TAMPA — In a research lab at the University of South Florida, a group of strapping, undergraduate men sat together, braiding hair.
They were helping Jennifer Bosson study society's idea of traditional manhood — a subject that has been a focus of her work at USF and the subject of a presentation she gave last week during the annual USF College of Arts and Sciences "Trail Blazers" dinner showcasing the university's latest research.
"Those wigs were expensive!" Bosson said with a laugh. "You can't re-braid and re-wash low-quality hair. I had to give a lot of detail on why I was buying $200 wigs with my research money."
Bosson has been looking into "precarious manhood," the idea that manhood is harder to earn and easier to lose than womanhood. Traditional manhood, she has hypothesized, must be earned — through public risk, bravery or, in some cultures, rituals including scarring ceremonies. Traditional womanhood, the hypothesis goes, results from mostly biological changes.
Bosson came to USF in 2006 with a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, interested in pursuing how men who violate traditional gender roles are perceived. Here, she met Joe Vandello, a fellow social psychologist who had completed post-doctorate work at Princeton University and a student of how different cultures view men and women.
Their collaboration, featured in The Atlantic and Newsweek, earned them the 2014 American Psychological Association's Researcher of the Year award.
Bosson first came up with the idea of using hair-braiding in her research back in 2002, as a way to demonstrate her theory that men's anxiety rises when their manhood is challenged. The task resembled work with ropes — but one is perceived as a feminine undertaking and the other masculine.
Separate groups of hair-braiders and rope-workers were asked to follow up their tasks at a punching bag, as a way to measure their anxiety — the harder the punching, the greater the anxiety. Her conclusion: Men who have their gender roles questioned act more aggressively, to prove themselves.
Her audience April 6, at the University Club downtown during the 40th anniversary of the Trail Blazers Dinner, heard about precarious manhood's effect on the workplace — namely, that achieving status through work is often a way for men to continuously prove their manhood.
Some common expectations, Bosson said, in this workplace of "masculinity contest culture" include placing work over family, showing strength without weakness, and acting socially ruthless. Surveys of both men and women show that living up to them creates a barrier in healthy work/life integration.
"The American family is changing; 40 percent of all households' sole or primary breadwinner is female," Bosson said. "Something has to give. We can't keep pressuring people to sacrifice to impress coworkers and maintain a sense of masculinity."
Precarious manhood, she said, is linked to work and status in a way that womanhood is not.
Her presentation drew a number of questions from audience members at the dinner, including one about the affect of mechanization on how men view themselves.
One Tampa Palms couple — Dee Jeffers, 70, and Charlie Mahan, 78 — said their grown children work and split parenting and housework equally with their spouses, giving the couple hope that traditional gender roles are on their way out.
"I compare where my parents were and where my kids are and it's light years of difference," said Jeffers. "One time when Mom was sick and couldn't make dinner, Dad said, 'I can make sandwiches.' Another male family member exclaimed, 'You know how to cook sandwiches?'"
Because of changes in the roles of men and women, Bosson said, now is "probably one of the worst times in our country's history to be a man who relies on traditional ways of demonstrating manhood."
Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin