The long shadow that patriarchy casts over women and men

The long shadow that patriarchy casts over women and men

Why resolving patriarchy[1]requires both women and men to understand the damage it causes them.

Luba Kassova, Director at AKAS ( and author of ‘The Missing Perspectives of Women in News’ & ‘The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News’ and Linn Martinsen, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor ( and author of soon to be published ‘Therapy Toolkit’ , deliberate over what would weaken the persistent, if not resurgent, patriarchal norms that prevail globally by exploring the issue from the integrated perspectives of women and men. The authors take a multi-disciplinary approach incorporating perspectives from disciplines such as sociology, social and personal psychology, media studies and patriarchal history.

A strategist’s perspective

Written by Luba Kassova

Luba KassovaSince writing two major reports in 2020 that exposed the extent to which women’s perspectives as newsmakers, experts and news protagonists have been consistently marginalised during this century, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been pondering this simple truth: for us to hear more women’s voices, men must quieten theirs. For if women are to gain more power, men must relinquish some of theirs. But what would motivate men to quieten their voices so that they could hear more of women’s? What would make men more likely to surrender some of their power: acceptance or judgement; self-love or shame; love or fear? Feeling that they ‘want to’ or ‘have to’ do it?

The current social and news narratives often rightly portray men as primarily the cause of the problem (the perpetrators enforcing the patriarchy) and women as primarily the victims (lacking the agency to resolve it). A content analysis of Canadian news coverage, undertaken by Maite Taboada and her colleagues from Simon Fraser University between October 2018 and September 2020, revealed that 78% of all quoted perpetrators of crime in Canadian news were men but men only constituted 31% of all quoted victims or witnesses. This portrayal of men in news as perpetrators or power brokers but not so much as victims perpetuates the stereotype of the ‘macho man’. AKAS’ analysis of the COVID-19 news coverage in 2020 in six countries[2] across four continents also revealed that women are rarely portrayed as empowered in the news. Of the protagonists portrayed as empowered in the COVID-19 news coverage we reviewed, only 17% were women while a staggering 83% were men.

According to Paul and Helen Baker, the authors of ‘Conceptualizing Masculinity and Femininity in the British Press’ in a collection of articles entitled ‘Journalism, Gender and Power’, Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity posits that ‘to some extent all men benefit from the “patriarchal dividend”, and women can also be complicit in helping to prop up the system’ because in their position of powerlessness, they see benefit in supporting those in power. In Bulgaria, where I come from, it is not uncommon for men and women alike to look down on feminists, branding them as unattractive women who are forced to ‘fight’ men because they are not desired by them. Feminists are often derogatorily labelled as ‘power grabbers’, revealing the underlying belief that it is preposterous to desire to acquire the power that naturally belongs to men. I wonder whether this harsh judgement is born out of unconscious attachment to the centuries-old status quo or whether it is an expression of deep-seated vulnerability. Or perhaps both?

UNDP’s social norms index released in March 2020 revealed extraordinary pro-male/anti-female biases globally. The data showed that 91% of men and 86% of women across 75 countries covering 80% of the world’s population hold at least one bias favouring men at the expense of women. While a lot has rightly been written and said about the ‘patriarchal dividend’ for men and the psychological cost of patriarchy to women, perhaps not enough focus has been given to the psychological cost to men of maintaining patriarchal norms.

Unfortunately, men who are on the defensive because they are seen as the deliberate cause of the problem, are unlikely to choose to relinquish their power. In fact, they are more likely to want to hold on to it for fear of being shamed and stripped of power or ‘emasculated’. Conversely, when women are predominantly portrayed in society as victims, they are unlikely to find the power within themselves to ‘speak up’ and challenge the norms and narratives that favour men. It is only when women and men integrate and transcend their stereotypical thinking that they can engage in a productive dialogue that holds the potential to loosen the millennia-old grip of patriarchy.

We are in sore need of creating new narratives to rebut stubborn patriarchal norms. Societies need fresh and authentic story lines which place women and men on the same side of the problem - narratives which see them both as victims of patriarchy, admittedly men to a much lesser extent, as well as the solution to overthrowing it. For women and men alike are trapped by patriarchy. While women are trapped by the dominance of men in all spheres of life, men are trapped by the rigid expectations of what constitutes ‘a real man’ that society places upon them. Societies are much more accepting of women expressing sadness than men and of men expressing anger or even rage than women. When men express extreme sadness, they are labelled ‘wimps’ whereas when women express extreme anger or rage, they are labelled ‘bitches’.

