the answer to his problems is always inside himself? Is the high male suicide the ultimate act of men blaming themselves when life doesn’t work out?
In contrast, believing you are “acted upon” and that the cause of any problem you face lies outside of you, can make it easier to reach out and get help. But does there come a point where always thinking you need the help of others, makes you helpless?
In my experience, there does seem to be a tendency for men to expect (and be expected) to be the actors in life, the problem solvers, the people with power who have no-one but themselves to blame if life doesn’t work out.
There is a similar and opposite tendency for women to expect (and be expected) to be acted upon in life, to have their problems solved, to be the people without power who can blame others when life goes wrong.
What can we learn from this?
These are tendencies, not absolutes, they don’t apply to all men and women, but all of us can learn from these tendencies as they both have potential benefits.
The ability to look inwards and hold yourself responsible for your own life is deeply empowering—as is the ability to know when you need to get help and reach out for support. As the serenity prayer wisely says:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”.
—Photo Credit: flickr/Cyberslayer
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men