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Gender Norms: Are they the Enemy of Women’s Rights?

2 Mar 2015

Gender Norms: Are they the Enemy of Women’s Rights?
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Gender norms do not float freely; nor are they static. Gender norms are part of the weave of social life, embedded in institutions as well as individual lives. Change in gender norms can come from many sources. Norms of gender inequality have proved difficult to shift. But norms of gender equality also exist; and social research shows that new possibilities for change open up all the time.

Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney, and one of Australia's leading social scientists.
Rebecca Pearse is a research assistant at the University of Sydney who has published on gender, climate and energy activism, and the political economy of environmental change.

Gender Norms: Are they the Enemy of Women’s Rights?

Social norms appear regularly in discussions about gender and development. UN policy documents frequently cite change in oppressive gender norms as a goal. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) itself has a clear aim:
    To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

As questions about men have loomed larger in gender-equality work, changing “traditional” norms of masculinity has become a political objective.

On the other side of the equation, social norms figure as a key excuse for gender injustice. Beneficiaries of patriarchal privilege often appeal to “tradition”, “custom”, “culture”, “values” or “religion”. In rich and poor countries, gender norms are claimed as warrants for anything from domestic violence and occupational segregation to polygamy and compulsory pregnancy. However, even those who benefit from gender inequality recognize that norms can change, since they fear change; and that is an important fact. Norms are not fixed and unassailable. Gender norms, specifically, do change through time. Gender norms do not reflect a simple biological dichotomy—indeed, no part of the gender order does. The social arrangements we call “gender” concern the complex ways human reproduction, and reproductive bodies, are handled in the ever-changing life of human societies.

These gender arrangements are often unequal. For instance, women may be excluded from the inheritance of land, which goes only to sons; while only men may be recruited as priests, or corporate managers, or recognized as religious authorities. But gender arrangements do not have to be unequal, and neither do gender norms. The Roman Catholic church still excludes women from its hierarchy; but the Friends (Quakers), one of the oldest Protestant denominations, recognized women as religious leaders as early as the seventeenth century CE.

The South African psychologist Kopano Ratele points out that “traditional masculinity” does not equate to violent or patriarchal masculinity. Alternative masculinities also have traditions! We can generalize the point. Alternative femininities also have traditions. Gender equality norms also exist. They can be found in law, in religion, in local custom, in everyday family life. Often they exist alongside gender inequality norms. The tension between them is a familiar source of humour, and potentially, of social change. Feminist campaigns frequently engage with contradictions in norms to make the case for change. For instance, gender equality campaigns frequently highlight the contradictory demands on women in the workforce and in home life, and the tension between norms of respect for women as wives, sisters and mothers and the prevalence of domestic violence.

Gender norms in the weave of everyday life

Equally important, norms do not float in an isolated realm of their own. The assumptions, rules and guidelines that we call “norms” are part of the weave of everyday life. They are embedded in institutions as much as they are in individual heads. Gender norms are found in the economy, the state, mass media, law and education systems as well as families, neighbourhoods and intimate relations.

A key question about gender norms, therefore, is how they are materialized in social life. There is a good deal of research about this, across the social sciences and humanities. We have summarized recent findings in our report for UN Women, Gender Norms and Stereotypes: A Survey of Concepts, Research, and Issues about Change.

Our report emphasizes the dynamic nature of gender norms. Discussions about gender norms commonly assume that norms are reproduced automatically from generation to generation, as people are “socialized” into norms. According to this model, children are rewarded for conformity, punished for deviance, and identify with role models. So the gender norms of their culture are installed immovably in their heads, and later acted out in adulthood. The adults then socialize the next generation into the same norms, and so on.

It’s a nice story—but it isn’t true. Research on childhood shows that children are not like blank sheets of paper on whom gender norms are printed. Children are active learners who sometimes conform, sometimes violate norms, sometimes do both at once or in quick succession. The gender norms they meet are often contradictory, ambiguous, or changing. Teenagers sometimes display exaggerated masculinity and femininity, or have deep anxieties about gender—a fact exploited by popular culture entrepreneurs and military recruiters, among others.

If we are looking for the reasons why gender norms do persist through time, we need other explanations than a mechanical socialization theory. We need to look, for instance, at the working of institutions. Gender segregation in schools, gender divisions of labour in the workplace, separation of home from workplace, different pay levels for men and women, differential legal ownership of land—all these embed gender values. And all may be reproduced by routine institutional functioning, more or less independent of individual beliefs.

Research on corporations and workplaces reveals extensive gender divisions of labour, often buttressed by norms about appropriate work for women and men. These sometimes build on “traditional” norms, such as women being recruited to make clothes. But the industrial machinery used in this job has nothing traditional about it. The factories themselves, like the export manufacturing zones where they are located, are new. Clothing used to be made locally, commonly by women within families without money changing hands. Now it is done by a global for-profit industry, dominated by men as managers and financiers—who have learned to use gender norms to divide their workforces and keep their labour costs low.

The normative centrality of men can work even in the midst of crisis. More women than men tend to die in major disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Social controls on women’s movement affect their safety, and shelters are not designed for women’s needs. Disaster services, including refugee camps, are largely controlled by men, and men rather than women get most of the disaster relief. A study by Fordham et al. (2006) mentions a typical response by an official to requests for change: “Please don’t raise gender now—we’re in an emergency!”

