Reimagining Masculinities: A Journey Towards Gender Equality
A Gathering of Global Perspectives

On the 30th of March, a group of 7 male members of the Diversity and Gender Equality Project Group 

(DGE PG) of SGAC and from all over the world met together online to participate in a workshop about Reimagining Masculinities. 

The workshop was organized and hosted by the KOSMICA Institute with the DGE PG. You see, all over the news we hear about the noble cause for gender equality, many voices, both men and women are speaking in favor of this cause. And while the fight for gender equality is far from over, we usually tend to forget the root cause of these very issues, which is, at least as I see it, a wrong understanding of manhood.

The goal of this 2-hour workshop was to create a safe place for men to discuss our masculinities, and question our gender perspective and how it shapes the way we live our lives.The workshop was facilitated by the renowned artist Nahum Romero Nahum is an engineer by training, but he never found the sense of fulfilment doing this job, so he turned into arts becoming the first artist to receive the Young Space Leader Award in 2014 and the Karman Fellowship in 2021 for his exceptional cultural contributions to astronautics and space exploration.

The 7 members of the workshop had different reasons to join. Some had already questioned the meaning of masculinity, others were simply intrigued by the topic. Some where from SGAC, others heard about it from friends. I joined to force myself into this conversation. You see, I grew up in a conservative Muslim family in Tunisia and, like in many other countries and cultures, there is a prevalent model of masculinity forged over the years by society, religion and traditions. All my life, being the obedient little boy I am, I followed that model to the letter, giving up on my love for poetry because it was not manly, suppressing my emotions in a very unhealthy way, looking down to women as weak second-class humans incapable of self-protection and as it was up to me “THE MAN” to protect them.

Since I joined the Diversity and Gender Equality Project Group of SGAC however, I started to question this model of masculinity. And it felt bad: it is not easy to question one’s identity and the underlying principles that shape who we are. So, while I was aware that the model of masculinity I grew up with no longer aligned with my new acquired values, the discussion and self-reflection needed to fully embrace my new identity were terrifying for me. Joining this workshop was not an easy decision, but it was a necessary one to make.

Nahum started the conversation by pointing out how our perspective of masculinity is deeply rooted in our subconscious. The very language we use in everyday life reflects this: the use of words like “mankind” instead of “humankind” is just one example out of many. Language is not only a means of communication, but also a carrier of culture. So, by using this kind of expression we enforce the already well-established social and probably even global prejudice that every big achievement is only made by and for men.
Nahum then went further by showing that this minimization of women does not only carry social issues but can also hinder our human progress: In 1970 during the cold war, there was a plan to perform the first space docking between an American spacecraft and a soviet one. This event was supposed to send a letter of hope that humans can put their differences behind. Docking mechanisms back then had two parts: a male and female., Both countries refused to build the female part saying they can do the male part better… The project got delayed for 2 years until engineers designed a new docking system without this male/female dichotomy. Just like when I was kid in the playground and both teams always refused to have a girl on their team. What hope does humanity really have if we can’t move away from these childish perceptions?

Now you may rightfully think that this example from Nahum was more than 50 years ago, and that this is no longer the case now. After all we do have women engineers, scientists, astronauts…
And you might be right, maybe it is better now than it was 50 years ago. But is this enough? Did we deal with the main source of the problem, or did we just treat the apparent symptoms?

The next activity in the workshop involved closing our eyes and envisioning an astronaut during a spacewalk or training. While we each had our own ideas of who this astronaut could be, perhaps a friend or ourselves, most of us pictured a white male working at NASA. It’s likely that many people, when doing this exercise, would imagine something similar: a white man in a NASA astronaut suit.

This expectation is quite understandable for two reasons: first, approximately 80% of astronauts are males; and second, our cultural symbols are often derived from the stories and images we encounter. NASA, as a pioneering force in the space industry and a key player in popularising space exploration, has contributed significantly to making astronauts iconic cultural symbols.

However, the issue, in my view, isn’t that we imagine astronauts as white males. The real problem lies in believing that an astronaut can only fit that model.

Our brains have evolved to recognize patterns as a survival mechanism. If we consistently encounter green apples, we associate that colour with apples, forming the default belief that all apples are green. Consequently, encountering a red apple might trigger a sense of danger or strangeness. Similarly, in our current context, where we predominantly see white males in positions of power, we subconsciously link power with this demographic. This false association becomes ingrained in our subconscious, leading to the perpetuation of stereotypes and biases. We become trapped in self-reinforcing cycles where the existing power group continues to dominate, further reinforcing our misconceptions.

So, from my perspective, there’s no issue with imagining a white male astronaut. What’s problematic is limiting our perception of who can be an astronaut solely to that demographic. I hope that in the future, when we ask our children to envision an astronaut, they can imagine someone they identify with, whether it’s an African female astronaut, a transgender astronaut, an astronaut with a disability, or indeed, a white male astronaut.

To conclude the workshop, Nahum asked us to think of what constitutes our perception of masculinity. He started by sharing his own story: how his father was a key figure in shaping who he turned out to be even when he tried to run as far as possible from that model.
This exercise was a warm and an overwhelming moment where we shared our stories: some struggled to clearly identify the cultural, religious, social elements that shaped their idea, for others it was very clear who had the most influence on them. Some didn’t only identify the elements that shaped their ideas of masculinity but also expressed how the effect of this elements changed with time.

For me, this is what shaped my idea of masculinity:

My father is a very strong man; he was the youngest in a family with 4 brothers and one sister. He went through a lot to escape poverty and create a better life for me and my three sisters. I am where I am today thanks to all the sacrifices he and my mother made, and for that, I will always be grateful. However, he was also very strict. As a responsible member of the military and a trainer, the line between work and family often seemed blurry to him.
Growing up, I sometimes felt like I was expected to be a soldier, always prioritising results, never discussing my feelings, and constantly focusing on what was best for the rest of us. For me, being a man meant being reliable, strong, and serious, with minimal display of emotions, much like my father.My mother also played a significant role in shaping who I am today. She always pushed me to excel, believing that a man should strive to be the best, always perfect, and well-behaved. While I am grateful for her insistence on providing me with the best education possible, at times, the pressure to meet her expectations felt overwhelming. Yet, as a man, I felt compelled to endure it without allowing myself the space to express my true feelings.

During my early childhood, when my parents were often busy working, I spent a lot of time alone at home watching cartoons. These cartoons also influenced my understanding of masculinity, often portraying stereotypical gender roles. The depiction of women as helpless damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by a hero left a lasting impression on me. Until this day I still struggle with this prejudice, I often find myself offering excessive help to female friends or mansplaining to my colleagues in class.

In school, there was a culture of ridiculing boys who associated with girls or exhibited behaviours considered feminine. As a boy, being called a girl was the biggest insult one could imagine. School was a fertile land for our toxic and twisted ideas of masculinity to grow. And I think it’s time for that to change. Before grammar, maths and science, we need to teach the next generation that being a man is not in opposition to being a woman but rather they complement each other.

Reflecting on my childhood perspective of masculinity, I realise that it may resonate with many other men around the globe: While our cultural background may change, I believe most of us suffer from an outdated and harmful notion of masculinity. It is crucial to open conversations about the emotions suppressed during childhood, the times we wanted to cry but didn’t because we were prisoners in the hidden jail of manhood.

I would like to express my gratitude to Nahum for his insightful contributions and to the Diversity and Gender Equality Project Group for organising this workshop.If you’re reading this and would like to connect or discuss further, please feel free to contact me at:
[email protected]