The acceptance of or even reverence towards male rage, machismo and braggadocio, at the expense of softness and sensitivity, leads to an unforgivably high degree of tolerance towards violence against women globally - a problem which plagues all societies and harms women and families to their core. Tragically, the level of violence against women has increased further during the COVID-19 pandemic globally, giving birth to the global trend known as the ‘shadow pandemic’. In the 21st century women are still seen as the primary caregivers (whether they like it or not), they are marginalised in decision-making roles across all levels of society and they carry the responsibility for taking care of the home, often exclusively, while also earning a living. According to The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News ‘women face unique socio-economic pressures resulting from patriarchal social norms - for example as victims of growing gender-based violence, as primary caregivers[3], as spouses of deceased men in control of family finances and property; as homemakers with informal jobs, as part-time employees with less secure jobs, as lower income earners, and as parents more likely to live in single-parent households with higher numbers of dependents.’

For men, on the other hand, the tyranny of patriarchy is manifested in the constraints they face in freely expressing their emotions and vulnerability without being condemned for being weak. They are expected to be stoic at all costs and to shoulder the burden of providing for their families financially while withstanding the pressures of comparing favourably against other men. I was deeply struck by Matt Rudd’s poignant article ‘It helps to share your worries’, published recently in The Sunday Times, which laid bare the reality of the patriarchal burden that men carry in the UK. In it the author linked that burden with, among other things, deteriorating mental health among men and a suicide rate that is three times higher among men than among women. “Mark had grown up with all the typical patriarchal expectations of a modern man. If he lost his job, he lost his status, and with it, what it means to be a man…”, read the heart-breaking account of the author, outlining the internal world of a man who lost his life to depression.

Going back to the questions I was pondering earlier about what would incentivise men to surrender some of their power to make space for women to become more empowered, it seems to be that self-acceptance and love are more pertinent to combatting patriarchy than shame, guilt or fear. Acknowledging the unreasonably high psychological price of patriarchy not only for women but also for men will surely help to break down some of the barriers men put up when they are confronted on the issue. But it will only be when men and women throw off the straitjackets that patriarchy places on both genders - and on the spectrum of gender identities in between - that we will stand a chance of breaking free from the grip of the patriarchal attitudes that silence and hurt women and repress men. It will be at that point that women and men will be able to walk side by side, looking in the same direction for ways to build a more equitable society.

A Psychotherapist’s Perspective

Written by Linn Martinsen

Linn-MartinsenWriting about feminism and patriarchy, and not least the thought of sharing it, often leaves me in a state of deep unease. Perhaps it is fear of retribution, a fear of getting things wrong. Perhaps it is my many years as a therapist, the concept of ‘unconditional positive regard’ absorbed so completely that it is difficult to take a definitive side on anything, because everything is so achingly nuanced and complex. Or perhaps it is simply being a woman, and raising my voice feels unnatural and scary, regardless of whether it is about the patriarchy or anything else.

There is a common misconception, particularly among men but also among women, that the term patriarchy equates to ‘all men being bad’ and as such they understandably rail against the concept and feel a deep need to protect themselves and reject the very idea of it.

Research conducted by historian Gerda Lerner[4], a pioneer in the field of patriarchal history, posits that patriarchal societies emerged during a specific period in history when clearly defined roles (sex-segregated tasks) were of particular benefit, and that this preceded sex-based oppression. The time in question was the bronze age, a time before scriptures and writing, a time before the ideas system of western civilization was formed, before the bible, before Greek philosophy.

This is crucial and perhaps liberating to consider in our reflections on patriarchy: that its norms and values, and among them the discrimination and oppression of women, are something that emerged as opposed to being inherent, and that the shift to oppression from mutually agreed (of their time) sex-segregated tasks occurred and was cemented long before recorded history and thus knowledge and awareness of this shift was not available to learn and grow from.

It is no wonder, Lerner says, that men look down on women, when all of history portrays that history was made by men. As in: men have no choice, they must think themselves better, there is nothing recorded to prove otherwise. But what is this ‘better’ other than just a particular ideal that has shredded women’s confidence and sense of value and self-worth, while largely excluding men from the innately intimate and connective emotional world that brings humans closer together?

Patriarchy has left women oppressed and discriminated against, but we have all, women, and men alike, been silenced, undermined, and rejected by it.

