Toughen Up Mate: The harmful effects of toxic masculinity on Australian men


For centuries it was widely accepted that male violence and aggressive behaviour represented dominance and power within society.

A “real man” was traditionally viewed as being physically strong, having a lack of emotion and being self-sufficient; anything else was ridiculed.

This still exists in modern society, but we now know it as toxic masculinity.

It is described as the adherence of patriarchal beliefs of manhood that stigmatise and harmfully affect men and those around them.

The topic has recently received significant media attention due to public awareness about sexually abusive behaviours of prominent men such as Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.

However, it isn’t just the big Hollywood names that portray toxic masculinity.

We see it right here in our backyard.

From tradesmen to dancers, toxic masculinity affects men from all walks of life.

Detrimental ‘macho masculinity’ in trades

The Australian culture prides itself on mateship and loyalty, yet it is in these situations where toxic masculinity can be found.

The laid-back ‘tradie’ career is the classic Aussie bloke lifestyle.

However, construction workers are overrepresented in suicide rates in Australia, being 70% more likely to take their lives in comparison to males in other industries.

The toxic “macho” mentality in the construction culture has been responsible for the poor mental health of workers.

Alex*, a carpenter by trade, said the toxic masculinity in the trade business influenced his decision to leave the industry.

“It’s a hands-on job, you’re expected to slog in these massive hours, go home and do it all again,” he said.


“It’s mentally draining to do all that physical work and that may be partly why people don’t treat each other nicely in that industry. They’re all struggling, not everyone feels comfortable talking about it and you’ve got to be tough showing up to work.”

A work culture where employees are expected to be tough and self-reliant is worsened by bullying on job sites.

Alex recalls doing a job trial for an employer when he was faced with verbal abuse after being left on his own and forgetting a task.

The aggressive behaviour of the employer, combined with personal issues at home, brought Alex to tears.

“He told me, ‘leave the home stuff at home when you’re on the job site, or you’re not going to get anywhere in the building industry,’” Alex said.

There is a history of normalising bullying within trades. Apprentices are often pushed around; actions that are excused as “initiation”.

This was brought to public attention with the death of 16-year-old apprentice Alex Meikle, who took his life after being relentlessly bullied by his co-workers.

In Australia, construction workers are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than other occupations.

Consequently, blue-collar jobs reported 500 suicides from 2011-2014.

Several organisations have been established aiming to reduce the high levels of suicide rates among Australian construction workers and opening the conversation of mental health.

Mates In Construction provides suicide prevention through onsite programs, case management and a 24/7 help line.

TradeMutt create vibrant work shirts to act as a catalyst for starting conversations surrounding mental health.


Toxic masculinity in media

Toxic masculinity has been subconsciously rooted in society through mainstream media and traditions, but it has detrimental effects on the well-being and social acceptance of boys and men.

In the popular 1994 movie The Little Rascals, Alfalfa and Spanky being dressed in ballet costumes was the epitome of embarrassment.

For Dylan*, a dancer of 20 years, being singled out from the boys at school was normal.

“I used to get called names like fairy and twinkle toes,” Dylan said.

“I was very depressed. Dancing made me happy, so it was a good outlet for it.”

Male dancers often face harmful stereotypes, stigmatism and abuse from their peers and the public.

The 2018 American ballet documentary Danseur highlighted that almost 96% of male ballet dancers had faced physical or verbal attacks because of dance.

Male dancers are often criticised for being too feminine or too masculine and perceived as being gay.

This presents homophobia, bullying, and as Dylan recalls, “feeling less of a man” as a result of rigid gender norms.

Casual insensitive comments made in the media such as Good Morning America host, Lara Spencer, ridiculing Prince George for being interested in ballet, reinforces toxic beliefs that boys should avoid anything traditionally feminine.

However, masculinity in media has the ability to influence positive change in men.

A 2017 study conducted by Movember and The University of Melbourne found that Australian men were more likely to seek help after watching ‘Man Up’, a three-part documentary exploring the relationship between masculinity and mental health.


Toxic masculinity in gym culture

The fit, muscular body has been a long-held representation of masculinity, however, living up to such expectations in the gym environment can be taxing.

Source: Andrew Donovan on Unsplash

Gyms provide many positive influences such as physical and mental health, and friendship and community building. Still, it has the potential to become a toxic environment.

“This predominantly occurs when egos take over,” said personal trainer, Noah*.

“This is when people get injured, people overtrain, cliques are formed, bullying occurs, and cults are formed.”

There’s often a pressure to be manly in the gym culture, but according to Noah, it’s not because of the people or environment around you, but from upbringing and social norms.

“I’d say a lot of it would come from media and movies that we watched as kids as well; plenty of movies have stereotypical manly men in the gym lifting heavy weights, being tough guys,” Noah said.

These bro-type gym-goers voicing grunting sounds and dominating weight-training areas of the gym contributes to the rise of female-only gyms and female-only areas in mixed gyms.

Emma Warren from Fernwood Fitness said Fernwood was founded “because of the need for a comfortable space for women to strength train, where women didn’t need to worry about being looked at by men”.

Long-term Fernwood member Sharon said the typical “gym bro” deterred her from unisex gyms.

“Some men make me feel uncomfortable while working out. I’d rather be in an all-female environment for that reason,” Sharon said.

However, the gym culture has recently shifted to a more inclusive environment with programs like CrossFit, where men and women complete the same exercises, focusing on strength and fitness rather than looking a certain way.

“CrossFit has definitely helped bridge the divide between men and women in a gym and training environment,” Noah said.

“Activities like weightlifting are now more inclusive and acceptable for women to participate in and activities like yoga are now more inclusive and acceptable for men to participate in, it’s a win-win for everyone. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

No room for “boys will be boys”

Despite their different backgrounds, Alex, Dylan, and Noah all believe “boys will be boys” is a destructive concept that excuses unacceptable behaviour and perpetuates toxic gender norms.

The popular catchphrase reinforces the dangerous “she’ll be right” mentality that a lot of Australian men carry.

It prevents them from seeking professional help, with men accounting for only 40% of Medicare-subsidised mental health services.

According to Movember: “We need to open up the view of what it means to be a man. For too long it has meant being silent, bulletproof, and never showing emotion.”

Movember’s SpeakEasy events encourage men to talk openly about the tough stuff in life, in order to be better mates, sons, brothers, dads and partners.



“We know that bottling up your feelings isn’t the best way of dealing with mental health challenges, so we need to continue tackling these outdated ideas which are harming men.”

If you, or anyone you know is struggling contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue or  MensLine Australia.

*Names changed for privacy


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