Masculinity Paradox: Vulnerabilities of Men During Pandemic

April 9, 2021

Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

The pandemic has affected practically all people. You are at risk of getting the disease, regardless of what continent you are on, your country’s ranking in the World Happiness Report, and the number of zeros in the sum on your bank account.

That said, the pandemic has had a varied effect on different groups of people. Women were negatively affected in social terms (facing increased housework and domestic violence), while men proved to be more vulnerable in physical terms. Data provided by various countries show that the coronavirus is more deadly for men – in 38 out of 43 countries statistics revealed that more men than women have died from COVID-19 despite a similar number of confirmed cases in each sex.

Scientists assume that men’s vulnerabilities can be attributed to their poorer health, resulting from the lifestyles that societies believe to be characteristic of “real men.” This includes alcohol abuse, smoking, and neglecting one’s health and disease treatment and prevention. There is a sociological explanation for all these factors – they are caused by masculinity.

Sharon Bird, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University, proposes the following definition of masculinity: “Masculinity refers most commonly to socially constructed expectations of appropriate behaviours, beliefs, expressions, and styles of social interaction for men in a culture or subculture at a given time.”

Tamara Martsenuyk, a Ukrainian sociologist and associate professor of the Sociology Department at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, says that masculinity concerns certain societal expectations of what it is to be a man: “It’s about male attributes, which are stereotypical and opposite to female attributes. That is, masculinity is the opposite of femininity. It’s associated with traditional societal stereotypes that are dual and polar. In particular, men are often associated with the focus on success, activity, and making money. Aggression is virtually the only emotion men are allowed to have. It’s because people believe that real men don’t cry, don’t complain or grumble.”

It should be noted that such stereotypes cause a chain reaction, shaping behaviour that makes men’s lives significantly worse. Men who “do not complain” predictably do not seek medical help in good time, ignore safety arrangements at work, and relieve stress with alcohol, thus reducing the average life expectancy of Ukrainian men, which is now 10 years shorter than that of women.

One would think that masculinity is a good thing, but should not the self-preservation instinct kick in? Unfortunately, sociological studies show that young men take quarantine restrictions less seriously during the pandemic – they wear face masks and disinfect their hands less often.

The study “How does Ukrainian youth live in the times of COVID-19?” has revealed that 80.6 percent of young men aged 14 to 35 wear face masks (compared to 86 percent of women), 76.7 percent of men disinfect and wash their hands (85.2 percent of women), and 32.6 percent of men comply with restrictions on attending public institutions (42.3 percent of women).

Alan Greig, an international expert on masculinity and a UNDP consultant, confirms the findings of the Ukrainian study, and says that, unfortunately, such manifestations of masculinity are also typical of men who live outside Ukraine: “Over the years we know from different kind of research that in general men use health services less than women, men take protective behaviour for the health less than women. And certain behaviours like smoking and drinking are more prevalent in general among men than women and put their health at risk as a result. We need to work on the whole issue around health protection and health seeking behaviour – not just in Ukraine, but in many countries.”

In fact, one of the most important questions the UN Development Programme has asked itself is whether harmful and toxic masculinity can be transformed into constructive masculinity. After all, not only men suffer from extreme manifestations of masculinity, but also those around them (for example, through domestic violence) and society as a whole. The crisis of masculinity, when men fail to live up to this demanding standard, no doubt inevitably accompanies men in critical times, to which it is safe to say the pandemic belongs.

Yevhen Bondarenko, a young person and the director of the National Youth Centre, openly shares his experience of going through a masculinity crisis, showing that conclusions can be quite constructive: “I’m from Crimea, and perhaps the first masculinity crisis I faced was related to the annexation of Crimea, when we lost control over the situation. Since that time, I have been constantly trying to keep everything under control – for instance, now during the pandemic, I make sure that our centre has masks and antiseptics, and that all of our staff are safe and well-protected.”

Another young person, Viktor Zolotarenko, a graduate student majoring in social work at the Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, offered a model for transforming masculinity, with a view to convincing young people that it is cool to wear face masks. Zolotarenko’s idea is based on using well-known comic characters who have the status of super heroes and who have masks as their ubiquitous attributes: “Everyone can be a super hero. All that you have to do is to wear a face mask! Some will say that this topic was relevant only in early 2020, but the pandemic is continuing, while the disease is spreading and destroying people’s lives.”

Viktor could not be more correct – in early April 2021 the number of new cases per day was over 20,000, making maintaining social distancing and complying with quarantine restrictions an issue of life and death again.

Let us hope that young Ukrainian men pay attention to Viktor, and that they find this model of masculinity transportation acceptable.

For reference:

Discussion on the topic “How is the pandemic affecting men? Masculinity During COVID-19,” which was initiated by the UN Development Programme and held on 10 March 2021. The discussion was attended by Tamara Martsenuyk, PhD in Sociological Sciences; Alan Greig, UNDP consultant; Yevhen Bondarenko, director of the National Youth Centre; and Viktor Zolotarenko, student. The discussion was moderated by TV and radio presenter Andriy Kulykov.

A full video of the discussion about masculinity during the pandemic is available on the UNDP YouTube channel at

Infographics are available here.

Written by Mykola Yabchenko

Edited by Yuliia Samus, Tetiana Grytsenko

Translation from Ukrainian: Kristina Zasypkina