Gender norms are socially and culturally mediated principles that govern the expected behavior of women, men, girls, and boys in a society.
Examples of gender norms include the idea that women should be passive, men should be leaders, girls should be good at sewing, and men should be good at physical tasks.
Gender norms work to construct ideas of what is “normal” for a man or woman, and in turn, what is considered “abnormal” and even worrying. Thus, gender norms are often considered to be damaging to individual liberty.
The defining norms of gender are neither static nor culturally universal and change over time.
Definition of Gender Norms
Social constructionism is a sociological theory of knowledge that holds that characteristics often thought to be unchallengeable and solely biological—such as gender, race, ability, and sexuality—are instead products of human interaction and constructed by cultural and historical contexts (McKinley, 2015).
For a formal definition, here’s how the European Institute for Gender Equality defines gender norms:
“Gender norms are ideas about how women and men should be and act. Internalised early in life, gender norms can establish a life cycle of gender socialisation and stereotyping.”
Examples of Gender Norms
The following are gender norms – or in other words, things that may have in recent history been considered “normal” – in the context of historically patriarchal cultures such as those in the West.
- Stoicism vs Empathy – Men are stereotyped as being stoic and not letting their emotions rule them, while women are stereotyped as being highly empathetic and compassionate.
- Hero vs Supporter – Men are envisioned in many films and cultural narratives as the individual heroes, while women are often envisaged as the background characters, supporting the man.
- Strength vs Kindness – Men are expected to be strong and firm, while women are expected to be gentle and kind.
- Active vs Passive – Men are expected to take action while women are normally seen as passive in order to “act like a lady”.
- Preoccupied with Power vs Looks – Men are stereotyped as being preoccupied with money and power, while women are stereotyped as being obsessed with their looks.
- Independent vs Dependent – Men are seen as strong and independent, while it’s traditionally considered normal for women to be dependent upon the men in their lives.
- Quiet vs Talkative – It’s considered normal and ideal for men to be quiet and thoughtful, while women are expected to be talkative and even gossips.
- Analytical vs Creative – Outdated norms hold that men are analytical (meaning they should be in charge of making decisions) while women are creative.
- Bold vs Shy – Gender norms hold that men are bold and brash, while women are ideally shy and quiet. In fact, a bold woman may be accused of being ‘bossy’.
- Blunt vs Tactful – Similar to the above point, a man is often expected to be a little blunt and assertive, while a woman – conforming to the ideal of being more quiet and reserved – is expected to be tactful, or in layman’s terms, “act like a lady”.
- Leader vs Follower – Traditional normative ideals hold that men are supposed to be leaders and women are supposed to be followers. Today, we still have the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’ where women continue to face subtle stereotypical assumptions that lock them out of leadership roles.
- Rugged vs Refined – Gender norms hold that attractive men are rugged – perhaps with scars and a little facial hair to accentuate the rugged look, while attractive women are refined and soft. The ‘refined woman’ ideal comes from the idea that these women were of elite status who didn’t have to do chores for the family.
- Provider vs Nurturer – The man is seen as the provider or breadwinner, while the woman is seen as the nurturer of the family.
- Domineering vs Submissive – A masculine man continues to be idealized as domineering (especially in Hollywood films) while attractive women are traditionally idealized as being submissive to the man.
- Public sphere vs Domestic sphere – Traditionally, men would come together to make decisions about society while women would be confined to their homes.
- Construction vs Caring Industries – When women moved into the workforce, they moved into ‘domestic’ or ‘caring’ industries such as healthcare and education, which modernized but nonetheless continued the idea that the domestic sphere is the women’s sphere.
Women are often assumed to be better as teachers and nurses, while men are presumed to be naturally better as engineers and pilots. Moreover, men are generally better paid than women which in sociology is called the “gender pay gap”.
According to sociologists, pay practices are ‘socially constructed’ and under-evaluate women’s labor in a range of ways. For instance, wages are heavily influenced by social pressures, actions of employers, governments, and trade unions.
A key historical reason for male-dominated professions having higher wages was because it was expected that men would be required to be the breadwinners of the family.
Moreover, women are still seen by most societies as secondary earners, and they work in industries that are unfairly seen as less difficult by society, hence justifying lower salaries (Grimshaw & Rubery, 2007)
2. Domestic behavior
Some individuals and societies expect that women will take care of the children, cook, and clean, while men take care of finances and do household repairs. These norms affect women’s and men’s opportunities all over the world.
According to Save the Children US, household chores are much more likely to be performed by girls than boys. Girls account for two-thirds of all children who perform household chores for at least 21 hours per week, this amount of time can negatively impact a child’s schooling.
Likewise, women spend two to 10 times more time on unpaid childcare and domestic work than men. On the other hand, men and boys are more often targeted for active combat roles by armed groups because of the association of masculinity with defending homes and communities. (Save the Children US, 2022)
This differentiation is likely due to cultural stereotypes about who should do what jobs around the house.
The education system is affected by gender norms, such as women and men being expected to pursue certain gendered careers. Moreover, the educational system generally is unequal, and many subjects focus on men, for instance in history books.