I have been told by both men and women that women have far more power and agency than they realise or utilise. I have railed against this often when it has come up in conversation, but staying with this often-quoted-to-me statement in a quieter and less judgmental way has left me pondering a vulnerable and poignant point:

There is indeed a certain kind of power I hold, that women hold. It has been honed over thousands of years to compensate for the lack of power we have/have had in many other areas. We learned to stick together and nurture each other and our children, and through this we grew our communication skills. We also learned that we did have a certain kind of power over men through our bodies, not a power we wielded of our own want, but a power they attributed to us and often controlled. Thus, we had to take ownership of this attributed power as best we could, either through selling it for food and shelter, using it for love and protection or to attain powers that were mostly out of our reach.

Slowly over time, a lot of time, thousands of years kind of time, we ‘forgot’ our rights over our own bodies, and we ‘forgot’ our ability and right to agency, firstly because men held raw physical power we could not overthrow, then because of how the written word was conveyed to us, eradicating women altogether or keeping them as part of a lesser narrative in relation to the main story of men.

Imagine if history had recorded the shift to sex-based oppression, imagine if we had access from the very beginning to our own story, how would women’s agency have been different? How would women and men have evolved?

Men are often asked in relation to the oppression and discrimination against women, ‘How would you feel?’. I know I have asked this question many times, and each time I fail to recognize how unproductive the question really is. How on earth could men even begin to imagine how to feel? Perhaps we should stop asking them ‘How would you feel?’ and start asking them ‘How do you feel? What do you feel are the benefits of being a man? What are the downsides? How do you define being male? What does masculinity mean to you? What do you consider feminine traits? Is there anything you fear would be ridiculed by those around you if you shared it?

Perhaps we should start asking women different questions too, rather than assume that all women want the same thing. What is it like for women who do not feel oppressed or discriminated against to be exposed to the debate?  The discussion around patriarchy often tells them their choices are ‘made for them by men,’ which might take away any felt sense of agency rather than invite them to explore it.

Luba mentions at the beginning of the article that to hear women’s voices, men must quieten theirs. I wonder if being confronted with this request without being offered a nuanced narrative that also includes men’s felt experience of being a man is why so many leave the conversation. The collective narrative of all men bulldozing women into silence induces a feeling of being attacked and discriminated against as a group when (in my experience as a therapist) many do not feel heard themselves or feel (and sometimes indeed are) shamed if they express any vulnerability or reject certain masculine ideals.

Perhaps there is something oppressive for men too in the idea, carried through patriarchy, of men holding all the power, especially the duty to provide and to be ‘less emotional.’ This sadly also places them firmly on the outside of a collective experience of openness and warmth many women draw much strength from.

I know many women feel frustrated at often being left to ‘emotionally rescue’ men despite women being the victims, but perhaps there is a more nuanced alternative. There should be a clear delineation between how we defiantly and justifiably respond to abuse and discrimination and how we generally debate and talk about feminism and patriarchy. The former needs to be met with complete and authoritative unity, the latter can perhaps afford to be met with more curiosity and generosity in the wider discussion.

We can implement drastic changes constitutionally and societally to right the wrongs of women’s oppression and discrimination - but dissolving the very idea of patriarchy is not something that can be done quickly. For this we need to delve deep into the belief system it constitutes and perpetuates and reflect on how we are all collectively and individually affected.

As women, rather than electing to remain in the nurturing role that grants us a sense of value through the emotional power it confers on us, we can choose to examine how the survival skills we honed to keep us marginally safer can in fact keep us from connecting with men on a deeper level; and for their part, men, instead of rejecting the nurturer role and relying on authoritative patriarchal power to provide them with their sense of value, can opt to look at their exposure to and engagement with the masculine ideals and constructs around them that keep them from entering deeper, healthier and more equal relationships.

A place to start might be to consider this: If we swapped around all the male/female roles in the world, what would we want to keep, and what would we want to walk away from?

[1]By patriarchy we mean a societal system where power relations are dominated by men at the expense of women

[2]India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, UK, and USA

[3]As primary caregivers, women are more likely to become ill with COVID-19 in many countries

[4]Gerda Lerner – The Creation of Patriarchy: The Origins of Women’s Subordination. Women and History, Volume 1, Oxford University Press 1986

If you would like to follow up on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Luba Kassova or Linn Martinsen on or



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