Frequently asked questions
What are gender norms and how do they relate to social norms?
The terms ‘social norms’ and ‘gender norms’ are becoming more common in development research, policy and practice. While they are not new, they are used increasingly in discussions on gender equality.
In the past, norms were often ignored as ‘too complex’ to address, as an inevitable part of culture and outside the scope of development activity, or just ‘the way things have always been’. But now, social norms and gender norms are being actively addressed by actors in international development and social justice work, including those working on economic empowerment, ending end child marriage, improving sexual and reproductive health and enforcing human rights law, among many other issues. This growing focus on norms is an opportunity for innovation to promote gender justice.
People understand ‘norms’ in different ways, depending on their background (see the next section). ALIGN defines social norms as the implicit, informal rules that most people accept and follow. Social norms are influenced by belief systems, economic contexts, and sometimes by the perceived rewards and sanctions for adhering to or disobeying prevailing norms.
Norms are embedded in formal and informal institutions and produced and reproduced through social interaction. They only change when enough people choose to act (or are compelled to act) in a different way, creating a new norm. For example, norms about pre-marital sex are changing among adolescents in many contexts as a result of peer influence, even if this is not acknowledged explicitly by their elders or in idealised descriptions of gender norms.
Gender norms are a sub-set of social norms. They describe how people of a particular gender (and often age) are expected to behave, in a given social context. Gender norms intersect with norms related to ethnicity, class, disability, age, co-sexual orientation and gender identity, among other issues - and how people experience them. In order to best affect norm change therefore, these intersecting issues need taking into account.
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 gender norms.
Gender norms are generally understood as defining the expected behaviour of people who identify as, or are identified by others as male or female. They rarely, if ever, accommodate non-binary or gender-fluid identities.
How do different disciplines understand social norms and gender norms?
Ben Cislaghi, Karima Manji and Lori Heise (2018) offer a useful summary of different perspectives in social norms and gender-related harmful practices:
‘Social theorists, including anthropologists, sociologists and feminist scholars, have tended to conceptualise norms as rules of behaviour at the level of culture or society. Gender norms exist in the world, including outside of the individual’s mindset.
Through various mechanisms (including socialisation in the family, the media and through other institutions such as schools and religious bodies), gender norms are learnt and can be internalised as well as being represented and enforced through the institutions of society.
Other disciplines, such as social psychology, philosophy and behavioural economics, have tended to define social norms as people’s beliefs about what others expect of them. Norms thus exist primarily inside the mind. Both perspectives have value; they differ, however, in how they understand and conceptualise the path to norm change.’
The table below (adapted from Cislaghi et al. 2018) captures the different approaches.
The two approaches are converging. For example, approaches inspired by behavioural science, which had implicitly assumed that people were free to adopt new norms and behaviour, are now paying more attention to power dynamics and the institutions that constrain behaviour and norm change.
People working on gender norms are also taking greater note of behavioural science insights about how people’s perceptions of what other people think and do influence what people actually think and do.
Other disciplines such as political science also offer important insights around the influence of norms on people’s lives. Political scientists consider how ‘norm entrepreneurs’ such as local human rights activists and 'transnational advocacy networks' can leverage opportunities, including political and economic change or the commitments made by states (through international treaties and conventions, for example) to promote or encourage the adoption of new social norms.
How do gender norms change?
Just as societies and economies change over time, so do gender norms. Social change processes are usually underway in any society, some of which may help and some of which may hinder norm change.
While some gender norms are rooted in religious or cosmological beliefs, or are seen as part of an overall world view, others have shallow foundations, are based on the immediate situation, and may be more easily changed.
Social psychological analysis
Social psychological analysis focuses on the individual and group processes that underpin norms and facilitate change. In Social norms and girls’ well-being: linking theory and practice, Appendix A (2017), Bapu Vaitla, Alice Taylor, Julia Van Horn and Ben Cislaghi give an overview of how social psychological approaches can help us understand norms and how they change. They explain insights from different theoretical approaches, including social constructivism, social convention theory, game theory and social identity theory, among others.
These theories shed light on the relationship and tensions between individual attitudes and behaviour and norms that are held collectively, as well as how norms can enable societies to function smoothly. For example, norms help to remove uncertainties, give order to societies and consolidate power hierarchies.
They also highlight the role of individuals and social networks in both influencing how people behave (in order to comply with norms) and in spreading new ideas and ways of doing things that can change norms when they are adopted by enough people.
Sociological and economic analysis
Sociological and economic analysis has explored the drivers of norm change at two levels: institutions, and the broader society of which they form one part. Drivers of norm change include: economic development, urbanisation, the spread of education or technological change, and social or political movements. They also include changes within religious institutions, local societies and peer and interest group organisations, to name a few institutional forms.
