Gender Threat
American Masculinity in the Face of Change
Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino




Against all evidence, American men have come to believe that the world—economically, socially, politically—is tilted against them. Sure, 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men, along with more than 80 percent of members of Congress, men still earn significantly more money than women for the same work, and men have an unbeaten 45 and 0 record of winning the American Presidency, but even so, the 2012 American National Election Study found that 41 percent of Republican men say they face at least a “moderate amount of discrimination” because of their gender. Even among men identifying as Democrats, a majority say that they face at least “a little bit” of sex discrimination. Believing that men are somehow disadvantaged in today’s society may seem silly, but those beliefs are based in something very real: the tension between how men view their own roles at home, at work, and in society, and the reality of a society in which their privilege is being reduced. Men still enjoy a lot of advantages in our society, but those advantages—especially for white men in working-class jobs—are not as great as they used to be. When you’ve been on top for a few thousand years, even small moves toward equality can feel like discrimination.

But the key to understanding men’s sense of losing ground isn’t the movement toward equality. The key is the beliefs that men hold, their own ideas of what being a man means. We refer to this as a man’s gender identity, which consists of that man’s beliefs about the behaviors and attitudes that make him a man. This gender identity is entirely separate from a person’s sex, which, while more complicated than most people think of it as being, is closer to being a biological characteristic.

As we’ll show, the conceptions men have of their own gender are both flexible and remarkably fragile. They’re flexible in that—under the right circumstances—men are able to abandon an aspect of their gender identity that isn’t working, and replace it with one that is without too much difficulty. For instance, we came across men who found they were no longer the chief earners in their households, but who compensated by buying a gun, or going to church, or spending more time with their kids.

And men’s gender identity is fragile in that masculinity is earned, in many societies through trials or rituals, and can be lost if a man fails to live up to the demands of his gender. As West and Zimmerman (1987) put it, men “do gender,” and perform masculinity in their everyday lives. There are many reasons why someone might not feel like or be perceived as “a real man.” Men put up a performance of gender—as detailed in the work of Judith Butler (1988)—of manhood: they do what Michael Schwalbe (2005) refers to as “manhood acts.” At times, however, maybe they feel they’re not supporting their family, or living up to a moral or behavioral code, or standing up for themselves, or maybe they feel they’re physically or emotionally weak. Such perceptions can threaten men’s gender identities, so men must be vigilant about monitoring threats to their gender identity and bolstering it as needed, finding ways to assert their masculinity in the face of the threat. While there is a societally transmitted set of behaviors and attitudes commonly associated with masculinity—what R. W. Connell (1987) has termed hegemonic masculinity—the components of individual men’s gender identities do vary widely, as do their responses to failures to live up to their own standards of masculinity. When failing to fulfill the ideals of hegemonic masculinity, many men resort to what sociologists refer to as “compensatory manhood acts” (Sumerau 2012). These compensatory acts, as we’ll illustrate, can take many forms, but they all serve the same end: the bolstering of an endangered gender identity.

In addition to sociologists, psychologists—most notably the early Freudian Alfred Adler (2002)—have thought of this endangered identity as a deep, existential threat to men. While we’re not Freudians, there is ample evidence that men engage in all sorts of otherwise inexplicable behaviors in order to compensate for threats to their gender identity. This book shines a light on the sorts of things that men perceive as threats, or potential threats, to their masculine gender identities, and then shows how men adjust their behaviors and attitudes to compensate for those threats.

Understanding this perceived threat has become more urgent in recent years, as gender issues have become a larger part of our social and political discourse. In recent years, Americans have seen misogyny fueled mass shootings (Issa 2019), a US President who seems unconcerned with the use of what he calls “locker room talk,” public handwringing over the transition from male-dominated manufacturing and extractive industries to a service economy, the revelation of rampant sexual harassment in workplaces and among high-powered figures in the media, and so much more. Why is all of this happening now? A lot of what people are experiencing is fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.


The Great Recession, and the trends it accelerated, put many men in a declining economic and social position. At the same time, women were gaining ground economically and societally, and as men’s positions stalled by some measures, women moved closer to equality. Men are still more likely than women to be in the labor market, but women are catching up. Women are the primary breadwinners in 42 percent of families with children under the age 18, and in another 22 percent of families, they are co-breadwinners (Glynn 2016).

In workplaces, women have been increasingly able to push back against sexist policies or harassment that would have gone unchallenged in decades past. While nothing like all the men who engage in actionable behavior face consequences for doing so, the fact that the possibility of consequences now exists is a huge step forward.

Women have also made substantial gains in education. More than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded today (57 percent) go to women, along with most of the master’s degrees (59 percent), and a little over half of the doctoral degrees (52 percent), according to 2018 Catalyst data. Hanna Rosin, in The End of Men, notes that this is a stark reversal from earlier periods in the United States, as young men are now much more likely than young women to have only a high school diploma. Research on primary education now openly talks about the “problem with boys,” as they fall behind their female classmates at even the earliest levels of education. Colleges have instituted what amounts to affirmative action programs to bring in more male students, as gender-blind admissions policies would lead to overwhelmingly female campuses (Rosin 2012).

None of this is to say that women have achieved social or occupational equality. Even accounting for differences in human capital and occupational areas, the pay gap between men and women remains at somewhere between 10 and 20 cents on the dollar, depending on which controls are included (Blau and Kahn 2017). Women may make up the majority of PhD graduates, but they’re still a minority among professors, especially at the higher ranks. They’re less likely to be in managerial positions, and are less represented in the science and engineering sectors. There’s still talk of women who find themselves confronting a “glass cliff,” a scenario in which a woman is promoted to a high-powered position only after a crisis has made that position untenable. Women’s reproductive rights have come under renewed attack in some parts of the United States. Women are more than half of the population, but they don’t hold anything like half of the seats in the US Congress, nor has a woman ever held the US Presidency.

But despite these continuing inequalities, it’s been argued that women will come to dominate society. Rosin (2012) argues that the educational and economic gains of women represent the first steps in what she calls “the end of men.” Men’s biological advantages, in terms of greater average upper body strength or physical size may have made them more valuable to a society that needed fields plowed, or metal hammered, but, she argues, such traits are less relevant today. There’s no reason to believe that men are better suited than women to an information-based economy, and perhaps some reason to believe that women may be more valuable workers.

And indeed, despite existing inequalities, women’s progress on all fronts has received extensive coverage, and oftentimes is portrayed as a zero-sum game, with men necessarily losing out. As noted before, moving from a position of dominance toward equality feels a lot like discrimination to the people who used to be on top, and the long-term trends of the increasing status of women and the transitions in the economy have left a lot of men feeling as though they’re being marginalized. In the United States, men are seeing their political and social dominance being actively challenged, and as we’ll discuss, they find they need to change their gender identities in order to keep up.