6. Education and norm change processes

This interactive diagram shows stylised routes to change in a ‘standard’ school, in a school that accelerates change by paying specific attention to promoting gender equality, and in one where the positive potential of education to promote norm change is disrupted. 

Gender norm change in varied educational environments

Explore routes to gender norm change through different types of educational environments in this interactive diagram.

When viewing the diagram, click on one of the three titles to reveal the route, then scroll down and hover over the different elements to reveal the detail. 

Preview of a diagram with text boxes in red, blue and purple


The ‘standard’ route to gender norm change

Development of self-confidence and communication skills

These are the vital building blocks of norm change – self-confidence to challenge inequitable norms and practices and to believe that one can overcome setbacks, and communication skills that allow one to speak out and share one’s ideas with others. These skills are also increasingly recognised as vital for economic well-being and effective participation in society. Marcus and Page (2016) bring together evidence on the ways that education can contribute to increased self-esteem and resilience among adolescent girls. There are surprisingly few retrospective studies with women looking back on how their education has (or has not) helped them develop these skills (or gain formal academic skills). Two studies from Tanzania explore girls’ views about how education has contributed to their self-efficacy, enabling them to be confident, resourceful and knowledgeable individuals (see also here) who can handle challenges and setbacks.

A growing number of girls entering the labour market and other public spheres (such as governance) with enhanced self-confidence and stronger communication skills may create its own virtuous cycle, challenging stereotypes about the relative competence of men and women, and undermining taken-for-granted views of gender roles. However, few studies explore the detail of how these processes occur; linkages remain theoretical or backed up by a few in-depth qualitative studies rather than by a significant body of evidence. 

Exposure to new ideas about gender through curricula and school practices

One of the most obvious routes for change is exposure to new information and ideas that challenge established gender norms. In the mainstream school curricula in many countries, this new information comes largely through science classes and is related to health and biology topics, or through personal, social and relationships education. A significant body of literature has explored the effects of sexuality education both on young people’s factual knowledge and their ideas about gender equality. 

UNESCO’s (2015) review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education found that ‘issues of gender and rights are almost consistently absent or inadequately covered through current curricula across all regions’. It appears that – in mainstream school curricula – shifts in young people’s thinking on gender norms and practices comes largely from new information rather than material that explicitly questions discriminatory ideas and norms. ODI’s qualitative research among the Hmong ethnic minority in northern Viet Nam backs this up: young people reported that health information they had learnt in school changed their ideas about the ideal age of marriage:

My wife is 21. I think that if I married a younger girl with an underdeveloped body, my baby would be malnourished, unable to grow and slow to develop. I learnt it when I was in school. (Young man in focus group discussion)

If she gets married at the age of 20, she will not be as poor and she will give birth more comfortably. (24-year-old mother) 

Levtov (2014) provides an overview of attempts to integrate material on gender equality more widely in school curricula – in social studies, personal, health and social education, and within other subjects (e.g. as a topic for argument or debate in language classes). The impact of these initiatives on gender attitudes and norms among young people has so far not been evaluated. 

Go to the section ‘Accelerated routes to gender norm change’ for a discussion of a systemic approach to integrating gender equality into curricula and the impact of experimental short courses. 

Exposure to stereotype-defying role models and peers

Qualitative evidence suggests that social interaction between boys and girls and being educated together can lead young people to challenge previously taken-for-granted gender stereotypes. For example, Alice Evans’s qualitative study in Kitwe, Zambia, found that coeducation education had led children to reject stereotypes of boys and men as being more intelligent. In part, this reflected boys’ experience – over an extended period of time – of seeing girls in their classes who excelled and mastered the material they were learning quicker than some of their male peers. Co-education also significantly reduced the extent to which boys and girls saw each other exclusively in sexualised terms – a change which they carried forward into their working lives. Girls attending co-educational high schools also reported that they learnt to stand up for themselves and to deal with male-dominated workplaces. Similarly, Arnot et al.’s study in India and Ghana found that in northern Ghana, new patterns of communication and gender relations were being established at co-educational schools. At junior high school level, relationships between boys and girls were mostly platonic and academic, with students assisting each other with assignments and class work based on academic ability rather than gender, though their relationships became more sexualised after puberty.

There has been much debate about the relative benefits of mixed-sex and single-sex schooling for various education outcomes, including girls’ self-confidence and empowerment, and girls’ and boys’ learning outcomes. Yet the evidence is conflicting. Unterhalter et al.’s (2014) review of interventions to promote gender equality found no clear evidence supporting single-sex schooling, as quantitative studies have often failed to take the elite or selective nature of many single-sex schools into account. Levtov’s analysis of the literature suggests that teacher attitudes and active commitment to gender equality matter more than whether students are educated in single-sex or mixed-sex groups.

Role models – such as teachers, classroom assistants, mentors, counsellors and visiting speakers – can also raise girls’ aspirations by demonstrating that educated women can work in a variety of careers. Similarly, male teachers who display gender-equitable attitudes can be powerful role models to boys. Surprisingly few studies have examined in depth how role models can change children’s aspirations and contribute to shifts in gender norms. Marcus and Page’s review summarises evidence on the impact of mentors, counsellors and classroom assistants, such as the Learner Guides supported by the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed). The majority of recorded impacts were on girls’ academic achievement; only one study highlighted the impact of a school counsellor as a role model. 

Normalisation of school attendance

Large numbers of girls attending school and thus moving around public space (i.e. girls’ education becoming a ‘descriptive norm’) can contribute to shifts in norms on female mobility, the acceptability of education, and gender equality more broadly. Together with communications from government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about the importance of girls’ education, a common approach in many countries, this can start to shift norms so that girls’ education is perceived as valuable and the responsible course of action for parents. Schuler’s (2007) qualitative study in rural Bangladesh illustrates this combination of factors and shows the power of change among the ‘reference groups’ of girls’ fathers in driving norm change on girls’ education. (Other key factors included stipends that reduced the financial costs of girls’ education to families.)

Changing community-level perceptions of girls and young women

The values that the wider community attaches to education affect perceptions of girls and young women who have attended school. In many contexts, as Lloyd and Young (2009) found, girls who attend school are perceived by other community members as knowledgeable and more worthy of respect. Arnot et al.’s study (2012) in northern Ghana and India suggests that having attended school also subtly shifted perceptions of young women among their partners/ spouses and in-laws. This in turn contributed to subtle changes in practices, such as more joint activities between husbands and wives, and (in India) mothers-in-law exerting slightly less control over young wives. Women who had been to school, particularly secondary school, were also more able to influence decision-making in their households. 

For girls from poor backgrounds, marginalised ethnic groups or other groups that experience discrimination or disadvantage, gaining this respect from others can be important, not just in terms of improving gender relations but also enabling those girls to negotiate a life trajectory on more equal terms (see Crivello, 2009 and Schuler, 2007).

While none of these studies specifically examined the impact of girls’ education on changes in community-level norms, all of them recorded shifts in knowledge, self-confidence, attitudes and practices – the building blocks of norm change. 

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