Drivers at these levels tend to change the context in which people make decisions about their own life (and livelihood) and their children’s lives. They do so by creating new economic opportunities, exposing people to new information or ideas, or creating new means of communication.
In some cases, existing norms can prove highly resistant to change (e.g. where norms about women’s primary place being in the home stop them taking up growing economic opportunities). In other cases, old norms underpin the development of new norms (e.g. where increased educational opportunities have helped create a norm whereby both girls and boys attend secondary school).
Norms may also change as a result of deliberate efforts (see section on what practices and policies can be used below).
Resistance to norm change
While some norms appear to change with little resistance, others are much more strongly contested. Strong resistance to gender norm change may reflect the influence of deep-seated religious or cosmological world views about the roles of men and women in society and, therefore, how girls, boys, women and men should behave. Or it can represent a reluctance to give up the power held typically by men (or certain groups of men).
Resistance is also more common where discriminatory gender norms are upheld and promoted by institutions such as the media, schools or religions, or political movements that mobilise to defend ‘tradition’ and oppose gender equality.
What practices and policies can be used to challenge harmful gender norms?
There is growing evidence that some approaches are more effective in challenging harmful gender norms than others. These include approaches that:
- aim for structural change to transform the underlying contexts in which people live, as well as change harmful gender norms directly. These can include providing education, health and family planning services and supporting equal property rights or equal pay.
- focus on changing knowledge, attitudes and beliefs that are fundamental to a culture or social group and on changing perceptions of what others approve or disapprove of. Both approaches tend to use mass media, social media, community dialogue and interactive theatre
- try to replace a harmful norm or custom with a beneficial new norm or custom
- focus on building a mandate for change by, for example, changing laws and policies.
Initiatives to change harmful gender norms target different audiences. For example, some aim to change attitudes and norms among adolescents and young people. The most effective programmes generally also aim to change norms among the people who have influence over adolescents’ lives, such as parents, community leaders, religious leaders or politicians. Evidence suggests that norm change processes are more effective when:
- people have a chance to discuss new information and ideas and adapt them to their own lives and contexts
- changes are framed in terms of positive gains, and tap into people’s aspirations
- there is recognition that changing norms can be a slow process that involves personal as well as institutional transformation
- there is ongoing support that enables people to continue to practise new behaviour – examples include access to secondary education or family planning services for young people, or enabling people to tap into support from others in like-minded social networks.
Many of these topics are explored in the ALIGN resource hub and are discussed in ALIGN thematic guides.
How do we know if norms are changing?
Changes in gender norms may be readily apparent from changing discourse in the media and, more broadly, across society. For example, the rise of the #MeToo movement or the movement against gender-based violence in India signal pressure for a shift in norms about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Norm change may also be inferred from indicators of broader social change, such as reductions in the gender pay gap or increased use of contraception, even though significant changes of this nature may have a number of drivers.
Research to understand whether and why norms are changing is always needed, particularly where people’s personal attitudes or behaviour appear to be out of step with gender norms. To understand whether norms are changing and how, it is helpful to combine qualitative and quantitative research and to take a long-term view (over a generation or more), as norm change processes can be slow. One good example is Naila Kabeer’s analysis of changing gender norms in rural Bangladesh.
Taking a long-term view raises an important challenge for evaluations of norm change initiatives, as these usually take place shortly after the end of a project and often stress the need for more follow-up evaluations after a number of years. Some project impacts may only be visible years later, or after more consistent, long-term support for change.
Some approaches to measuring norm change focus on proxies, such as outcomes or attitudes; others aim to measure norms themselves by examining perceptions of appropriate behaviour in particular circumstances.
Visit ALIGN’s data, tools and measurement pages for curated materials on data and tools for measuring norm change.
What is ALIGN’s Community of Practice and how can I get involved?
ALIGN’s Community of Practice is a virtual network of people who want to learn about and promote equitable gender norms. There are many ways to join the ALIGN Community of Practice:
On our digital platform, you can search for resources in the resource hub, read thematic guides and blogs curated by experts, find information about funding opportunities, and view links to other relevant initiatives. ALIGN also hosts events and webinars, and we encourage our community to recommend resources, attend events, apply for funding, and participate in our online discussions and webinars.
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We welcome recommendations for content, resources, and offers of contributions. Please contact us with your ideas, comments, questions or recommended resources.
Where can I find out more about gender norms?
Learn more in our section on understand norms and norm change and visit the ALIGN resource hub provides an extensive set of recommended resources for learning on gender norms where you can view resources by theme, content type and date.
Here are some background reading sources that explore social norm and gender norm theory:
1 October 2015
1 February 2018
1 January 2018
27 July 2015
1 August 2015
1 January 2012
1 July 2017