Education and gender norm change: ALIGN thematic guide

Author : Rachel Marcus

Rachel is a social development researcher and practitioner who focuses on social equality, particularly related to gender, childhood, adolescence  and youth. In recent years she has led research on gender and school environments, girls’ clubs, working with boys to promote gender-sensitive masculinities, and gender-sensitive youth livelihood programmes. 


Education is one of the most powerful drivers of gender equality because it can empower individuals and enable them to challenge discriminatory gender norms – the informal, often implicit rules of masculinity and femininity, which people mostly abide by. 

How does education actually change gender norms? It creates a potentially virtuous cycle, whereby education leads to changes in gender norms, and these changed norms contribute to improved learning outcomes. But this process is not automatic; prevailing gender norms and gender discriminatory practices in schools and in wider society can undermine the potential of education to bring about changes. In this thematic guide, we signpost resources that bring together evidence on these issues.

This curated area:

  • unpacks some of the concepts surrounding gender norm change and educational processes
  • guides the reader through evidence on:

          discriminatory gender norms that limit access to education and educational achievement
          the role of education in changing gender norms 
          aspects of education that reinforce discriminatory gender norms
          education and gender-egalitarian masculinities

  • highlights interesting examples of initiatives aiming to support gender norm change through education 
  • highlights key resources for supporting and monitoring gender norm change through education. 

The resources summarised in this curated area focus primarily on experiences in formal education systems.

Evidence on informal education for adolescents and gender norm change is discussed in the curated area on girls’ clubs and life skills programmes, and in the forthcoming area on boys and masculinities.

Key concepts

ALIGN focuses on gender norms – the informal, often implicit, rules of masculinity and femininity, which people mostly abide by. 

Gender norms reflect and shape the values that people and societies hold around gender equality and about particular practices (such as child marriage). While most people accept these norms implicitly, others accept them reluctantly or actively contest them. Gender norms influence and are influenced by collective and individual beliefs or attitudes and common practices. They can be upheld by perceived rewards for compliance and by sanctions for non-compliance. They also influence gender stereotypes – generalisations about the characteristics of people of different genders and social groups. Gender norms can contribute to and reinforce unequal power relations. For example, in many communities, women and girls are expected to defer to boys and men and not voice their views or participate in decision-making. 

Gender norms can exert a significant influence both on children’s access to education and their educational experience. For girls, these norms often become even more significant during adolescence – a life stage in which the need to protect their own (and their family’s) good reputation often leads to restrictions on their mobility and their contact with boys outside the family. 

In schools and community-based informal education, gender norms and stereotypes often reinforce one another. For example, a norm that girls should generally defer to boys can feed a stereotype that girls are less capable academically, while expectations that girls’ home-making role is ultimately more important than their future in the labour market can lead teachers to consider boys’ education as more important and give more attention to boys. 

There are three other widely used concepts in relation to education and changing gender norms: empowerment, agency and capability development. Capability development refers to expanding the range of things people can be and do – a process that typically occurs in education through learning new knowledge and skills and changing one’s aspirations. Agency is usually understood as people’s capacity to act in ways that they have chosen or influenced, and is often considered one of a key set of capabilities necessary to lead a fulfilling and productive life. Education is often central to the development of agency through its impact on aspirations, skills and self-confidence. Empowerment (the most widely used of the three terms) is broadly understood as a process of gaining greater control over decisions that affect one’s life. This is typically underpinned by both the development of capabilities and a shift in the power relations associated with (in this case) changing gender norms.

Click the image below for a diagram showing the interlinkages between education, empowerment and gender norm change. 

Routes to Gender Norm Change through education

Explore this interactive diagram on standard, accelerated and interrupted routes to gender norm change

Preview of the linked diagram


Marcus, R. 2017 Education and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK