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The State of UK Boys
Understanding and Transforming Gender in the Lives of UK Boys
A Report for the Global Boyhood Initiative
The State of UK Boys | 1
This report was written by Sara Bragg, Jessica Ringrose, Sid Mohandas, Idil Cambazoglu,
David Bartlett, Gary Barker, Taveeshi Gupta and Jill Merriman, with support from many
others. Thank you to Giovanna Lauro for reviewing this report. The authors express their
thanks and appreciation to the key informants who have offered their time, commitment
and wisdom to this undertaking.
This work is part of the larger Global Boyhood Initiative (GBI). Launched in 2020, GBI was
co-founded and is co-coordinated by the Kering Foundation and Equimundo (previously
Promundo-US) in partnership with Plan International and core global partner Gillette. We
thank our Equimundo colleagues, past and present, who have contributed to building the
vision of GBI. Thank you especially to Giovanna Lauro, Tolu Lawrence and Alexa Hassink,
who helped shape the initial foundations of GBI. We are grateful to Roma Richardson and
Hannah Chosid for their contributions to ensuring the quality of the GBI products and
for communicating their powerful ﬁndings.
Thank you to the Kering Foundation, P&G and Gillette for funding the Global Boyhood
Initiative and this report.
Thank you also to Jill Merriman for copyediting this document and to Blossom.it for its
For more information about the Global Boyhood Initiative, please visit:
Equimundo. (2022). The State of UK Boys: Understanding and Transforming Gender in the
Lives of UK Boys. Washington, DC: Equimundo.
© 2022 Equimundo
The State of UK Boys | 2
Developing Complex Understandings 5
GENDER, BOYHOODS AND MASCULINITIES 5
MASCULINITIES AS HEGEMONIC, RELATIONAL AND HIERARCHICAL 11
BACKLASH OR ‘RECUPERATIVE MASCULINITY’ POLITICS 12
Evidence on the State of UK Boys 13
VIOLENCE AS NORMALISED IN THE LIVES OF BOYS 13
FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIPS 15
GAMES/SP ORT 24
TECHNOLOGY, MEDIA AND MARKETS IN CHILDREN’S SOCIAL WORLDS 26
How Can We Transform Problematic Gender Norms? 29
PROBLEMATIC APPROACHES INFORMED BY BACKLASH 29
PROMISING APPROACHES TO CHANGING MASCULINITIES 32
STARTING EARLY: PARTICIPATORY ENGAGEMENT WITH CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE 33
ONGOING EDUCATION FOR AND WITH PRACTITIONERS 36
The State of UK Boys | 3
From education and achievement to mental health and well-being to violence and
aggression, the ‘state of boys’ has long been a feature of UK (and global) educational,
societal and political debate. Against this backdrop, a raft of evidence-based research
has not only contested the notion of a singular ‘state’ of boys, but also complicated the
category of ‘boy’ and, therefore, what it means to be a boy today.
This literature review aims to capture some of this research in order to provide insight
into the complex and ever-changing conditions of UK boys and to inform practice
and thinking in this area. Understanding the multiple ways that boys, boyhoods and
masculinities are constructed and produced in contemporary societies, and how these
relate to other gender formations, is fundamental if we are to support and respond
meaningfully to the diverse experiences of boys.
To explore the ‘state of UK boys’, we used a two-prong approach consisting of a
literature review and 15 key informant interviews.
For the literature review, we used ‘gender and boys’ and ‘masculinities’ as key variables and
search terms in academic databases (e.g., University College London’s [UCL’s] Explore, Web
of Science, Social Sciences Citation Index), seeking out socio-cultural perspectives on gender
that locate and contextualise research on masculinities to understand diversity and equity
issues in this ﬁeld (see box). These approaches offer a different take than individualising and
essentialising psychological approaches to gender, and they have great potential for helping
us think differently about the complexity of masculinities. What follows is based partly on our
eventual database of over 430 key sources, although we recognise that a literature review of
this length cannot fully do justice to all of the issues upon which it touches.
Using a Sociological Gender Frame
Our search involved a sociological gender frame, which looks at the
relationship between the individual and wider social power structures
(Connell, 2020). It argues that gender is not tied to sex organs, hormones
or biological traits – indeed, many scholars question whether ‘biological’
attributes exist independently of the society that gives them meaning.
Instead, gender as a concept describes how gender is socially constructed;
how societies classify, order and regulate sex categories; the cultural
meanings attached to gender roles; how individuals understand their gender
identities; and how they can also occupy more than one gender position.
In particular, we explored theorisations of masculinities, boyhood and gender
that have implications for how we approach these issues; some of this conceptual
literature is international but is relevant to the UK.
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We also critically reviewed scholarship that focuses on the experiences of and practices
with boys, children and young people aged 4 to 13. Much of this is UK-based, but we
also drew on international examples when they contributed to deeper understanding
and insight, just as some research with older boys shed light on the contexts in which
younger boys are growing up.
We also conducted 15 key informant interviews with experts on gender, masculinities and
boyhood through online video calls and email due to pandemic-related precautions. Our
key informants’ perspectives helped inform the structure and shape of this report, and
their insights are also found in selected quotations throughout the paper on the state of
research, policy and interventions related to young masculinities. Our contributors were:
1. Graham Andre, primary school teacher who appeared in the 2017 BBC
documentary exploring gender roles in primary school No More Boys and
Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?
2. Louise Archer, professor of sociology of education, Institute of Education,
UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society
3. Olivia Dickinson, children’s media consultant
4. Ruth Eliot, School of Sexuality Education
5. Katherine Gilmour, Global Fund for Children
6. Dan Guinness, Co-founder and Managing Director, Beyond Equality
7. Craig Haslop, senior lecturer in media, University of Liverpool
8. Mark Jennett, independent education consultant
9. Maria Lohan, professor of social science and health, Queen’s University Belfast
10. Jayne Osgood, professor of gender and early childhood, Middlesex University
11. Nic Ponsford, Global Equality Collective
12. Martin Robb, senior lecturer, The Open University
13. Sarah Sternberg, social impact campaigns strategist, Movember
14. Vanita Sundaram, professor of education, University of York
15. Jon Swain, senior researcher, Institute of Education, UCL’s Faculty of
Education and Society
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Developing Complex Understandings
Gender, Boyhoods and Masculinities
Our ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ study highlighted, as a key ﬁnding,
the situated and localised nature of young masculinities, which was a
surprise to us: We had assumed that, with the growth of mass media,
and especially social media, ideas around ‘being a man’ would be
more universal and shared across social and geographical locations.
Sociological perspectives on gender emphasise that it is not innate, not something that
one ‘is’ or ‘has’. Rather, gender is continually socially constructed through everyday
interactions, discourse and institutions. Being a boy or a man is a (subject) position into
which individuals are ‘summoned’ and which can be taken up, refused or negotiated in
different ways; the same is also true for those gendered as girls and women. There is no
one way of ‘doing boy’ (Renold, 2001; Swain, 2005a; Connell and Pearse, 2015). Multiple
possibilities of masculinity can be concurrently produced and navigated within the same
institutional, cultural and social setting (Connell, 1989; Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 2006):
in school, for example, high achievers, sporty types, nerds and cool/popular boys. Gender
comes in and out of visibility: when, how, why and by whom gender is named or identiﬁed
and when it remains un(re)marked are highly signiﬁcant for the politics of gender.
Gender is a category that is both analytic and everyday, taken
for granted and contested, abstract and concrete, extensive and
intensive, intimate and institutionalised.
(Thomson, Berriman and Bragg., 2018, p. 113)
The concept of socialisation helps in understanding how children are inﬂuenced to develop
their gender identities along socially acceptable lines. However, it tends to suggest that
children unquestioningly absorb and reproduce gender stereotypes, as well as that they
are passive recipients of external gender formations. Scholarship in childhood studies, by
contrast, emphasises children as competent, active agents who co-construct their social
worlds (Connolly, 2008). Some scholars describe children’s accomplishments in enacting
gender identities through practices, language, aspirations and politics as their ‘gender
projects’ (Connell, 2005). Recent research also notes that gender diversity is increasingly
a condition of children’s gender identities (Hines and Taylor, 2018; Bragg et al., 2018; Allen
et al., 2022). In the UK and beyond (Peltola and Phoenix, 2022), gender is highly complex,
constantly shifting and encompassing many categories beyond a binary boy/girl dichotomy.
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For instance, Bragg et al. (2018) found young people aged 12 to 14 using ‘expanded
vocabularies of gender identity/expression’; in a survey by Renold et al. (2017), 69 per
cent of 13- to 18-year-olds disagreed or strongly disagreed that ‘there are only two
genders’, and 85 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that ‘people should be free to
choose their genders’. Other research notes confusion and resistance among some
young people (Allen et al., 2022) and the classed nature of some young people’s self-
consciously ‘gender-ﬂuid’ identiﬁcations (Thomson et al., 2018).
We should consider and understand how speciﬁc contexts and relationships, including
with adults and institutions, shape the possibilities for gender. As an example, Archer’s
(2001) research with Muslim teenage boys in the UK emphasises how their gendered
‘performances’ varied according to the interviewer: for instance, sometimes being more
resistant to and less loquacious with her as a white woman, and sometimes exerting their
Muslim masculinity more strongly with her British Pakistani woman co-researcher. Pascoe
(2011) notes similar processes in her work, with group and individual interviews with boys
generating very different conversations. All this troubles the idea of masculinity as inherent,
ﬁxed or singular. Research itself can perpetuate particular ideas of masculinity: for
instance, by ‘ﬁnding’ behaviours that align with gendered norms and expectations when the
researchers have not, in fact, looked for behaviours out of sync with these norms.
Researchers are also increasingly identifying the multi-sensory dimensions of resources,
people, contexts and materials that all help shape and mould the gendered practices
and processes of children ‘doing’ their gender (Spyrou, Rosen and Cook., 2018; Renold
and Mellor, 2013; Lyttleton-Smith, 2019). For instance, scholars have noted that spatial
arrangements like changing rooms, locker rooms and sporting dynamics (Kehler, Messner
and Hartman, 2016), as well as the soundscapes of how different formations of masculinities
play out in the classroom (Dernikos, 2020), and many more elements, can help us
understand how gendered subjects, knowledges, truths and literacies emerge in interaction
or ‘intra-action’ with these (Lyttleton-Smith, 2019; Dernikos, 2020).
A nuanced perspective on gendering processes in society and for individuals also shows
how masculinity is about more than individual boys or men. Spaces, for instance, can
and do become gendered: Toilets are one obvious example (Browne, 2004; Slater, Jones
and Procter, 2018), and one can visualise a school playground where some or most boys
occupy most of the space for football and most girls are pushed to the margins – and
also of how this can change with appropriate awareness, support and resourcing.
Gender is not a static thing that belongs to an individual human
subject. It's constantly shifting, moving, mutating, [which is]
why you see hypermasculinity at some moments and then very
feminine displays of behaviour in the next by the same child.
The State of UK Boys | 7
Other examples include science being understood in school as a ‘masculinised’ practice
even if it involves girls and/or women teachers, or how we might understand women as
engaging in practices of masculinity. This broader perspective on gender is also why it
is inadequate to see ‘problems’ like sexism or racism as inherent to speciﬁc individuals
who, therefore, just need to be ‘ﬁxed’. This ‘deﬁcit’ approach does nothing to address
the context that encourages, sustains and reproduces such issues.
The issue is as much the way knowledge is gendered and
produced, how boys can be aligned with science, defend it and
exclude girls – how masculinity is a seductive form of power,
which interventions need to recognise.
Our approach is intersectional: That is, it attempts to specify which boys are being
considered or placed in the foreground rather than treating ‘boys’ as an undifferentiated
category. Multiple, intersecting factors related to race, age, social class, geographical
location/space, sexuality, ethnicity, (dis)ability, nationality, looked-after status
(that is, children who are in foster or institutional care) and so on shape gender
experiences, deﬁnitions, norms and ideals in different ways. It is critical to see these
factors as interconnected to account for different ‘constellations’ of experience
(Youdell, 2005a, 2005b). Thomson, Bragg and Kehily’s (2018) research shows the
complexities of growing up in London for a Black boy, around whom a nexus (or
‘assemblage’) of housing policy, state policing, school and parental-choice policies,
religion, post-colonialism and migrations, family structures and histories of Black
populations in the UK shape his life and his family’s ambitions and fears for him:
As part of her ‘day in the life’ study of eight-year-old Nkosi,
researcher Sue walks for half an hour with him, his sister and his
mother Lorraine through the rain and London housing estates to
reach his Catholic primary school. On the way, Sue and Lorraine
chat about Nkosi’s recent, costly, birthday party, and how his
father is returning to the Caribbean soon. They pass the local,
more convenient, primary school that his cousins attend, and
a police stop-and-search, which Lorraine comments has been
happening regularly for months. Before entering the school,
Nkosi changes his rain boots for shiny black shoes.
The State of UK Boys | 8
Research shows how it can be problematic to emphasise one aspect of identity
over another: for instance, in educational debates, prioritising class over ethnicity
privileges white interests (Gillborn, 2008). Without acknowledging the diversity of boys’
experiences, we risk centring white, middle-class notions of boyhood as a norm against
which others may be measured and deemed failing.
Don’t discuss diﬀerences in pockets; discuss all bodies as
diﬀerent or all experiences of gender as diﬀerent. Centre diversity
across all these intersections and all these characteristics of
marginalisation. We need to talk about not just diﬀerences but
markers of hierarchy that can be the basis of discrimination.
Of particular note is the ‘adultiﬁcation’ of Black children, when they are perceived as
‘adult-like’, less innocent and less vulnerable than their white peers – a notion that
has deep historical roots in slavery and colonialism (Bernstein, 2011; Walton, 2021).
Services may overlook their needs and disregard their legal rights to be supported and
safeguarded. Subsequently, Black children may not be afforded the same protection as
their non-Black peers: for instance, from being strip-searched in schools or stopped
and searched in their communities by police (Davis and Marsh, 2020).
Young men [in some parts of London] are routinely strip-searched,
and it's never understood as sexual, as humiliation, as a form of non-
consensual sexual violence. So, what do we need to do to change the
narrative for boys and young men in that traumatic space?
Our approach is also ‘post-developmental’. Traditionally, childhood has been understood
through developmental approaches that depict children as moving through a series of
predetermined, universal, biological stages in the passage to (heterosexual, procreative)
adulthood – or as growing ‘up’ and, thus, always in a state of ‘becoming’ something
else in the future. Increasingly, however, these accounts have been eclipsed in favour
of identifying how childhood is both culturally and temporally speciﬁc and considering
the agency of children themselves. Scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton’s (2009) work on
the ‘queer child’ and her metaphor of ‘growing sideways’ enables us to attend to the
complexity and possibility of children’s lives, to see their rich ‘being’ in the present.
Her work has been taken up by researchers to highlight the many non-normative ways
children perform gender, resisting the desire to ﬁx gender as singular and disrupting
simplistic associations between sexed and gendered bodies.
The State of UK Boys | 9
We can distinguish how gender is lived (e.g., as identity, as expression, through social
interaction) from how it is regulated (e.g., legally and by socio-cultural norms for men
and women’s behaviour) and represented (e.g., in language, media, popular culture)
(Renold et al., 2017). We can understand these as operating on different scales, and we
need an account that embraces the nuance, contradictions and contestations of lived
gender while also highlighting enduring social patterns and hierarchies.
Studies of how gender is experienced, enacted and embodied in everyday lives,
particularly drawing on the perspectives of children themselves, show how boys
and girls participate, negotiate, contest, subvert and comply in the construction
of their gender and in the regulation of their peers’ and others’ gender identities
(MacNaughton, 2000; Osgood and Robinson, 2017).
It needs to be emphasised how nuanced performances of
masculinities are and how it's very much contextualised to
time and place. Boys can practise dominant, subordinate,
personalised, caring masculinities all in one day, in diﬀerent
places at diﬀerent times.
Early childhoods are generative, ‘queer’ spaces to do research
about gender and how gender gets produced. The limitations
and the binaries around gender do not appear to be as rigid
in early childhood as in later age groups, and although there
is some regulation of gender that happens within nursery
settings, there's a greater openness because children are
positioned as being innocent and so non-normative gender
behaviour is not seen as too problematic.
Psychoanalytically informed perspectives add to this complex picture that masculinities
are always in process, never fully achieved or secure. This can help account for the
anxieties and rage sometimes provoked in the struggle to be a ‘proper’ boy or by those
who refuse this position (Rose, 2016; Walkerdine, 2007; Hickey-Moody, 2019).
But gender is not just an identity category that makes itself felt in interactions
between groups and between individuals. It is also an organising principle of society.
All elements of society are gendered, and the dominant patterns of that organisation
are the society’s normative ‘gender order’ (Connell, 2005) or ‘gender regime’.
The State of UK Boys | 10
Hence, gender is regulated, collective, institutional and governed – for instance, by
laws, medical classiﬁcations, statistics, educational and religious practices, the built
environment and assumed norms (particularly of whiteness and heterosexuality). The
term ‘heteronormative’ refers to the privileging of heterosexual relationships – and
associated distinct gender roles – as the ‘normal’, ‘natural’ expression of sexuality.
More recently, the term ‘cisnormative’ has been used to describe when sex and gender
match and to question this as the only possible route for gender expression. Normative
gender expectations function as tools to classify and police gendered behaviours, and a
signiﬁcant body of research discusses how these expectations are used to target those
who do not conform to what is ‘ideal’ or ‘appropriate’ for their gender.
Public representations of boys and boyhood, by contrast, often present simpler, more
linear narratives. They tend to position boys as in opposition to and distinct from girls
and as naturally predisposed to behave in particular ways: ‘Boys will be boys’. This ﬁxed
conception is particularly problematic when it implies that male violence or harassment
of women springs from innate impulses. This naturalised and essentialised idea of
boyhood neglects how masculinity and ideals of what it means to be a man or boy are
situation-speciﬁc and change – with these changes being something we can all likely
identify as occurring in our own lives.
The research and our informants also identiﬁed the popular pseudoscience of brain-
based, essential and natural gender differences as unhelpful in exploring young
masculinities, with these differences not being upheld by academic research (Fine, 2010;
Rippon, 2020). Scholars have commented on how stubbornly some ‘common sense’
notions persist, seemingly immune to evidence: for instance, when individuals rather than
systems and structures are held responsible for poverty and school failure (O’Hara, 2020)
or Black boys are blamed for their higher rates of school exclusion (Gillborn 2008). This
review hopes to contribute to questioning some of the certainties in public discourses.
Notably, all of the topics considered in this paper must be read in light of the structural
difﬁculties created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns from
March 2020 into late 2021 in the UK. Disadvantaged and vulnerable children had
less access to resources at home, including for learning; were less likely to receive
resources such as online classes during lockdown; and were more likely to be absent
from school (more frequently and for longer) than their better-off peers. Some
young people witnessed or were subject to more violence within the home, and
some experienced other mental health challenges as a result of economic and social
restrictions. Understanding the pandemic’s long-term impacts on young people,
including boys in the UK, is an ongoing task.
The State of UK Boys | 11
Masculinities as hegemonic, relational and hierarchical
As the previous section underscores, contemporary thinking about gender suggests
that boyhood is not ﬁxed, unitary and stable. Rather, boyhoods are multiple,
plural, ﬂuid and changing. They emerge in relation to femininities/girlhoods, other
masculinities, contexts (including space and place) and the institutions and adults who
shape the possibilities for how masculinities are deﬁned.
Despite their ﬂuid nature, gendered qualities are also hierarchical, with ideal
‘masculine’ qualities positioned as more desirable and socio-culturally valuable, than
‘feminine’ ones. This helps explain how some boys may invest in masculine norms as a
route to status and pleasure – how they are, as Louise Archer noted earlier, ‘seductive’
for some boys, even if oppressive for others.
The concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ has evolved in scholarship to help explain how
men’s dominance comes to be seen as legitimate – not just through physical force or
political control, but by being more highly valued (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005).
Hegemonic masculinity attempts to capture ideals of ‘proper’ masculinity dominant
in particular times and places (Connell, 2005), which are accepted even by those
(arguably the majority) who do not achieve them. It relates these to patriarchy (that
is, to a male-dominated social order that justiﬁes the subordination of women and of
other marginalised ways of being a man) and other power relations, such as those of
colonialism (Connell, 2016).
Hegemonic masculinity is actively deﬁned in relation to, and often built against,
femininities and other subordinate masculinities. Although what it means is context-
speciﬁc and therefore not ﬁxed, it is commonly described as involving physical,
sexual and mental prowess; being action-oriented; ‘knowing’; having autonomy and
separation from others; and being emotionally tough. The concept is important in
accounting for the affective experience of being a boy or man – for instance, how and
why boys may experience school failure (academically or at team sports) as particularly
painful and shameful (Jackson, 2006).
Hegemonic masculinity as a concept also highlights how masculinity – speciﬁcally,
white, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity – is often assumed but invisible as a
structuring norm. By explicitly identifying hegemonic masculinity while recognising
that it is not total or singular, we create space for change and challenge, as we will
explore. Some scholars have identiﬁed the emergence of more inclusive masculinities
that accept or even celebrate feminism and gay rights and that permit deeper physical
and affective intimacy between men (Anderson, 2010; McCormack, 2013). Others have
argued, however, that this literature overstates how much homophobic attitudes have
declined while understating prevailing misogyny (hatred of and deﬁning oneself against
girls/women and femininity) (Ging and Siapera, 2019).
The State of UK Boys | 12
Backlash or ‘recuperative masculinity’ politics
There is starting to be a recognition of the global backlash that we’re
seeing against women and girls’ rights, against LGBT rights, and of
the level of coordination and money that is ﬂowing into men’s rights
movements for work that superﬁcially sounds as though it's helpful
to boys and young men, but often is potentially quite harmful.
Distinct from the critical concept of hegemonic masculinity, since at least the 1980s,
forms of ‘masculinity politics’ have emerged that explicitly discuss masculinity’s meaning
and place in gender relations. However, they do so to portray men and boys (speciﬁcally,
white, heterosexual ones) as in crisis, victimised by feminism and social justice
movements and now suffering ‘reverse discrimination’ compared to women and racial
and sexual minorities. There is also evidence of new ‘hybrid’ masculinities that self-
consciously contest dominant hegemonic ideals but are ﬁrmly antifeminist (Ging, 2019).
We have seen an alarming increase in the trend of ‘men’s rights’ activism online, with
social media inﬂuencers like Andrew Tate capitalising on the idea of male victimhood
(Banet-Weiser and Miltner, 2016). Ignoring the intersectional complexity of race, class
and gender, this backlash against equality is a misreading of social inequity and an
expression of defensive or recuperative masculinity. To effectively counter it, we must
place how masculinity is deﬁned through processes of ‘othering’ within the context of
processes of class, place, capitalism and globalisation.
The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has become popular in recent years, referring to the
harmful aspects of traditional norms of masculinity, such as misogyny, homophobia,
aggression and emotional repression. However, whether this term is helpful, or whether
it reiﬁes and simpliﬁes toxic masculinity as located only within individual (men’s) bodies,
is much debated by educational researchers (Elliott, 2018).
The State of UK Boys | 13
Evidence on the State of UK Boys
With this conceptual background in mind, we turn now to discussing literature that helps
us understand the state of UK boys. We address what have been identiﬁed as some of
the crucial institutions in the lives of boys, including families, school, leisure, markets
and social media, along with some themes related to violence and well-being.
Violence as Normalised in the Lives of Boys
Men’s violence – against women and against other men and minority groups – is an
endemic problem in all societies, one that is underreported and inadequately addressed
in policy and practice. A complex, intersectional picture of masculinities and femininities
enables us to understand how young boys are socialised into masculine norms involving
dominance, violence and homophobia, which are disciplinary and harmful to boys in
diverse ways (Burrell, Ruxton and Westmarland, 2019).
Lombard’s (2015, 2016) research with 11- and 12-year-olds in Glasgow shows how children
construct their understanding of violence through gender, childhood, space and time.
They normalise violence as a biological – and, therefore, natural – difference between
men and women. This enables boys to distance themselves from any violence in the
present, in that they see violence as a mark of male adulthood, while also anticipating
that violence during the transition to adulthood (especially men-on-men) would be a
normal part of their experience. Normalising violence as part of the expected gender
order means it is perceived as an individualised occurrence rather than as reﬂecting
broader structural norms of male dominance. Lombard’s work illustrates that children
understood ‘real violence’ as involving men (gender), physical acts of violence in an
outdoor setting between others (time and space) and some form of consequence.
For these very reasons, however, they struggled to perceive or name violent acts and
situations in their own lives – such as violence between peers/siblings or emotional or
sexual violence in schools or homes – as violence.
As other research has found with older age groups (Sundaram, 2013, 2014) and even with
preschool-aged children (Brown, 2010), a proportion of both practitioners and children
justify male violence in heterosexual relationships through notions of men’s possession
and ownership of women and appropriate behaviours by women.
The State of UK Boys | 14
Girls told me [about] a multitude of experiences; of being pushed,
shoved, kicked, followed, called sexualised names from their male
peers. These examples did not ﬁt the standardised constellation
structure of ‘real’ violence: age (adult); gender (man) space (public)
action (physical) and crucially, are generally without oﬃcial
reaction or consequence. Time and time again the girls – when they
approached teachers or those in authority were dismissed for telling
tales, ignored because of the ‘trivial’ nature of their complaint or
relayed that old adage, ‘he’s only doing it because he likes you’. Thus
their experiences were minimised and the behaviours, normalised.
Even at 11, 12, 13, the young people with whom we are facilitating
[relationships and sex education] workshops [to address gender and
sexual violence] already have quite highly developed ideas about
sexuality and relationships, consent, boundaries, what's normal,
what's acceptable, what's desirable. We encourage young people to
think critically about the norms that they have internalised and to
centre ethics in how they conduct themselves. To identify what their
values are and to behave according to them in these contexts.
Current popular discourse tends to overemphasise the extent to which boys and men
are the victims of intimate partner violence by women – as does even some research
(Widanaralalage et al., 2022). Our interviewees provided examples of even very
young boys repeating such myths: for instance, related to the recent case of actors
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who had recently been involved in a high-proﬁle US
trial involving allegations of intimate partner violence. Despite a UK libel case having
previously upheld the claim that Depp used violence against Heard, public opinion and
inﬂuencers online undermined and disbelieved Heard and positioned Depp as a male
victim of female extortion. Such popular misogynistic discourses rooted in ‘rape culture’
are increasingly prominent in youth sexual cultures in ways that need to be recognised
and addressed in gender equity education (Ringrose et al., 2021).
At the same time, however, research has documented the social taboos around
reporting male-on-male sexual assault in particular. An intersectional approach that
goes beyond a male/female binary can draw out how gender and sexual minorities are
more likely to be victims of sexual assault and present a nuanced picture of the reasons
for the under-reporting of boys’ and men’s experiences of violence and abuse. By
contrast, ‘gender-neutral’ conceptions of violence have little purchase – and can even
be damaging – in either understanding or preventing violence (Burrell, 2018).
The State of UK Boys | 15
Family and friendships
Mother, to son: I’ll buy you something, what would you like? How about this? (standing in
front of car racing track)
Son (around age 3–5): (runs up to toy kitchen stuff) I want this!!
Mother: No, you can’t have that girly cake mixer. Choose something else. Look over here.
Son: (now grabbing it and hugging it) But I want this!
Mother: Well you can’t, stop being silly. Otherwise you can’t have anything else.
(Price, 2017, p. 12)
Families have been conceptualised as gender and heterosexuality ‘factories’ (Stacey,
2021) – alongside the workplace, the media, schools and other important institutions –
for learning and enacting gender roles and identities. Parents may begin gendering their
children even before birth based on the identiﬁcation of external genitalia in scans,
including through elaborate ‘gender reveal’ parties and a stream of purchases along
gender lines (Kane, 2006; Price and Tayler, 2015). While the family is a place of nurturing
and support for many children, it can also be where gender and sexuality are regulated
and policed, as many of our interviewees and much research suggest.
[A 2021 study showed] 70 per cent of boys felt they could not,
would not, be allowed to play with what might be deemed a girl's
thing or a girly thing. They were feeling shame or embarrassment
and that was coming from their parents.…There are sometimes
overtones of homophobia around it.
Although traditionally families have been seen as the most inﬂuential force shaping
younger children’s gender-related behaviours – in contrast to the inﬂuence of school
and peer groups on older children – changing patterns of childcare, work and parenting
styles and a recognition of the subtle ways children themselves negotiate gender norms
may be contributing to a more complex picture. Roche’s interviews (2020) document
trans children from 7 years old expressing a sure sense of knowing their gender identity,
overcoming initial hesitations or resistance from family and school, and highlighting the
signiﬁcance of parental support.
The State of UK Boys | 16
Importantly, the narratives dominant in policy and popular debates (including some
parenting guidance) blame mothers generally, and especially single mothers, non-
heteronormative families and the absence of fathers as reasons for boys failing or
being ‘in crisis’ and for a range of ills, including the 2011 England riots (Sandretto and
Nairn, 2019; Ashe, 2014). But research, such as a recent study of trans parents in the UK
(Imrie et al., 2021), suggests that this hand-wringing about children growing up in non-
normative families is unfounded. Issues such as poverty and racism are more signiﬁcant
to outcomes than family structure alone. Important research has challenged simplistic
notions that boys require male ‘role models’ rather than mentors and guides of any
gender who offer genuine empathy and sustained support (Ruxton et al., 2018).
As noted earlier, policy and practice often rely on an assumed white, heterosexual,
middle-class, nuclear family norm despite the actual diversity of families in Western
societies – blended, multiracial and multigenerational, with single and/or queer parents.
This monolithic norm is embedded in everyday life, such as in how houses are built
and laid out. But – for example – the white norm has consequences for racially diverse
families engaging in their children’s education, with some reporting school staff’s racist
responses to their concerns (Bhopal, 2014; Gillborn, 2015).
Some evidence suggests that aspiring to fatherhood – and to being an involved father
– is central to many boys’ and young men’s masculine identities (Ruxton et al., 2018).
This helps us understand how ‘caring’ masculinities emerge and can be encouraged
and supported during boyhood (van der Gaag et al., 2019). However, other research
has pointed out that if society’s main deﬁnition of good fatherhood revolves around
providing ﬁnancially, boys and men living in poverty may struggle to access a positive
sense of themselves as fathers (Braun, Vincent and Ball, 2011).
Research has traditionally shown the importance of the peer group in gender
socialisation – although, arguably, ‘peer’ is itself a gendered concept that often
assumes same-gender bonding and overlooks cross-gender afﬁliations. A key concept in
masculinity studies has been how gender is performed through homosocial relationships:
for example, where gender norms are solidiﬁed by boys performing their masculinity
norms for each other in order to participate in the group dynamic (Connell, 2005; Hickey-
Moody, 2019). Pascoe’s (2011) work in the US argues that homophobia (expressed in both
joking and more obviously bullying ways) is a form of socialisation and discipline for all
boys regardless of their actual sexuality, operating both within and outside the home.
Early childhood spaces are generally much more liberal and open-
minded spaces where children can experiment with gender in
ways that aren't policed. But for some children, in some homes,
that gets shut down – so, a boy child in a tutu will run out of
nursery and the look on the parents’ face is horror, whereas it's not
been an issue all day while they've been playing in the nursery.
The State of UK Boys | 17
Scholars have studied the construction of laddishness and lad behaviour in the UK and
identiﬁed laughter, banter and entertaining one another as key elements of performing
boyhood (Kehily and Nayak, 1997; Barnes, 2012). Banter is a form of in-group and
out-group boundary that creates pleasure and bonding through camaraderie and
alignment with similar values but can also exclude those who do not adhere to the
same masculinity practices (Ringrose and Renold, 2010; Jackson, 2006). This dynamic
has shaped how gender-based violence is expressed, with men performing dominance
for one another in objectifying women and girls or gay men (Hearn, 2012) – including,
as we explore later, in online spaces.
Schooling Across the UK
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘UK education system’.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have distinct national education
systems, school types and forms of ownership, approaches to the curriculum and
histories. For instance, schools in Northern Ireland are relatively segregated by
religious afﬁliation. Policy in England tends towards privatisation and marketisation
– such as in its current aim of making all schools academies that are independent
of local authority (democratic) control. School intake in England is moderately
segregated by socioeconomic status, resulting in concentrations of children from
low-socioeconomic-status homes in particular schools, while there is also pressure
from the English school accountability system and school league-table positioning to
raise and maintain high attainment. The proportion of children educated in fee-paying
schools is slightly higher in England than in Scotland, but generally, fee-paying schools
in the UK are more expensive, exclusive and linked to elites than elsewhere in the world
(Kynaston and Green, 2019). The gap between private and state schools in per-pupil
resources has doubled since 2010 (Sibieta, 2021).
Schools are crucial for exploring and understanding boyhoods, as they are both the
‘settings’ for and ‘institutional agents’ of (Connell, 2005) the process of (re)producing
gender identities, masculinity cultures and heteronormativity and of sustaining
gendered violence. Sexuality and gender saturate every aspect of (formal and informal)
schooling. Scholars argue that they are particularly contradictory for boys who may
experience both privilege and pain, power and powerlessness across the various spaces
of school (classrooms, corridors, playing ﬁelds): ‘Boys are unable to escape these
contradictions, as each boy must fashion his identity within a limited set of options’
(Reichert and Keddie, 2019).
The State of UK Boys | 18
School as an institution that regulates gender
Schools have historically been structured and operate in ways that reinforce the notion of
gender identity and expression as binary, especially in regards to school uniforms, toilets
and sport (Bragg et al., 2018). Many practices – some explicitly advocated by policymakers
– rely on a gender binary, such as lining up as girls and boys and seating students in boy-girl
arrangements as a method of behaviour management or literacy promotion. Architectural
features, such as separate boys’ and girls’ toilets and playgrounds, may spatialise children’s
sense of gender: Again, gender and agency should be seen as emerging from this
‘intra-action’ between the social and the material. However, signiﬁcant evidence exists of
schools, particularly primary schools, moving towards less gendered practices in some
areas, including school uniforms (Thomson, Bragg and Kehily, 2018).
It's important that, unless there's a really good reason for it, we don't
divide children by ‘sex’ – that we don’t have boy versus girl debates
or line them up as boys and girls in the playground. It's so easy to slip
into that binary, Mars-and-Venus thing that implies that boys and
girls are very diﬀerent and have little in common.
The culture, values and practices promoted at school may also reinforce gender
hierarchies by centring ideals of masculinity in the curriculum, policies, uniforms,
grading systems, and teaching and learning methods. Gender hierarchies can also be
reinforced through patterns of authority and discipline, with more men historically
in secondary-school leadership positions (Swain, 2005b). Historical accounts show
how schools have privileged boys and men from white, upper- and middle-class
backgrounds for centuries, either through excluding girls and working-class boys from
educational settings or neglecting girls’ educational needs within and/or outside the
classroom, with elite and ‘single-sex’ boys’ schools particularly prone to essentialising
and dichotomising boyhood (Gottschall et al., 2010). Despite some progress towards
more egalitarian practices in the later decades of the 20th century, some scholars are
now noting trends towards ‘increasingly masculinized’ school environments (Keddie and
Mills, 2009). Some studies have pointed to academisation in England as a causal factor
in embedding competitive, authoritarian cultures and pedagogies (Kulz, 2017). Research
suggests education practitioners may tend to associate boys with underachievement and
girls with high achievement (Jones and Myhill, 2004), but this is also an artefact of the
expectations created by the public debates on attainment that we discuss below.
Research also shows the signiﬁcance of gendered notions of learning, including on
how boys engage with school (Taylor, E., 2021). A study of 11- to 15-year-olds in London
secondary schools showed boys who actively distanced themselves from girls and
qualities regarded as feminine (e.g., softness, schoolwork, emotional literacy, maturity)
were considered ‘real lads’ by their peers (Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman, 2002). Research
has explored the possibilities of performing boyhood differently or ‘improperly’.
The State of UK Boys | 19
For example, Renold (2006) depicts how ‘boy-ness’ is deﬁned as disassociated from
femininity, girls or being ‘girly’ and how alternative masculinities are excluded as
inferior because they do not align with dominant versions of ‘doing boy’. Yet a small
group of boys still choose to actively invest in other non-hegemonic masculinities (e.g.,
playing fantasy/computer games instead of football, showing emotional literacy, having
pro-school attitudes), even in the face of bullying by other boys (Renold, 2004).
Some have questioned the conceptual relevance of hegemonic masculinity for younger
boys. For example, Bartholomaeus (2012) argues that 6- and 7-year-old boys’ discourse on
ideal masculinity appears to be different (e.g., being nice and obedient) from the traditional
values of (older) manhood due to the particulars of their young age. Researchers have
coined the expression ‘borderlands’ as the spaces inhabited by non-hegemonic boys
(Newman, Woodcock and Dunham, 2006), while Paechter (2019) notes the risks incurred by
‘feminine’ boys in school as they negotiate the boundaries of what is allowed of them.
Besides exploring the experiences of boys in school, scholars and activists have
highlighted troubling patterns in school exclusion, which have increased so signiﬁcantly
in recent years that the issue has been forced onto the policy agenda (Department
for Education, 2019). The literature consistently notes that certain vulnerabilities,
individually or combined, increase the risk of school exclusion. These include SEND
(special educational needs and disability), including social, emotional and mental health
needs; poverty; low attainment; being from certain minority ethnic groups; being
bullied; poor relationships with teachers; life trauma; and challenges in their home lives
(Graham et al., 2019). There are gendered aspects to this, in that boys are more likely
than girls to be formally excluded from school, although there are forms of invisible
exclusion that particularly affect girls.
There are also signiﬁcant racialised aspects to this as well given persistent evidence
of racial disparities in attainment, exclusion and discipline (Gillborn, 2005, 2008).
Caribbean British pupils (particularly boys) are three times as likely as their white peers
to be permanently excluded (Crenna-Jennings, 2017). These processes shape young
Black masculinities in the UK (Whitehead and Ringrose, 2021). Connolly’s (2002) research
with primary school-aged boys highlights how Black boys’ behaviours are often racialised
and subject to racism. The beginning of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 and the
UK government's ‘Prevent duty’ are of particular signiﬁcance. Under the Counter-
Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Prevent duty requires all registered early childhood
providers and schools to demonstrate the steps they have taken to prevent students’
radicalisation. However, it has been criticised for disproportionately targeting Muslim
boys, seeing them as dangerous and vulnerable to being radicalised by terrorist groups.
For example, an 11-year-old primary school student, a Muslim boy, was referred to the
Prevent programme after his teacher heard ‘arms’ when the boy expressed his desire to
‘give alms to the oppressed’ (Taylor, D., 2021).
Some research has shown how educational processes embed assumptions about the
characteristics of an ‘ideal’ student or learner, against which all students are measured
but some fail. Historical conceptions (from the Enlightenment) assume the ideal learner
is male. Contemporary ideal characteristics include perceived ‘intelligence’ and ‘good
humour’, closely associated with middle-class boys.
The State of UK Boys | 20
Attaining literacy has been easier for high-achieving middle-class boys who wish to do
well in examinations and secure a good career. Skelton and Francis (2011) found that
some groups of academically successful middle-class boys rework hegemonic ‘real
boy’ constructions of masculinity to incorporate and ‘non-gender’ feminine attributes
that offer social and ﬁnancial merit in an economically neoliberal society (see also
Williams, Jamieson and Hollingworth, 2008). Additionally, middle- and working-class
girls are positioned against an ideal female pupil, who takes on a supporting role
by creating an environment that facilitates boys’ learning. While middle-class girls
are seen as moderately successful in approximating these characteristics, working-
class girls are often positioned at the bottom of the classroom hierarchy (Hempel-
Jorgensen, 2015). Francis (2006) argues that at secondary school, working-class
boys are demonised as wasting resources and failing to be neoliberal subjects for
not taking responsibility for their own achievement or failure. Studies recognise the
challenges for working-class boys in negotiating contradictions – between the values
of their communities and the individualistic or neoliberal ones propagated by schools,
for example – and how uncomfortable the space of school can be for them as a result
(Stahl, 2018; Ingram, 2009; Reay, 2002).
Schiffrin-Sands’ ethnographic research in primary schools (2021) depicts boys as
young as 8 who are perceived as both popular and academically successful engaged
in ‘boysplaining’ – a younger version of ‘mansplaining’ (Rebecca Solnit’s famous term).
This involves practices such as physically controlling a speciﬁc area of the classroom,
dominating equipment, and disregarding the needs of other students, as well as verbally:
...repeating “I know I know” when others explain things…reject[ing]
answers by other students that did not complement their own…
[taking] the sole credit for work that had been collaborative…[being]
quick to interrupt girls as they spoke… ignor[ing] their classmates’
contributions…[correcting] girls…shaming girls’ work and behaviour.
(Schiffrin-Sands, 2021, p. 667-668)
Boysplaining, Schiffrin-Sands argues, both implements and legitimises boys’ normalised
hegemony and power. Other research in a Welsh primary school notes that despite decades
of feminist and gender equality activism, members of school communities continue to draw
upon essentialist binary discourses, predominantly justiﬁed by what are seen as ‘biological’
theories, to explain alleged gendered differences in terms of classroom behaviour, subject
attainment, curricular preferences and future life choices. These referenced notions of
acceptable ways of ‘doing masculinity’ and the ‘high-achieving, conforming school girl
culture’ (Hamilton and Roberts, 2017). By contrast, research also shows children being ready
and willing to accept or adopt non-normative ways of ‘doing gender’ within an appropriately
supportive context (DePalma, 2013, 2016; Atkinson, 2021).
The State of UK Boys | 21
As previously noted, the peer group is an important feature of school experiences, and
there is some evidence that boys ‘do’ friendship differently from (their perceptions of) how
girls do this (Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 2012). Yet the same researchers note that intimacy
and emotionality should not be understood ‘as an individualised psychological dynamic;
instead, it is important to connect it to the contextual institutional dynamics’ in school (p.
488). These dynamics shape possibilities for how friendship can be performed, and the
researchers argue that boys’ friendships in particular may be experienced and practised
differently from the conventional understanding of adult masculine relationships.
When all boys are together, you've got to be quite a brave boy not to
conform; that's one of the biggest challenges – how you can empower
boys from very early on to feel that they can stand up for the boys that
are not feeling boyish enough, and also that they can call out overly
negative boy-like behaviour. I think that's the biggest challenge.
As the section on violence suggests, the way schools respond to incidents of harassment
and abuse plays a key role in communicating messages about boyhoods and sustaining or
challenging gender-based violence.
We heard how diﬃcult it is for young people to challenge
behaviour when teachers don't challenge it. Children notice
what you do. Sometimes, it feels like brushing over something
is better, but children internalise that, and then they tell us it
makes it harder for them to engage with their peers on that topic
or issue.…It's often young women who tell us they feel silenced
when teachers ignore sexist banter.
In 2020, relationships and sex education was made a statutory part of the English
curriculum, with direction to ensure it is LGBT-inclusive.1 However, discourses of
‘maintaining childhood innocence’ continue to dominate relationships and sexuality
education practice, with discussions around sex and sexuality deemed an optional
part of the curriculum (Morgan and Taylor, 2019; Johnson, 2022; Atkinson et al., 2022).
1 This is partic ularly signiﬁcant g iven Section 28, a n otorious meas ure introduce d in the 1988 Local Governm ent Act by the then-Conservative
UK gover nment to prohibit the ‘promotio n of homosexual ity’ by loca l authorities. It was rep ealed in Scotland in 2000 and in En gland and
Wales in 20 03, but its malign i nﬂuence in term s of inhibiting schools from addressing issues of LG BTQ sexualit y continues to be fe lt. See: Lee,
C. (2019) 'Fif teen years on: T he legacy of Section 28 for LGBT+ teach ers in English sch ools', Sex Education, 19(6), pp. 675-690.
The State of UK Boys | 22
School discipline often involves homophobia for discipline, as when a research
participant reported how a primary school teacher used ‘jokes’ about same-sex
love to stop two 9-/10-year-old boys from messing around. The children’s reactions,
comment the researchers, show that they have already ‘learned about compulsory
heterosexuality and the taboo against transgressive sexuality’ (Atkinson and DePalma,
2008). Additionally, some have noted that if LGBTQ issues are addressed only in relation
to risk (of bullying or poor mental health), it can undermine attempts to identify and
speak about broader issues (Gilbert et al., 2018).
Recent work demonstrates how creating an afﬁrming environment for trans children can
offer opportunities for schools to become aware of how curricula, policies and practices
rely on cisnormative, gendered understandings and create environments that broaden
possibilities for all students (Payne and Smith, 2014; Neary, 2021). Other research in
primary schools shows children as being capable of comprehending and developing
complex messages about gender and sexualities. Hall’s (2020) research with 6- to
11-year-olds in two Greater London primary schools, for instance, demonstrates how
children’s responses to equalities education change socio-spatially. Within ‘formal’
spaces like classrooms, students engage with ‘recognisable liberal pluralistic equalities
discourse’ (e.g., inclusive narratives around gender, sex and sexuality). In informal spaces
like corridors, the playground and the toilet, however, they summon the heteronormative
discourses of gender, sex and sexuality that have currency in their everyday online/
ofﬂine geographies (e.g., home, family, preschool), and masculine, heterosexual prowess
once again becomes the norm. Playgrounds, as other research notes, are areas of
freedom for children in comparison to the classroom due to less teacher control
(Paechter, 2007). Hall found that ‘whilst many teachers were convinced that pejorative
use of the word gay was no longer a feature of school life...boys confessed to almost
constant use within toilets’ (2020, p. 179). The following example from a focus group
with children approximately 9 years old shows how boys negotiate these terms and their
nuanced awareness of context:
JH [Joseph Hall]: Have these words been banned (pejorative use of gay and lesbian)?
Callum [focus group participant]: Yeah, we’re not allowed to say gay or sissy…
JH: Do people still use these words?
Callum: Not as much…gay’s used
JH: In the playground?
Callum: Yeah, but if you told a teacher they would be in Chris’s ofﬁce (deputy head teacher)
JH: So you would be in trouble?
Callum: Yeah but no one tells, that’s the problem.…the word gay has been banned but
people use it in the boys’ toilets whenever you go in.
The State of UK Boys | 23
Atkinson’s (2021) research in two schools, one involved in proactive sexualities pedagogy
and one not, suggests a more positive picture. Whilst homophobia persisted across both
schools, children's understandings of its acceptability differed markedly according to
their involvement in equalities pedagogy, with institutional silence interpreted by many
as equivalent to school-sanctioned homophobia.
Are (White, Working-Class) Boys ‘Failing’?
The 1970s saw campaigns to improve girls’ participation in maths and science. However,
subsequent policymaking has been dominated by moral panic about whether boys are
‘failing’, positioning boys as the ‘new disadvantaged’ who require intervention.
Scholars argue that presenting data in simplistic, binary terms – ‘male versus female’,
as though they are two homogenous social categories – renders invisible the bigger
differences and variations in performance within groups of girls and within groups of
boys. Other variables, such as ethnicity, social class, disability, location, sexual identity
and religion, need to be addressed to bring about change (Elwood, 2015). There are
many groups of boys – and girls – performing well above the national averages, from
primary school all the way through to General Certiﬁcate of Secondary Education (GCSE)
examinations, although girls’ educational success has not translated into gains in the
labour market (Ringrose, 2007, 2013).
Elwood (2015) argues that allocating all students to binary categories of boys and girls
reinforces stereotypes and leads researchers to use these categories to look for ‘causes’
of gender differences. By contrast, viewing gender as socially constructed suggests
that differences in performance are created by social and cultural practices inﬂuencing
how men or boys and women or girls come to be and act. So, any differences observed
among the genders are not ﬁxed, but open to change in relation to the social, cultural
and historical contexts in which people live and learn (Elwood, 2015; Ringrose, 2007).
There's often an underlying assumption that boys should be attaining
higher than girls, and if girls attain higher, then that's a problem.
The State of UK Boys | 24
We need to understand the intersections in looking at boys and
disadvantage. It’s never just because they’re boys; it will be boys
and their socio-economic status, or they might be neurodivergent
and not been diagnosed yet. It could be race and ethnicity. It
could be based on the attitudes of particular teachers or the way a
school captures data or their attitudes towards certain students,
particularly neurodiverse or Gypsy Roma travellers.
In recent years, politicians and the media have identiﬁed white, working-class boys as
the most underperforming and, therefore, disadvantaged of any group in the education
system, a misleading claim so widespread that it deserves to be unpacked in detail.
Crawford’s (2019) work highlights the racialised implications of the (mis)use of statistics. In
the UK, eligibility for a free school meal (FSM) is used to assess levels of poverty or social
disadvantage, although this is a crude measure in itself. When politicians and the media
claim that white, working-class boys are uniquely disadvantaged, they are actually referring
only to the one in ten who claim FSM. However, it is understandable that the 60% of the
white British population who identify as ‘working class’ would assume that the claim refers
to them rather than this smaller number. And the rhetoric obscures that, for instance, Black
Caribbean, Black African and Bangladeshi students are more likely to claim FSM than white
children (at rates of 23.5%, 35.1% and 44.6%, respectively) (Crawford, 2019, p. 7) or that
white boys not receiving FSM are achieving signiﬁcantly ahead of some other 'minoritised'
groups in terms of obtaining ﬁve ‘good’ GCSEs (Gillborn, 2008, p. 56).
In this way, the discourse of white, working-class boys as neglected and failing is both
manufactured and actively misleading. It can be read as a backlash discourse instead
of providing insights into the intersectional dynamics of privilege and marginalisation.
Some of our interviewees commented that this rhetoric is being exploited by those
in positions of power and privilege who otherwise have no interest in improving this
situation or in referencing any other intersections.
In the UK, boys aged 8 to 15 spend signiﬁcantly longer than girls on organised sports (40
minutes per day compared to 25) (Ofﬁce for National Statistics, 2018). Organised sports
and PE in and beyond school, as well as within families, are important environments for
experiencing and performing gender. Research shows how discourses of sport, ﬁtness,
health and masculinity work together to produce pleasurable experiences for those
who become popular by virtue of being seen as ‘good’ at sports and ‘strong’. Sports
participation is associated with better mental health and peer relations (Ahn et al., 2018),
which is why men’s health organisations such as Movember are developing programmes
of work around sports. However, sports practices can also be associated with exclusion,
humiliation, bullying and homophobia for those boys who do not measure up to athletic
ideals (Drummond, 2019).
