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What are gender norms? Why do they matter?

  • Gender norms are the accepted ideas of how women and men should be, and how they should act, within a specific society or community; they help to define what is understood as being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ within a particular ‘reference group’. Whilst the norms we seek to address through this toolkit tend to be those that are harmful, it should be acknowledged that some can also have positive effects.
  • Gender norms change from culture to culture and over time, since they're based on the expectations of societies that are constantly evolving. For example, in the UK and other western societies most people usually consider pink to be a ‘girl's colour’, while blue is for boys – but until the turn of the 20th century, the reverse was the case.
  • Gender norms are learnt early in life through the process of gender socialisation, which sets common standards and expectations to which girls and boys, and, later, women and men, should conform. These expectations are reinforced, often unwittingly, in various ways, for example through different play environments, toys, clothing, differential treatment in nurseries and schools, and gender-specific marketing.
  • As a result, as they grow up boys define themselves in large part in terms of their difference from girls, and so have to avoid doing anything that is seen as ‘the kind of thing girls do’. Instead, they are expected to be hard, cool, and competitive, and avoid showing any weakness. Those who are seen as failing to live up to these dominant norms are often criticised or ridiculed for crossing these boundaries.
  • These norms are also reflected in the well-known concept of the ‘Man Box’ - a set of rigid and constraining expectations, which dictate that men should: be self-sufficient; look good; be the ‘breadwinner’; be heterosexual and homophobic; display sexual prowess; be prepared to use violence; and control household decisions and women’s independence.
  • Men subscribe to these norms to different extents (and some reject them completely), and their relationship to the dominant norms varies considerably depending on factors such as their ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, or gender identity. For instance, older and/or disabled men often face a contradiction between the norms they may feel they are expected to live up to, and their inability to do so in practice.
  • Gender norms often reflect and reinforce unequal gender relations, usually to the disadvantage of women and girls - and to men and boys who do not conform to the prevailing expectations of masculinity.
  • Whilst individuals have their own attitudes and values, norms are also embedded in wider organisations and social structures, and reflect the rules, laws, customs and ideologies of different societies. Changing gender norms is therefore not just about changing individual mindsets. It is also about taking into account broader social, economic and political processes and trends. These may include technological development, demographic change, globalisation, migration, conflicts, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism.