Rethinking what it means to be a man
“If you’re not into sports, then you’re not a real man.”
It’s an absurd notion, yet an all-too-common one — even today, as society makes strides in dispelling harmful gender stereotypes. It also speaks to the pressing need to examine and rethink masculinity, especially in youth.
“Masculinity informs — and misinforms — what it means to be a man,” says Dr. Michael Kehler, PhD, professor of masculinities studies at the University of Calgary. “One of the most obvious misconceptions is that masculinity is biological, that boys grow up to be aggressive and dominating because that’s just the way boys are.”
Kehler’s research demonstrates it’s not so much biological as it is socio-cultural, and this permeates into problematic “lessons” taught to our boys. Since we know these lessons are often learned in the classroom at a young age, the Werklund School of Education is an ideal home for masculinities studies at UCalgary.
“My goal is for my students to become more critical of gender arrangements and how we can shift power dynamics in our schools to disrupt these norms and rules for boys,” says Kehler. “It’s really important for people to think about what it means to be a boy, to be a man, and to push back on that biological argument.”
In a way, Kehler has been studying masculinity since he was a young child himself. The Kingston, Ont., native saw patriarchy in action as his mother struggled to raise four boys on her own following their father’s sudden death. “She had to push back on a system that was set up for men,” recalls Kehler, who was only six when his mom became the sole parent in their family.
Having started school around the same time, he noticed that his interests were not the same as other boys — boys who had fathers who took them to the hockey rink or played football with them. “My world view was very different from many of my peers growing up. It allowed me to think about the different ways you can be a boy, and to not fall into the trap of that linear argument of boys needing men to become men.”
This curiosity influenced his career path, which included 17 years with Western University’s Faculty of Education and Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. Kehler expected to spend the rest of his professional days there — but that was before the Silver Gummy Foundation teamed up with UCalgary to create a next-level research chair in masculinities studies.
The Calgary-based foundation, whose mission is to use education as a means of reducing gender-based violence, supports a variety of initiatives designed to reach youth while their outlook on gender is still developing.
“We’re thrilled to be working with the Werklund School of Education and know that, with their help, the next generation will be better than us,” says the donor behind the Silver Gummy Foundation, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Because, let’s face it, the fact that there isn’t gender equality in Canada in 2021 is a whole lot of embarrassing.”
Silver Gummy’s $250,000 gift to UCalgary's Energize campaign in 2017 made the Werklund School of Education’s Professorship in Masculinities Studies a reality — and put UCalgary on the map as home to this first-of-its-kind position in North America.
All we needed was a donor with the courage to say, ‘We believe in this research and we want to support you.’
Dr. Michael Kehler, PhD, Research Professor, Masculinities Studies
Dr. Dianne Gereluk, MA’99, PhD, dean of the Werklund School of Education, stresses the importance of masculinities studies, especially in these times.
“If we're trying to change a culture — to reduce domestic violence, hazing practices and bullying — it's really important that we think about the ways in which we support boys and men,” she says. “Ten years ago, people weren’t talking about this. Elevating masculinities studies in research and in public discourse creates awareness and reflection on how we can do better. The work Michael Kehler is doing is not only creating that public discourse, but also keeping it at a sustained level.”
It’s a step forward that’s made possible through philanthropy, both in the form of the Silver Gummy Foundation’s financial support and in its commitment to the cause, says Gereluk. “Michael is a true advocate, and the Silver Gummy Foundation a staunch supporter of this important work. Together, they've made incredible progress. It’s lovely that this discussion around masculinity isn’t seen as bizarre or odd anymore. It’s becoming part of a normal conversation about letting boys express themselves and be accepted for their diverse, wondrous nature — as opposed to conforming to a very narrow and troubling view of masculinity.”
Part of keeping that conversation going is reaching a wider audience, which Kehler has been able to do, thanks to the Foundation’s support. He’s had the opportunity to share his research through speaking engagements, webinars and podcasts — including TEDxYYC — as well as through collaborations with community organizations such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation and the White Ribbon Campaign.
Kehler says he's deeply impressed with the Calgary community’s response and reception to his work, which is pushing some traditional boundaries. “I’ve come to understand Calgary, and Alberta, as a very entrepreneurial place," he says. "There’s a real ‘go get ’em’ attitude here.”
That community spirit, combined with the Silver Gummy Foundation’s support, is paving the way for a better tomorrow for all genders. “All we needed was a donor with the courage to say, ‘We believe in this research and we want to support you,’” says Kehler.
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What Giving Gives Me
We focus on talking to youths about healthy relationships and equity, and to challenge them to examine traditional notions of gender. We’re thrilled to be working with the Werklund School of Education and know that, with their help, the next generation will be better than us.
Anonymous Silver Gummy Foundation donor
The Foundation supports the Werklund School of Education Professorship in Masculinities Studies