The State of UK Boys | 25
Sex-segregated sports systematically strengthen traditional gender binaries and
legitimise supposed biological differences (Green, 2008; Wilkinson and Penney, 2016,
p. 751). Football in UK primary schools has often been a powerful space to produce
masculinities since it supplies behaviours connected to hegemonic masculinity, like
physical confrontation, violence and aggression (Renold, 1997; Keddie, 2003; Connell,
2008, p. 140). Boys are more likely to be pushed by teachers towards sports like
football that are seen as requiring ‘toughness’, to be coached by professionals and to
train during and outside of school hours. They may also be discouraged from ‘softer’
activities like aerobics, badminton, table tennis or netball, reinforcing their difference
from girls (Flintoff, 2008). Masculinities are heavily scrutinised through physical
skills and capability or incapability; coaches often criticise boys who fail to display
aggression or skill as ‘girly’ or not ‘boy’ enough (Gubby, 2019, p. 751). Such approaches
signals the limitations of some PE pedagogies and the need for curricula to tackle
gender and equality issues.
Even the popularity of sports heroes provides insight into contemporary
gender relations: Research with primary school students aged 6 to 7 in Australia
demonstrates how ﬁgures like footballer David Beckham are regarded as ‘the
manliest’ by both boys and girls due to masculine traits, such as muscularity; famous
female athletes are considered less ‘womanly’ due to their ‘muscles’ and ‘strong
body’ (Bartholomaeus, 2011). It remains to be seen whether the English women’s
football team winning the Euros in 2022 has displaced any of these stereotypes.
There is concern about the striking increases in the reported prevalence of long-
standing mental health conditions among UK children and young people (Pitchforth
et al., 2019). Gender is relevant to this in terms of masculine norms, relating to being
(for example) autonomous, in control, not expressing emotions or seeking help
and relating to how problems might be expressed internally or externally (Gutman
et al., 2015). Recently, the American Psychological Association identiﬁed adhering
to masculine norms as a risk factor for men and boys’ mental health (Way, 2019).
Research in early-years settings helps explain how such norms are established
young, demonstrating the dominant belief that emotion and needing others are
opposed to constructions of masculinity: ‘Crying and comforting soft toys are not
allowed, and neither is sharing your experiences with other boys who may, in turn,
police your gender. Boys are being strongly directed towards self-reliance’ (Cooke
et al., 2022, p. 10).
Research on mental health with 9- to 13-year-old boys in North East England has
challenged the appropriateness of applying adult-deﬁned understandings of men and
masculinities to the attitudes and behaviours of pre-adolescent boys, arguing that we
should rethink how we gender young boys. The institutional production and regulation
of boyhood produce ‘boyness’ within attendant normative emotional boundaries.
For example, when discussing teacher expectations, the boys in the study shared
gendered uncertainties around expressions of emotion – such as being unable to
share fears and anxieties (Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 2012).
The State of UK Boys | 26
When I ﬁrst began researching in this area, we gained the impression
that our interviews and focus groups were often the ﬁrst opportunity
for boys and young men to discuss issues around gender, identity
and relationships. Since then, and with the greater exposure to
discussions around gender and identity in popular culture, boys are
now more prepared to be open about mental health issues, though
conventional expectations around ‘bottling it up’ or ‘manning up’ still
hold sway among some groups and communities. But directly raising
issues around identity and relationships with boys is much less
productive than indirect and creative methods of engagement.
While there is some evidence of change, an intersectional approach requires we
attend to the experiences of different groups of boys and young men: Young Black
men, for example, are both at risk for mental health due to experiencing racism and
discrimination, yet may also face more barriers to accessing support services that are
seen as unwelcoming (Meechan, John and Hanna, 2021).
Technology, Media and Markets in Children’s Social Worlds
In popular debates, much concern has been expressed about the ‘commercialisation’ of
childhood (Buckingham, 2011). While there is not space here to explore this issue in depth,
it is notable how boys have been brought into the world of consumption in different ways
in recent years – for instance, in terms of body image and the notion of the ‘six-pack’
as a masculine ideal. Additionally, campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys have opposed the
marketing of children’s toys, books and so on in gendered ways that reinforce binaries
and stereotypes. Our interviewees identiﬁed positive changes in terms of representation
in popular and consumer culture. For instance, as a result of the Let Toys Be Toys
campaign, many retailers and publishers have committed to removing signs demarcating
clothing, toys and books by gender. As another example, the Australian children’s show
Bluey, popular in the UK, has two sisters as protagonists and a stay-at-home dad who
participates in his children’s fantasy worlds. However, it is unclear how far these changes
have extended to marketing, which often continues to target products at boys and girls
in distinct ways. Interviewees also identiﬁed some steps backwards, such as the queen’s
Platinum Jubilee book given to every primary-age child in the UK in 2022; the book only
managed to muster two women for its list of ‘creative geniuses’ since 1926.
Meanwhile, young people are increasingly engaged with virtual worlds through digital
gaming, messaging apps and social media, where they discover new strategies for
communication, self-expression, and relationships (Danby et al., 2018). Children
and childhoods can no longer be conceptualised as separate from the digital: The
ofﬂine/online distinction is increasingly irrelevant in an age of ubiquitous polymedia.
The State of UK Boys | 27
Childhoods exist in digitally mediated, networked and connected cultures of texting,
chatting, gaming, sharing and learning (Ringrose and Harvey, 2017; Setty, 2021). The
production, tagging and circulation of images through mobile online technologies help
construct and regulate particular classed and racialised norms of popular masculinity
(Harvey, Ringrose and Gill, 2013). The homosocial peer group also shapes digital cultures
amongst boys and how they perform themselves online (Harvey and Ringrose, 2015),
which can lead to forms of image-based sexual harassment and abuse, such as the
non-consensual sending and posting of nude images (Ringrose, Regehr and Milne,
2021; Ringrose, Regehr and Whitehead, 2022). Researchers argue, therefore, that
digital literacy and sex education need to be joined up for young people and delivered
in primary school since many children join social media apps much earlier than the
13-year minimum age advised (Livingstone and Yoo, 2018; Cawthorne, 2018; Ringrose,
Mendes and Horeck, 2021). The role of social media has also intensiﬁed with the onset of
COVID-19, although arguably, some of the ‘risks’ associated with digital intimacies have
come to be seen as safer in some ways than face to face during and since the pandemic.
Signiﬁcant concern has surrounded cyberbullying, the bullying and harassment of
others by means of digital technologies. Some research suggests that cyberbullying
does not create many new victims but it does extend the bullying beyond school
(Wolke, Lee and Guy, 2017). Research also ﬂags continuities with the naturalisation and
normalisation of violence. Aggressive online behaviour is often accepted as normal
in ways that prevent addressing it, and responsibility for dealing with it often falls to
victims rather than perpetrators. Research on online harassment with UK university
students suggests it is gendered in nature, with those holding female and transgender
identities more likely to be its targets (Haslop and O’Rourke, 2021).
In other words, online harassment is a ‘digital extension’ of existing gender-based
hierarchies, pressures, oppression and violence that shapes a ‘gender-related digital
divide’ (Haslop, O'Rourke and Southern, 2021). Moreover, as noted earlier, there is
evidence that this situation has much earlier roots: Girls report receiving unsolicited
nudes like ‘dick pics’ from the time they join social media applications like Snapchat –
sometimes at aged 10 or even below – and being pressured to send nudes (Ringrose,
Regehr and Milne, 2021; Mendes, Ringrose and Keller, 2019), whereas boys have
been harassed with unwanted sexual content and porn in social media contexts and
reported feeling upset and distressed (Ringrose et al., 2022).
The State of UK Boys | 28
Research has looked at the masculinist social subjectivities produced through digital
gaming, showing this is complex since both ‘jock and geek’ masculinities can be performed,
suggesting the elasticity of hegemonic masculinities (Salter and Blodgett, 2017).
Research with boys in primary school points to gaming’s salience, both for identity
formation or recognition as a ‘certain person’ and for the social currency afforded
by knowing the intricacies of the video game (Scholes, Spina and Comber, 2021). This
resonates with earlier work by Walkerdine (2007), who identiﬁed gaming as one key site
for producing contemporary masculinities. Walkerdine’s work on young boys and gaming
draws attention to how the boundaries of masculinity are maintained and negotiated,
such as disparaging girls’ gaming abilities, and her psychoanalytic perspective questions
the fantasy function of being an action hero and having omnipotent control, achieving
masculinity by disavowing dependence on adults, especially mothers.
Inclusive initiatives that seek wider gender equality in digital gaming (e.g., girls’ gaming
clubs) remain precarious in challenging the networked, techno-masculine status quo.
Nonetheless, research also challenges the idea that participation in gaming is necessarily
developmentally detrimental to boys and points to the gender experimentation and
‘queering’ possible within gaming experiences and associated socialising (Sihvonen
and Stenros, 2019). The game itself, of course, determines the possibilities of
play through the game’s technological affordances, which may offer programmed
routes for challenging hypermasculinity (Kagen, 2018). Therefore, technology creators
and providers need to be a part of the conversation around transforming problematic
masculinity gaming cultures, as we discuss later.
Clearly, this is starting early, [sometimes] earlier than secondary
school. Our research [e.g., Haslop, O'Rourke and Southern,
2021] showed a normalisation of non-consensual image-sharing
of girls, of seeing women as a currency, a form of capital to be
discussed, alongside other competitive behaviours like getting
the best memes or banter about each other. And if [our university-
age participants] didn't do it themselves, they knew of people
who did do it or they heard of it. But they just didn't see some of
those practices as misogynistic.
The State of UK Boys | 29
How Can We Transform Problematic Gender
This section explores challenges and opportunities for transforming problematic
gender norms and harmful masculinities. We build on our expert informant interviews
and also refer readers to work by the UK Government Equalities Ofﬁce in 2019 (Burrell,
Ruxton and Westmarland, 2019).
Problematic Approaches Informed by Backlash
Popular discourses and practices can stoke rather than challenge misogynist ideas in
the name of helping boys, such as that schools are overly ‘feminised’ environments
lacking positive man role models or that girls and students of colour have beneﬁtted
from initiatives in ways that take away from and victimise white boys in a zero-sum game.
Our expert informants noted some dangerous trends around men’s rights initiatives tied
to regressive politics that do not align with gender equity.
Under scrutiny, some initiatives prove to be limiting – and, thus, damaging – in their
assumptions about boys. For example, some anti-bullying programmes focus more
on ‘ﬁxing’ individuals, thereby pathologising them as the source of problems, than
on tackling the systems and structures that allow or encourage bullying. Pedagogical
responses to raise boys’ achievement or literacy rarely reﬂect complex insights from the
research; instead, they are often based on simplistic stereotypes, deﬁcit models and
assumptions about boys’ interests that can hurt boys’ self-understanding. Boys may be
homogenised as disengaged, reluctant readers who are predominantly interested in
nonﬁction, potentially reinforcing narrow cultural norms in classrooms and limiting
opportunities for authentic engagement and sustained learning. Hypermasculine
nonﬁction may be used in schools as ‘boy baits’ (Scholes, Spina and Comber, 2021),
alongside problematic practices of gender segregation.