Schools often reflect and replicate the discriminatory gender norms found in society. According to Levtov (2013) discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes is seen in teaching practices, such as responding more directly to boys or asking boys more questions, and through classroom organization, such as gendered assignment of chores – asking girls to clean and boys to chop wood.
Norms and stereotypes that affect learning and education outcomes are common, and often reflect perceptions of girls’ competence. Often, boys are steered towards the subjects that may lead to more lucrative careers in later life (Marcus, 2018).
While gender norms affect all children, they are proven to disproportionately affect girls. More than 575 million girls live in countries where inequitable gender norms contribute to violations of their rights, like health, education, marriage and gender-based violence. (Save the Children US, 2022)
Gender norms describe how men and women are expected to behave in a given social context. Regarding decision-making, the man historically often had the last say. This means for example in choosing the place to live, choice of school for children, and financial decisions.
According to sociological studies, men are more likely to hold leadership positions at their working place. Some of the reasons why men are appointed to leadership positions are that the expected ‘normal’ image of a leader is that of a man (e.g. it’s hard to picture a female president – because there hasn’t been one yet!)
The main negative stereotypes that hinder women’s career advancement are:
- a woman must be obedient
- a woman is for staying at home and cooking
- a woman is for having a baby
- without a man, a woman cannot succeed
Gender norms influence society and its politics. Women are still behind in political engagement worldwide, such as contributing to campaigns and joining political organizations.
Women’s opportunities in politics have long been affected by gender norms, alongside with other sociological factors such as wealth and ethnicity. There are several factors to why women lack opportunities in politics, for instance, less time due to household chores, differences in income and education, and ties with other groups such as trade unions.
Thus, we have concepts such as the glass ceiling, where it’s perceived that women find it very hard to rise to the upper echelons of politics and leadership.
Origins of the Gender Norms Concept
The term ‘gender norms; was first popularised in the 1970s by feminists in order to distinguish between culturally constructed male and female roles, behaviors, and preferences.
According to feminist theory, gender is socially constructed rather than determined by biology.
Feminist sociologists developed this idea further, arguing that gender is best conceptualized as a social system that assigns resources, roles, power, and privileges according to whether a person is perceived as male or female.
Furthermore, norms are only one element of the gender system, along with gender roles, gender socialization, and gendered power relations. Gender norms are the social rules and expectations that keep the gender system intact.
Table: Gender Norms Compared
|Traditional Patriarchal Femininity||Traditional Hegemonic Masculinity|
|1. Empathy||1. Stoicism|
|2. Nurturer||2. Provider|
|3. Emotionality||3. Logic|
|4. Kindness||4. Strength|
|5. Passive||5. Active|
|6. Submissive||6. Domineering|
|7. Preoccupied with looks||7. Preoccupied with power|
|8. Dependent||8. Independent|
|9. Domestic sphere||9. Public sphere|
|10. Talkative||10. Quiet|
|11. Creative||11. Analytical|
|12. Tactful||12. Blunt|
|13. Shy||13. Bold|
|14. Follower||14. Leader|
|15. Refined||15. Rugged|
Gender norms describe how people of a certain gender are expected to behave in a given social context, leading to double standards in society. We learn what is expected of our gender from what our parents and teachers teach us, as well as through religious, cultural, political, media and other social institutions. We call this gender socialization.
Examples of gender norms are that women takes care of the children and cook, while men chop wood and go to combat. These norms then influence society as a whole.
For instance, at workplaces men have leadership positions and earn more, while women are expected to be nurses or cleaners.
In school, gender norms influence education for boys and girls. Boys are more likely to have their voice heard and are steered towards more lucrative careers.
Gender norms affect all children but are proven to disproportionately affect girls. Worldwide, inequitable gender norms contribute to violations of women’s rights, like health, education, and gender-based violence.
Cislaghi, B. and Heise, L. (2019). Using social norms theory for health promotion in low-income countries, Health Promotion International, 34, 616–23.
European Institute for Gender Equality (2016), Gender Norms, Retrieved from https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1194
George, R. (2019), Gender norms and women’s political participation: Global trends and findings on norm change, Retrieved from https://www.alignplatform.org/resources/gender-norms-and-womens-political-participation-global-trends-and-findings-norm-change
Grimshaw, D. and Rubery, J. (2007), Undervaluing Women’s Work. Equal Opportunities Commission Working Paper Series no. 53.
Levtov, R. (2013), Promoting Gender Equity Through Schools: Three Papers on Schooling, Gender Attitudes, and Interventions to Promote Gender Equity in Egypt and India.
Marcus. R. (2018), Education and gender norm change, Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms, ALiGN
McKinley, J. (2015), Critical Argument and Writer Identity: Social Constructivism as a Theoretical Framework for EFL Academic Writing, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies. 12 (3): 184–207.
Minasyan, D. (2020), Gender Differences in Decision-making and Leadership: Evidence from Armenia, Business Ethics and Leadership, Volume 4, Issue 1.
Ridgeway, C.L. and Correll, S.J. (2004) Unpacking the gender system: a theoretical perspective on gender beliefs and social relations, Gender & Society, 18, 510–31
Save the Children US (2022), Gender Roles Can Create Lifelong Cycle of Inequality, Retrieved from https://www.savethechildren.org/us/charity-stories/how-gender-norms-impact-boys-and-girls
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.