The provider role indicates that masculinity is prosocial

by Belinda Brown

For decades now, masculinity has been under assault – largely by visionaries who anticipate a new gender-free social order. Creation of the new involves destruction of the old, so ‘new man’ can arise phoenix like from the patriarchal dust.

And masculinity is, after all, an easy target. Men appear to be more physically violent than women, they are more likely to kill themselves and they are much more likely to commit crime. All this has provided ballast for the concept of toxic masculinity, and has had potentially damaging consequences for male self-understanding by drawing attention to stereotypes of dysfunctional male behaviour and treating them as if they are the true nature of all men

My chapter From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity; the transformative power of the provider role  for The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental health takes a different approach.

In the chapter I ask why it is that since the beginning of recorded history men have, by and large, done the hardest most gruelling labour, given the proceeds of their labour to women and children, usually deriving little benefit for themselves. I also ask why it is that, despite earning less than men, women have extensive control over resources and, why even welfare is largely spent on women and children while the taxes to pay it are earned by men.

All this points to extraordinarily altruistic behaviour by men and this, I argue, is mystery which we should explore.

A clue to male motivations lies in men’s family role. A rich seam of data has shown that partnered men earn more than unpartnered men, married men earn more than those who are cohabiting and married men living with their own children trump the lot. And this is not simply a case of female selectivity. The data show that men appear to be responding to female preferences and need.

In order to understand why men should do this I turn to the vineyards of evolutionary psychology. This field explores how our psychological adaptations are rooted in genetic and neuroendocrine systems, which have evolved in ways that help to ensure that our descendants survive.

One of the mysteries for evolutionary psychologists is paternal investment – why do human males invest so much time and effort in women and children, when the majority of primate males do little for their own offspring. This has spawned a great deal of creative thinking about the benefits of paternal investment to evolutionary fitness, and theories have focussed on mechanisms which have brought this investment about.

My own explanation is that males have evolved to be responsive to human females. As human females choose mates who can provide for them, the corresponding desire to provide may have become biologically embedded in males. Males then become deeply attached to those infants, who they help to socialise and provide with food. The result is that men are in hock to potentially self-sacrificial behaviour because this is what ensures the survival of their genes.

If men are impelled to be responsive to females and possibly to provide for and even become attached to their children, we would expect some accompanying biological scaffolding to have evolved. My paper is only exploratory but some clues point us in directions to look.

Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that little boys start out in life more sensitive and responsive than little girls. Later, men and women experience emotion to the same depth and in similar ways. So why is it that when it comes to emotional literacy or emotional awareness women tend to assume men are second best?

The key difference is emotional expressiveness; this is the domain in which women have the upper hand. When we think of men as stoical this is only in contrast to female emotional expressivity – the other side of the coin. Female emotional expressiveness is ultimately evolutionarily adaptive. It involves the rapid translation of cognitive information into a form of behaviour which will spur others into a response.

It is not just that this female emotional expressiveness appears inbuilt. So does the male capacity to respond. Men have been found to have higher levels of empathy for women than they do for other men. If male empathic responsiveness is particularly honed to female need, then males are likely to be vulnerable to female emotional expressiveness in ways that elicit altruistic behaviour. Even where this incurs a cost.

If masculinity is essentially responsive, what underlies male providing is not the desire for status or dominance but rather to be desired by women themselves.

And this too is supported by the data. Some of the most extensive studies conducted in the social sciences are on mating preferences. And what these incontrovertibly show is that women are looking for men who will be a good financial prospect. Men respond to female cues by providing them with resources because this will further their own genetic fitness.

But what I suggest is that the value of male provisioning does not necessarily lie in its nutritional content. Male provisioning stimulates paternal attachment in the same way maternal attachment is stimulated; through the experience of having others dependent on you. Male provisioning is the cornerstone on which fathering work is built. It is linked with paternal care and having a father in the home.

That men are primed to develop paternal attachment is again suggested by the male physiological response. As men marry and have children their levels of testosterone drop which is thought to facilitate a nurturant behaviour. Research on couvade has shown that men experience many of the symptoms of pregnancy as well. Men are primed to respond to infants. Not only is there evidence they experience hormonal changes in response to the cries of their infant but they can also recognise their infant by touch.

Research from the animal kingdom has found links between provisioning behaviour and reductions in testosterone. If this was found in humans, it would provide a biological link between the act of provisioning and a nurturant response. Although such evidence may not yet exist,  there is evidence to show that when it comes to childcare it is those men who have more traditional attitudes, or those men who are actually engaged in providing for their families, who are more likely to be involved.

There are a number of hypotheses in my handbook chapter which need to be explored further and tested. They raise the possibililty that the male provider role is not simply a social construction belonging to a bygone age. Rather the provider role may be not only socially, but psychologically acting as a trigger for nurturing behaviour. It may even, as I suggest in my chapter, play a vital role in transforming a more immature and potentially ‘hegemonic’ dimension of masculinity into a more socially responsible, co-operative and nurturing form.

For these reasons, the provider role – as an important dimension of masculinity – deserves further investigation. If it emerges that it is not only socially but also psychologically salient, then perhaps we need to start encouraging provisioning in men.


About the author

Belinda Brown is a Social Anthropologist who writes about family and gender issues.

Belinda’s chapter, From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity; the transformative power of the provider role, appears in The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental health, is available here

DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1



2 thoughts on “The provider role indicates that masculinity is prosocial

  1. Reply
    Michael McVeigh - March 19, 2019

    Men simply want respect from society and exclusive use of their mate – for those 2 things they will, of course, effectively lay down their raison d’etre. Second wave and third wave feminism, in its drive to give women supremacy in everything, by default denigrates men and everything about them.

    One further thing I would posit, is that for millenia men have had contact with their sons right through their sons childhood and through adolescence into adulthood. That changed with the industrial revolution & I’m not sure we have fully understood the implications of that – a separate issue to that of the onslaught of feminism.

    1. Belinda Brown
      Belinda - March 19, 2019

      Yes I think you are right – the industrial revolution probably put the first major wedge between men and their families through migration into towns and exploitative hours of work. The impact was obscured by Marxism which talked about men being alienated from the means of production. What really happened was that men were alienated from the means of reproduction; men had less contact with their families and were perhaps less able to support their families. So their work felt pointless.

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