There are some very old-fashioned attitudes about masculinity
and how we want boys to behave. The very ways that we often
try to engage boys with education are the ways that put them oﬀ
education, because if you always give them books about football
and snot, then that’s not saying reading is interesting.
The State of UK Boys | 30
Scholars have identiﬁed ‘pedagogies of poverty’ in low-socioeconomic-status schools,
contrasting these with pedagogies developing creativity, agency, pleasure, critical
thinking and problem-solving that may be more likely in schools in locations with a
higher socioeconomic status. Pedagogies of poverty involve a diminished pedagogical
offer emphasising particularly strong teacher control and deﬁning teachers’ role as
to transmit knowledge to children, who are positioned very passively. They focus
on raising test scores on ‘basic skills’ in literacy and numeracy – suggesting how
accountability systems (which are particularly dominant in England) are more likely to
hurt the experiences of boys and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They also
require student compliance in carrying out teacher-set tasks, with pre-deﬁned correct
answers and little peer discussion. While this has been seen as an issue of education
in contexts of inequalities, it is possible to see how such pedagogies – offering narrow
subject positions that assume student deﬁciency and demanding obedience – may be
particularly challenging for masculine subjectivities founded on notions of autonomy
and agency. In some economically marginalised schools, practices such as reading may
be coded as ‘feminine’. If resistance to the feminine provides working-class boys with a
means of afﬁrming their place in society, what needs to change is the coding – not the
offer. Research has shown how pedagogies that foreground children’s volition and
social interaction disrupt such ‘pedagogies of poverty’ and lead to better social
and academic outcomes for students from low-socioeconomic-status households
(Hempel-Jorgensen et al., 2018). Overall, more complex accounts are needed to
address multiple intersecting causalities (Parsons, 2019).
A further response to the ‘boy problem’ attributes it to the absence of ‘positive male
role models’ and ‘father ﬁgures’, leading to recruitment drives for men teachers
(Brownhill, Warin and Wemersson, 2015). These position men as rescuers and frame
women, communities of colour and non-heteronormative families as in deﬁcit.
They also frame women as inadequate to parent and teach boys, especially in boys’ teenage
years (Martino and Rezai-Rashti, 2012). But the evidence does not support this position.
Researchers have questioned the beneﬁts of placing the onus on practitioners and teachers
to assume a fathering role when they are employed to work with children in a professional
capacity (Cushman, 2005, 2008). Cushman notes that the presence of a father ﬁgure may
not always be beneﬁcial, especially when boys’ experiences may have involved abuse or
neglect, and challenges the stereotypical perceptions of what men as ‘role models’ are
expected to provide (in many cases, qualities that align with hegemonic and patriarchal
masculinities). All these prevent a necessary focus and emphasis on girls’ as well as some
other non-dominant boys’ needs within educational settings (Ringrose, 2007, 2013) and,
hence, constrain our capacity for developing gender-just and equal research and policy.
Our interviewees challenged approaches that position boys and their families or
communities as deﬁcient in some way, such as lacking in knowledge and interest in
education and speciﬁc subjects. Instead, they called for turning attention back onto
institutions and services to identify where they may be failing and, thereby, become
more welcoming of participation and engagement. Louise Archer’s work, for example,
sets out to draw on and value forms of expertise in homes and communities, linking
these to classrooms in order to support effective learning and make scientist identities
more ‘thinkable’ for a wider range of young people (Archer et al., 2012; Archer, Dewitt
and Osbourne, 2015). (See also the ASPIRES project.)
The State of UK Boys | 31
The Youth Endowment Fund has produced a useful toolkit that critically examines existing
research on approaches to preventing serious youth violence. This speciﬁcally identiﬁes
that ‘masculinised’ projects like boot camps and prison awareness programmes are not
only ineffective but harmful in terms of violence prevention. Our informants articulated
the shortcomings of both overly didactic and ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches.
[A zero-tolerance, punitive approach does not] inspire genuine
shifts in values or attitudes, behaviour, ethics. It encourages a
kind of NIMBY [‘not in my backyard’] approach to problematic
behaviour: not in my classroom, not in front of me. But if the only
reason that I am giving you for not doing that is because you will
get into trouble, all that does, at its core, is to discourage people
from doing that in front of authority ﬁgures. It does absolutely
nothing to unpack why it's being done, to reﬂect on entitlement.
It does nothing to discourage it being done outside the context
where that person might get caught.
In addition, our informants cautioned against approaches that ‘ﬁx’ boys and young
men to speciﬁc notions of masculinity rather than challenging underpinning social and
structural hierarchies within which boys and men are operating. Approaches that claim
to be gender-blind or gender-neutral deny the relevance, complexity and diversity
of gender identities and the role of gender in the issues boys are facing (Tembo,
2021; Chapman, 2022). They risk reinscribing harmful, negative, rigid, cisnormative
understandings of gender and gender identity. If they overlook how boys of colour
experience boyhoods differently, they tend to centre white boyhoods. Equally, the
informants suggested gender-segregated approaches are inadequate in today’s society
since, by prioritising gender rather than other intersectional aspects of experiences, they
recreate an essentialised gender binary that does not correspond to many young people’s
understandings of their own and others’ identities. They may also reproduce many of the
problematic practices that take place around gender policing in and around schools.
If it's not tackling the underlying, broader, gendered power
imbalances and other structural imbalances, then it's only going
to reinforce them.
The State of UK Boys | 32
Another issue raised in the literature is the limits of ‘safe’ approaches such as Stonewall’s
families approach – which, by emphasising and representing monogamous, childrearing,
nuclear LGBTQ relationships and the similarities between gay and heterosexual family
lives, risks creating new norms and ‘disavowing lives that do not look like this idealised
hetero-monogamous nuclear family’ (Hall, 2021, p. 67).
Promising Approaches to Changing Masculinities
All our expert informants talked about the challenges to transforming masculinities
and cautioned against simplistic, binary explanations and ﬁxes, but also pointed out
positive ways forward. Importantly, it is increasingly recognised that institutions – not
just schools but also other actors, such as technology producers – need to be part of the
conversations about change (Thomson, Bragg and O'Riordan, 2021).
As the research discussed in this paper demonstrates, gender equity must be centred
rather than only gender equality. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they
refer to different, yet complementary, strategies. Gender equality refers to the idea that
equal numbers of something will add up to a more equal society – for example, more
women in parliament will create gender equality – and is measured in terms of ratios
and parity. But this doesn’t necessarily address the problem of gender norms enforcing
ideals of gender that can be oppressive and problematic. Gender equity refers to a wider
set of principles to create equity through practices of fairness and inclusion that take
stock of background inequalities, meaning we do not all start from the same place. Given
many years of sexism and sexual inequity in society, we need policies and practices in
any institution that directly combat both overt and hidden forms of inequity.
Researchers and practitioners have argued for, variously, ‘gender-just’, ‘gender-
transformative’, ‘gender-expansive’, ‘gender-full’, ‘productive’, ‘gender-sensitive’ and
‘norm-critical’ approaches and pedagogies. These aim to promote gender/sexuality
inclusivity, diversity and justice. They create critical awareness around harmful forms
of masculinities and support boys’ critical reﬂection on these and on assumed norms,
acknowledging their experiences of masculinity within spaces of social support and
mutual respect. There is already some evidence that such approaches in relationships
and sexuality education may increase contraceptive use and gender-equitable attitudes
among sexually active youth (Lohan et al., 2022).
An intersectional perspective is critical to enlarge the range of masculinities available to
boys and to strengthen diverse boys’ capacity to resist and desist from distinct forms of
social pressures. A complex approach that goes beyond individualised methods, such as
the approaches often mobilised for bullying, can help boys challenge hierarchies that
distort, suppress and harm themselves and others. It can also help build commonalities:
what young people have in common rather than only how they are different.
Recognising how heterosexuality and ﬁxed gender identities are presumed and, at
times, encouraged is crucial to challenge dominant and unhelpful manifestations of
masculinities. Practices should centre young people’s voices and experiences, including
those who are marginalised, and tackle issues around homophobic and misogynist
harassment and violence through an explicitly gendered lens (Reichert and Keddie, 2019).
The State of UK Boys | 33
Importantly, however, they need to be ‘whole school’ rather than in pockets (Bragg et
al., 2022), and their perspective needs to be nuanced. They need to engage with the
complexity and multiplicity of boys’ social and emotional lives as boys in the present
rather than for the adults they will become, not constructing them as future men or
future perpetrators but with sensitivity to the intricacies of learning masculinity (Kean
and Kazuo Steains, 2022; Driscoll, Grealy and Sharkey, 2022).
Scholars stress the beneﬁts for all children of understanding how the gender binary
limits them, not just for those children who are gender-nonconforming. Gender-
diverse, afﬁrmative learning environments help identify how schools are already
saturated with gender, amplify the diversity that already invariably exists in schools,
and challenge the norms that limit children to enacting particular gender performances
(Payne and Smith, 2012). It has long been argued – including by feminists in relation to
work with girls – that such ‘inclusive by default’ frameworks improve settings such as
schools for the whole community, not just targeted groups (Younger, Warrington and
Given the signiﬁcance of gender-based violence in young people’s experiences of
school, Lombard (2016) suggests that (restorative rather than punitive) spaces need
to be created for naming violent acts as violent so they can be validated as such
and labelled as wrong by children from an early age. She argues that schools need
to do more to address gender stereotypes that shape children’s experiences and
understandings of violence and that they should reﬂect on the physical environment
and the practices, processes and procedures that may lead to the reproduction of
gendered stereotypes rather than contribute to change.
Starting Early: Participatory Engagement with Children and
Our informants emphasised the need to start early on work to challenge gender
norms because children are aware of and actively engaged in their ‘gender
projects’ from an early age: Even from birth, their gender identities are being
constructed, imposed and navigated. Research shows how rigid, binary gender roles
can successfully be challenged in non-discursive ways within nursery and early-
years classrooms and by working with non-stereotypical representations, objects,
toys and so on (Lyttleton-Smith, 2019; Spinner, Cameron and Calogero, 2018).
The gender equalities organisation Lifting Limits has demonstrated how its
interventions in primary schools can raise awareness and conﬁdence in challenging
stereotypes, addressing gender inequalities and increasing acceptance of diverse
gender roles across multiple groups, including leaders, staff and parents/carers, as
well as children (Horvath, 2019).
Currently, we see the rise of gender diversity in the UK and internationally, and
discussions of the ‘trans child’ have become prominent in public debate. Our key
informants emphasised that some resources developed to support trans children
could be useful for all children and regretted how such resources have become
controversial and politicised.
The State of UK Boys | 34
Some of the work we currently do around supporting trans
children – all those resources, like the Genderbread Person [for
understanding the concept of gender: https://www.genderbread.
org] – I wish we were using more with everybody to try and break
this idea down that masculinity looks like one thing, that there's
only one way to be a boy.…Young people are very interested in
gender identity, and you've got an open door there to think about
not just trans identities but to talk about how [as a boy] your sex
or your gender need not deﬁne you. But because of some of the
current debates around trans, people are now worried about how
much they can say, and these helpful resources have become very
controversial for some.
In terms of focus, informants emphasised that part of working effectively with children
and young people is about creating a safe space – of social support and mutual respect
– in which they can share and reﬂect on their views, attitudes and assumptions without
fear of judgment. Sometimes, this will be the ﬁrst time they have been invited to do this
in educational settings.
A gender-transformative approach provides the space for individuals
and groups to recognise how their belief structures, thought
processes, emotions, perceived needs and behaviours are bound up to
that whole constellation of things that we would call gender. Helping
people understand their position within gender, and other parts of
their identities. And we've got to create a space where they recognise
that it's not them who’s up on the judgment blocks here.
Involving young people as active co-producers and participants in their education
around gender equity and social justice is also recognised as a core organising principle
of pedagogical processes that can enable gender transformations (Renold, Ashton and
McGeeney, 2021). Whilst any educational provision in school is not consensual in the
strictest sense of the word, our informants stressed the importance of respect: for
example, enabling students participating in relationships and sexuality education contexts
to contribute on their own terms as much as possible, even if this means allowing them
to disengage from the work. They also noted the need to avoid shaming individuals for
expressing particular opinions or beliefs (for instance, those that are victim-blaming) and
The State of UK Boys | 35
instead to identify that these are widely circulated ideas and reﬂect on their sources and
implications. Informants acknowledged that it is challenging to create spaces that can be
both safe and non-judgmental while also countering problematic practices or behaviour.
However, they argued that enabling peers to challenge one another supports critical
thinking, reﬂection and curiosity – which is also why mixed-gender groups could be such an
important element of work on transforming gender.
Others discussed how PE lessons and co-ed or mixed sport can be used to shift binary
social thinking by providing opportunities for equality, teamwork, integration, diversity
and inclusivity (Messner, 2011). Gubby’s research (2019) proposes korfball – a deliberately
mixed-gender sport that does not rely on physical strength – as a means to create equal
interaction and participation; 11- to 13-year-old boys and girls in her research described
korfball as an empowering athletic experience because it encourages girls to play with
boys and have the same physical function and role as boys. The charity and awareness-
raising organisation Movember is increasingly supporting work with men and boys on
mental health, using organised sports as a site for action.
The Scottish government has issued guidance on ‘gender-friendly’ nursery approaches
and supporting trans children in schools, addressing gender-based violence, mental
health and LGBT equality (McMillan and Morton, 2019). Informants encouraged scrutiny
of extracurricular ‘offers’ and diverse creative subjects in the core curriculum.
Whilst there are undoubtedly funding challenges to overcome, small acts and
interventions can trouble unspoken assumptions about gender (DePalma 2013, p.
4). For instance, a ‘dress-up box’ in nursery can include a range of materials, from
hyper-feminine to hyper-masculine to ‘neutral’, such that children can exercise their
imaginations and practitioners can observe and learn from them. Equally, informants
noted that books with alternative, anti-stereotypical depictions of gender roles or
where the protagonists’ gender is uncertain could potentially generate debate without
being overly focused on changing individual children – provided such texts are treated
as ordinary rather than as special and exceptional.
A lot of young men weren't given any tools at school to deal with
any of this, and their teachers and people around them didn't know
what to say, how they could make it better for them. That has to
change signiﬁcantly; we have to be more open, braver and give
young people a lot more credit that they can deal with this stuﬀ.
Our informants, like the literature, encourage the view that young people are both
willing and able to change with appropriate support. They also, however, noted that
adults underestimate what is happening for young people and fear trying to address it.
They mentioned a number of resources: multiple useful sources curated by the Global
The State of UK Boys | 36
Equality Collective, for example, and the padlet of collated research by Graham Andre;
Andre also appears in the BBC documentary about challenging gender roles in primary
school, No More Boys and Girls, which is available on YouTube. In relation to advertising
stereotypes, https://genderremixer.com/html5/ is a witty site that enables images
and sound to be transposed from advertisements for ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ products, raising
awareness of stereotyping. Some alternative resources were referred to, such as one on
‘radical safeguarding’ and others that try to shift understandings of key issues in school
for boys and minoritised groups, such as exclusions.
Most frequently mentioned were EJ Renold’s (2019) AGENDA resources, which contain
extensive research-based ideas for working with children aged 7 to 18 on issues of
gender equity – not least because our informants identiﬁed indirect and creative
methods of engagement as much more productive than directly raising issues around
identity and relationships with boys (Renold, 2019; Renold, Ashton and McGeeney, 2021).
EJ Renold’s [AGENDA] arts-based methods for talking about
Gender equality and sexual harassment, consent, healthy
relationships in schools is the most useful, exciting, innovative
work that creates safe spaces for dialogue.
Craig Haslop’s work (forthcoming) emphasises the role of ‘impact statements’ by those
who have experienced misogynist and homophobic/transphobic harassment to help
young men ‘connect emotionally’, noting that boys may be technically competent
but ill-equipped to understand the social, cultural or emotional implications of the
complicated digital spaces they ﬁnd themselves in from a young age.
Ongoing Education for and with Practitioners
Our informants and the literature stress the need to shift the perceptions and
understandings of adult practitioners, not just young people, to achieve lasting change.
They also acknowledged that this task requires resources, support and time, as well as that
such critical reﬂection and challenge will inevitably be uncomfortable. This sits uneasily
with the eagerness of policymakers and politicians to ﬁnd simple, cheap ‘silver bullets’ for
complex issues. However, to effect change in institutions, it is essential to conduct long-
term work with teachers, youth workers, early-years practitioners and other professionals
so they can reﬂect on their attitudes, biases and areas of ignorance; to become ‘critically
aware’; and to take risks and experiment with the curricular and extra-curricular provision.
As previously noted, Lifting Limits’ work has shown substantial progress towards these
goals among adults following critical, whole-school work on gender stereotyping and
inequalities in primary schools (Horvath, 2019).
The State of UK Boys | 37
If you want to change it up to create more inclusive classrooms,
it’s not just about what you do; it's about why you do it, what your
beliefs are, how you understand inequalities. The most powerful
tool we can give you is an understanding and ability to think,
critically reﬂect and then intentionally plan and act. Often in
science, particular forms of behaviour get recognised as a ‘good’
science student – getting the answer right or assertive displays
of muscular intellect. We need to recognise how science gets
gendered, classed and racialised in and through the pedagogy
and broaden that out. Value wider forms of doing science, value a
wider form of science identity, stop science being tied to notions
of very traditional, lab-based, professional science. There's
science in everything, in cooking and dancing. Recognising that
then opens up the range of students who can be recognised as
doing science. So that being a good science student is not seen as
about getting the answer right, but being curious, for example.
A topic for debate is what teachers in school can do relative to the role of outsiders or
specialists. Informants mentioned the importance of sustained relationships, including
those found in long-term youth work. Even those who run workshops in schools
recognised that having a more permanent presence – one distinct from a teaching role –
could beneﬁt young people.
For a long time, traditional open-access youth work, where you have
relationships that span years, has been radically under-resourced
and has almost disappeared. But now, we are starting to see interest
in how youth work can tackle some of these challenges. Our partners
know radicalisation is a big issue for some of the boys and young
men they work with, and how misogyny is a gateway into far more
extreme white supremacy, far-right/alt-right. Seeing youth work
starting to be recognised as a way into that is a real positive.
The State of UK Boys | 38
This report has demonstrated throughout the diversity of experiences of boys and
boyhoods in the UK. Gender is a category that is in ﬂux and under constant revision
and negotiation, and boys are actively navigating these shifting norms and ideals.
Masculinities are diverse, and an intersectional lens highlights that all boys have
positionalities based in race, class, sexuality, ability, faith, space/place and cultural
context. We need to capture this breadth in subtle ways, both to enlarge the scope for
action and to avoid stoking misplaced politics of backlash.
Some persistent norms related to masculinities promote desires for dominance, violence
and otherisation, which can impact UK boys and others in negative – but sometimes also
seductive – ways. Families, parenting practices and institutional settings both regulate
and support shifting gender identities and norms. Importantly, educational settings,
early years and schools are sites of gender socialisation, where hierarchical dynamics
of class and race often restrict educational achievement in inequitable ways, but which
can also be sites of new possibilities. Additionally, games and sport are key sites and
practices for performing masculinities, as are online spaces, where masculinities are
digitally mediated and are actively being performed, reshaped and renegotiated.
How do we address harmful masculine norms among UK boys? Some of the pedagogical
and educational approaches available for working with boys can be problematic if they
re-essentialise masculinities and embed limited assumptions about boys. However,
promising processes, practices and initiatives do exist, as our expert informants have
seen ﬁrst-hand in educational and intervention spaces. Carers, practitioners and
educators must all have the proper training and tools of critical reﬂection that they
need to support young people, including boys, towards the common goal of achieving
gender equity in UK society. To continue breaking down harmful norms, we crucially
need to work in partnership and dialogue with children and young people, being curious
about their perspectives and experiences rather than assuming that they need to be
‘ﬁxed’. Participatory, creative and open-ended approaches are required that respect
and actively engage them. Critically, as this report underscores, addressing these norms
must start early, given gender socialisation is a process that begins before birth. Perhaps
most importantly, we must note the potential gains for all young people, including boys,
when we work together in gender-just and gender-transformative ways.
The State of UK Boys | 39
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