Behind that kind of response is another factor. Beneficiaries of gender inequalities—mostly, privileged groups of men—have an interest in resisting normative change. And privileged groups of men have a lot of power to realize that interest: wealth, control of organizations, cultural and religious authority, and more. It is a notable fact that the centres of economic power, the heavily masculinized top levels of management in transnational corporations—mostly based in Europe, the United States and Japan—have been particularly resistant to the inclusion of women. At the latest count, no less than 95% of CEOs of the biggest 500 transnational corporations were men.

Gender norms and dynamics of change

Gender norms can change in numerous directions. Normative change cannot be simplified as a shift along one single continuum. An example is provided by Nancy Plankey-Videla’s ethnographic study of a high-end suit factory in central Mexico. This study traces a major reorganization in the factory from individual piecework to teamwork. The managers took this decision to restore ailing profits; but the change opened new possibilities. The teamwork arrangements fostered a “motherist” work culture, which allowed arrangements to accommodate women with childcare responsibilities. In this case the workers made use of local gender norms to create a better employment situation for women. When conflict with management developed, the same women used gender norms about masculinity to put pressure on their union leadership for more decisive action.

A key insight from gender research is that gender relations are complex, and there are many pressures for change, coming from many sources. The same gender order that privileges men in general will marginalize specific groups of men and non-hegemonic forms of masculinity. Contradictions in norms can stimulate change, as Cecilia Espinosa’s 2013 study of an unemployed workers’ movement in Argentina shows. The umbrella organization Popular Front “Dario Santillan” (FPDS) brought together both women’s and men’s groups, and they had an equal normative place in the struggle for social justice. But in practice the leadership was mostly male, and in accordance with wider social norms, women were assigned domestic roles within the member groups and in participants’ homes. However, some of the women on picket lines began to articulate gender issues—in the face of resistance and some violent confrontations—pointing to the contradiction with FPDS’s principles of equality. An Espacio de Mujeres, women’s space, was created, forcing change within the organization. After a few years of pressure the FPDS declared itself anti-patriarchal in its basic goals.

Agendas for economic development have been central to one of the most important changes in gender norms in the last two generations, worldwide: the massive expansion of basic education for girls and women. Cultural and political change too can impact on gender norms. Women were deeply marginalized by the cold-war dictatorships in Indonesia and Egypt. The popular mobilizations against authoritarianism, “reformasi” and the “Arab Spring”, saw a dramatic rise in political activism by women in both countries. Gender-conservative men then tried to close this activism down. However, social movements that state alternative norms and embody them in action are a key to change. There is a broad history of women’s activism, in the colonized and postcolonial world as well as in the global metropole, well shown by 100 years of women’s activism in Egypt.

Social movements, too, change historically. A feature of contemporary gender struggles is the existence of pro-equality movements among men. These are rarely on the same scale as mobilizations of women, though they can overlap, as in the 2012-2013 outcry against very violent rapes in India. Some are small and informal, others more formally organized such as Promundo in Brazil, founded in 1997, and Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, established in 2006. In recent years, such NGOs have been linked in a global network, MenEngage. All these groups are seeking normative change among men and re-definitions of masculinity in accordance with gender-equality norms.

Gender norms, we can say with confidence, are not in any simple way the enemy of women’s rights. They are changing, often ambiguous, often the subject of conflict. Norms and traditions supporting equality exist, as well as norms and traditions that hinder gender justice. Norms are part of the social world, embedded in institutions as well as individual consciousness. Experience tells us that gender inequality norms are difficult to change. But the fact that norms are dynamic and subject to clashing interests and purposes is cause for a degree of optimism. Feminist campaigning is tough territory to work in, but the social research on gender norms illustrates that there are many possibilities for action towards gender justice.

Connell, Raewyn and Rebecca Pearse. 2014. Gender Norms and Stereotypes: A Survey of Concepts, Research, and Issues about Change. Paper for UN Women, expert group meeting “Envisioning women’s rights in the post-2015 context”, New York, 3-5 November 2014.

Espinosa, Cecilia. 2013. “Malentendidos productivos: ‘Clivaje de género’ y feminismo en una organización de trabajadores desocupados de Argentina”, La Ventana: Revista de Estudios de Género 4(37):289-323.

Fordham, M., Ariyabandu, M.M., Gopalan, P. and Peterson, K.J. 2006. Chapter 6: “Please don't raise gender now - we’re in an emergency!”. In World Disasters Report, Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Plankey-Videla, N. 2012. We Are in This Dance Together: Gender, Power, and Globalization at a Mexican Garment Firm, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Ratele, Kopano. 2013. “Masculinities without tradition”, Politikon [South Africa] 40(1):133-156.

    Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney, and one of Australia's leading social scientists. Her most recent books are Southern Theory (2007), about social thought beyond the global metropole; Confronting Equality (2011), about social science and politics; and Gender: In World Perspective (3rd ed., with Rebecca Pearse, 2015). Her other books include Masculinities, Schools & Social Justice, Ruling Class Ruling Culture, Gender & Power, and Making the Difference. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages. She has taught at universities in Australia, Canada and the USA, in departments of sociology, political science, and education, and is a long-term participant in the labour movement and peace movement.

    Rebecca Pearse is a research assistant at the University of Sydney. Her recent work on gender includes a co-authored revision of Raewyn Connell’s Gender: In World Perspective (3rd edn, 2015). Rebecca’s other interests include climate and energy activism, and the political economy of environmental change. She has published articles in Global Change, Peace & Security, Ephemera, Carbon Management, and the Journal of Australian Political Economy. Rebecca has taught courses in environmental politics and political economy at the University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney (UTS).


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.