Gender and Disaster Risk – What’s men got to do with it?

This blog post is part of the InsuResilience Centre of Excellence’s blog post series, in which we invite partners to share their research or work experiences with us. Particular emphasis is placed on covering different perspectives from different regions of the world in the course of this series. The CoE is part of the InsuResilience Global Partnership. It is important to note that this blog series may not reflect the perspectives of all partners in the partnership but is intended to ensure the representation of different views. 

The following dialogue is a conversation between Jana Siebeneck, Advisor to the InsuResilience Secretariat, and Mathias Ericson, Swedish researcher at the University of Gothenburg with a background in cultural and social sciences, risk and crisis management. His research approach is based in feminist theory, critical masculinity theory and ethnographic studies. 


Jana: When we talk about gender in the field of climate and disaster risk, most people think about the inclusion of women only. Can you explain what gender means and why this is not only about women? 

Mathias: Gender is a concept we use to distinguish gender-based social norms and power relations from biological sex. We do research on gender because we want to understand the shifting and multiple ways that biological sex matters in people’s lives and in power dynamics in society. The question of gender, here understood as power relations based on sex, goes back to women’s movements in different parts of the world. So, it is only natural that it is most commonly associated with women. But the concept of women has also itself been contested in those movements for many different reasons, seeing how the category of women itself can be exclusionary and used to enforce inequalities. For instance, making distinctions between good and bad women based on other structural positions such as age, race, sexuality or class. Saving women and enforcing gender equality has also been used to legitimize violence, such as when it was used to legitimize the US so called ‘war on terror’ with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. For me, working in Sweden, where gender equality supposedly is a national trait, it is important to pay attention to how the idea of “our gender equality” is used to position for instance Muslims as not part of Sweden, or how a feminist foreign policy may be used to legitimize a paternalistic approach to southern countries and immigrants. Thus, when we think of gender as connected to women, we also need to remind ourselves that the category of women is in itself contested and the subject of debates. This is not to be thought of as a negative problem, but rather as something that strengthens our ability to think critically about what gender means and how gender dynamics work. For me this is where we also can start thinking about masculinity.

When gender is exclusively associated with women it leaves the position of men and of masculinity unchallenged. This is a problem because men and masculinity tend to be the unquestioned norm and taken for granted, not least within different institutions, professions and organizations. For example, I have done research on the firefighter profession, a profession that has traditionally been reserved for men and also serves as a symbol of masculine ideals. Firefighters, at least from what I can say in the west and global north, have gained a certain aura of heroism and masculinity. The stereotypical expectation of firefighters is that they are tough daredevils who risk their own lives to save others in house fires or disaster situations. Supposedly, this would explain why most firefighters are men, assuming this form of work suits men. But when I have interviewed men in the profession in Sweden about how they relate to these expectations, they would distance themselves from this stereotype and emphasize that taking risks or living up to stereotypical images of masculinity was not accepted in their teams. According to them, it would be unprofessional and narcissistic. Still, they said that it was also good to get this kind of attention and they did not want to make changes that would violate the gendered aura of their profession – such as including women in their work teams or implementing other work routines or work tools. I also noticed how some firefighters expressed that it was ok to violate security routines and refuse to take directions from team managers when it challenged the way they were used to work, or when the managers were too soft or careful (feminine). The men I followed had an ambivalent relation to the masculine aura of their profession.  

For me, this indicates how we tend to accept the idea of masculinity norms as a cultural structure that causes problems in the world we live in, but we tend to regard it as a problem only for others and not something that concerns men. Men and masculinity are like the elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s an issue, but they do not have the ability to talk about it. This logic also comes into play when we associate gender exclusively with women, focusing all attention on the ones who suffer from gendered power inequalities but leaving out questions of how normative positions are reproduced and how men are complicit in reproducing gender inequalities. It may still today be mind-blowing to think of men as gendered, because we are not fostered to think that way and to leave men out of the equation. The concept of gender is important, but when regarded as exclusively about women we turn our attention away from the normative position of men and masculinity. One of the key tools for turning our attention to men and masculinity is noticing the struggle and hierarchies between different kinds of men – in dialogue with what feminist and women’s movement have raised in relation to the category of women. By noticing that there is not one masculinity but many different forms of masculinities based on intersecting structural positions (again) such as age, race, sexuality, class, and local context, we can then start to engage with the question of how the normative position of men and masculinity is not an undifferentiated or given structure, but rather relies on a lot of practices reproducing this norm, but also struggles among men. We can also start questioning what men gain from conforming to gender norms and how men engage in violent activities that threaten others and their own lives as well as the environment to confirm to masculine norms.  

Jana: You have published a book and other publications on the subject of masculinity, gender equality and disasters. Why is this topic important?  

Mathias: I think the subject of men and masculinities is something that should be paid more attention to in research on gender and disasters because it could help our understanding of how the response to disasters is organized, how resources are distributed and what kind of vulnerabilities are given priority. One simple way of engaging our curiosity on this subject is to think about the interrelated positions of the protector and the protected. As feminist scholars have stressed, these positions are permeated with gender norms, with the protected as a feminized position of being in need of help from others and the protector being a masculinized position of having agency and strength to resolve the situation. It does not matter if the people in those positions identify as men, women or trans persons because the point here is how gender as a social relation influences response work. Masculinity, as a sort of norm and rationality helps us think about how the protector (i.e. a person, an organization, an agency, a profession etc.) is asked to display competences associated with masculine norms and how other alternatives are pushed out and ignored.  

Jana: So, what you are saying is that gender is imposed not only on people but also on priorities and organizations? Can you provide some examples and help us understand how these topics are interrelated?  

Mathias: In my research, I have noticed that participants identify gender dynamics in terms of how so called “soft” issues are put aside as less important than the “hard” issues. Crisis response work relies on the coordination of different professions. But the coordination process is often not gender equal in Sweden. Masculinized professions, such as the military, firefighters and the police enjoy a privileged position while feminine or women dominated professions such as health care, social security or public communication are restricted to the periphery, at best, or excluded and silenced altogether. In observations from command centers established in response to wildfires 2018 in Sweden, I noticed that when questions were asked concerning the public’s health, communication or cultural values the response from other participants was frustration and silence, commenting that these were irrelevant questions or questions to be raised at some other time in some other forum. The focus was on firefighters work out in the woods, despite the public statements made by the operation manager that the key values directing the operation was making the people in the community feel safe and giving priorities to parts of the environment that mattered most to the people (ie. securing cultural values). The same tendency was evident in other situations, such as in the national coordination meetings in response to the so-called refugee crisis 2015. In disaster response work, masculine coded professions run the show, sometimes salient and sometimes more aggressively. Firefighters could also complain about this tendency, noticing that the aura of their work can influence the coordination process in a negative way. On one occasion, when I was observing a coordination drill exercise involving a diverse group of professions and authorities, firefighters expressed frustration that managers from other authorities conveniently stepped aside and just expected the firefighters to run the show – refusing to take active part in the coordination.  

It seems that people with experiences from crisis response work can easily relate to this kind of phenomena. One of the drivers for me in my research is that I want people to realize that there are a lot of gender studies, including critical studies of men and masculinity, that could help define these aspects and provide some tools to handle and be better prepared for these dynamics. Without the concept of gender and masculinity, we would still have the elephant in the room and destructive structures being reproduced or taken for granted as just the way it is. I hope that my research can help increase the understanding of how masculinity norms affect professional practices and how it can become a disadvantage for the emergency response of the whole community.   

Jana: The InsuResilience Centre of Excellence on Gender-smart Solutions calls for financial inclusion and with that, equal access to Climate and Disaster Risk Finance and Insurance (CDRFI), particularly for women and all genders.  Would it make sense to include the concept of masculinity also here?  

Mathias: Financial inclusion is key to equality work and Sweden may serve as a case in point. The baseline of the often-acclaimed progressive gender equality reforms in Sweden during the mid and late 20th century was to encourage women’s economic autonomy. But this was never just a matter of bringing women into economic autonomy (through paid work). Just as important was engaging men to take a greater responsibility for unpaid work, such as childcare or taking care of the household. I would suspect, the idea of financial inclusion related to disaster risk could be approached in a similar way, not just asking women to be included but also making way for this inclusion by considering and raising questions of how it affects men and may challenge masculine norms. This is important to understand the resistance towards change that we may encounter. Thinking about masculinity is also important because it may help us see that the resistance may not be as monolithic as we may first assume. Gender relations, including masculinity, changes as society changes and I think the concept of masculinity is important to understand conflicting views on what the obstacles are and what direction social changes may take. If we want equality, we want change. And for real change to be developed, we also need to call attention to how men and masculinity are included in the equation. The concept of masculinity could help us challenge the assumption that women could be included without any change in the economic and social conditions. The problem is then that all responsibility is laid on women to adjust and accept the conditions just as they are – when in fact part of the process of inclusion would be to change the conditions that has excluded women in the past. Just because something has “always” been done a certain way does not make it right. The concept of masculinity can help us see that the way things were done before might sometimes have had more to do with assumptions based on masculine norms than the inner workings of the economy. 

Jana: Studies shows that, in many contexts, women are already the one managing the finances of their household but lack the resources and access to financial services.  I wonder, can financial inclusion of women be important for men too? For example: When families experience economic struggles, for example due to climate-related stresses or disasters, there is a social pressure of expectations that exist for men to fulfil the role of the provider for the family. The fact that income-generating activities are often assigned to men can present a problem for men as well as women. While men might feel the pressure of this role, women may like to use CDRFI instruments, but it can be more difficult for them to access those instruments, for examples due to sale locations, the product’s price, or lack of access to digital tools. By promoting financial inclusion for women and all genders, we can achieve a win-win of equal access to these services, shared responsibilities and thus, less pressure on men to fulfil this role alone. What are your thoughts?  

Mathias: I think this is a very important question that you raise, but I cannot say that I have done any research in this area unfortunately. But as a more general observation, masculinity norms tend to rest on the assumption that men are in control and self-sufficient. Lost control and increased dependency mean losing masculinity and studies shows that men can go to great lengths to restore a sense of control and refuse dependency – even though in fact it may increase their vulnerability and ruin their lives. Studies shows for instance how masculinity helps explaining why men tend to refuse to adjust to medical advice by doctors or accept help from social services or refuse protective measures. The firefighters I have interviewed were very frustrated with difficulties persuading men to use for instance life vests when out on the ocean, or installing smoke alarms in their homes or accepting their own responsibility for putting people at danger in traffic. So, based on this, I would say that I agree with you and that the concept of masculinity could help us understand how also men may benefit from a more gender equal access to the economic insurance services in disaster crisis. Masculine norms are permeated with contradictions that I think we need to understand and that challenges us to develop more sensitive critical approaches to gendered power relations. Men may be expected to be in control, but this does not mean that they actually are in control. The concept of masculinity can help us think and work around this distinction. I also came to think of how Lauren Berlant points out that the crisis that accompanies disasters is simply an amplification of normalized inequalities. The inequalities that become violently manifested in disasters and crises are not new but share a continuity with normalized inequality such as gendered power relations. The concept of masculinity is important here to understand this continuity and also for engaging with how individual men respond to and are affected by this, also depending on the cultural context, of course. 

Jana: What are approaches for reducing risk and vulnerabilities that are based on gender roles? Do we have to get rid of social gender roles all together or are there other ways? 

Mathias: I think the point with gender equality is not to abolish or make gender irrelevant, but rather to expand and acknowledge the creative forces of gender relations in all its multiple forms of expressions. I do not think we could ever get rid of gender roles per se, but we can begin to acknowledge them in different ways, realizing that they are not so rigid or stable. So, it is not so much about getting rid of them, but rather making them less discriminatory or excluding. There is also the problem of who decides if we managed to get rid of or having broken free from norms, because when we think we have moved on we might just have become ignorant of the “new” norms that define and privilege us. So, I think we need to be cautious with this idea of coming over gender. Especially from the perspective of masculinity, which is so strongly based on the privilege of being the unmarked. But this does not mean that nothing can change. On the contrary, changes happen all the time and the impression of stability has more to do with a lot of maintenance work – for instance in relation to risk and vulnerability. Instead of sitting back waiting for a world free from gender oppression, which may only strengthen our desperation and a sense that nothing ever seems to change, we could develop a more curious approach to the workings of gendering practices. Hopefully the concept of masculinity can be one way of developing our curiosity.  


If you are interested in more resources on the topic of Masculinity and Disaster Risk, here is a selection:  

Ericson, Mathias (2021) “‘It is men who die and all that, so what is new?’ Male vulnerability, institutionalised masculinity and the present absence of a problem in Swedish rescue service accident prevention” NORMA 16(3):159-173.  

Ericson, Mathias (2020) “Gendering risk and vulnerability: Tensions and conflicting views in crisis preparedness work in Sweden”. Gender, Work and Organization. 27(6):1308-1320. ISSN: 0968-6673 

Ericson, Mathias & Mellström, Ulf (ed.) (2016). Masculinities, gender equality and crisis management. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. ISBN 9781472477095