Are global gender norms shifting? Fascinating new research from World Bank

March 8, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been thinking a bit about norms recently – how do the unwritten rules that guide so much of our behaviour and understanding of what isnorms cover acceptable/right/normal etc evolve over time? Because they undoubtedly do – look at attitudes to slavery, women’s votes, racial equality or more recently child rights.

So in advance of International Women’s Day, I ploughed my way through a really important new World Bank study, On Norms and Agency: Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries. Like the Bank’s path-breaking Voices of the Poor or the more recent Time to Listen, it’s an attempt to take the global temperature on a big topic through a process of rigorous and deep listening involving 4000 women and men around the developing world.

Such studies are lengthy, complex and expensive, but are incredibly revealing and useful, especially as they start to accumulate. We’re trying a mini version with the Life in a time of Food Price Volatility listening project – first year results out soon.

The report is 150 pages and pretty heavy going – subtle, nuanced and complex, and very hard to extract easy headlines. A close reading will yield much more than a skim, but for the time-poor blog reader, here are some of the findings that jumped out at me.

Bending not breaking: norms are evolving, but through guerrilla warfare more than open confrontation: ‘gender norms [are] changing, albeit slowly and incrementally, with new economic opportunity, markets, and urbanization….. Economic roles for women often creep into their domestic role and, in some places, younger men even take on some narrow domestic responsibilities. What is striking is the glacial pace of this change relative to the pace of change in contextual factors. Gender norms are being contested, bent, and relaxed, but not necessarily broken fully and changed. Younger people may delay compliance to a later point in time, but the norms and the expectations around them do not change.’

norms laddersThe impact of urbanization: Across the board, women are making more progress in urban than rural areas. Attitudes to equality are more favourable among both sexes; young women are more able to express dissatisfaction with marriage practices; and when asked for who is climbing the ladder of empowerment (see chart), in a large number of urban areas women are moving up as men fall (largely due to economic pressures). In contrast, this quote from an interviewee in rural South Africa captures the stasis in the countryside: the new gender laws “have changed nothing here. We do not have any job opportunities, our husbands assault us, and most of the time the tribal court favors the man. So really nothing has changed. These laws apply only to urban areas.”

Education is a major driver of shifting norms: Both parents’ and children’s attitudes to education seem to have gone through a major shift.norms education aspirations Mothers, but fathers too, want their girls to be educated, and girls are now often keener on getting an education than boys (see chart). The old stereotype of ‘what’s the point of educating girls, they’ll just get married’ seems to be receding fast. Feels like in future many more countries could be following the UK in heading for a male education crisis (low expectations and performance).

Women’s time poverty: hardly a new finding, but striking nonetheless. The very notion of ‘free time’ seems to be confined to men. ‘Unlike men, women use their free or spare time to work; they simply shift activities. Women are the losers in the time distribution game.’

Could male roles be about to shift? Male roles have changed far less than female, but the authors find some grounds for optimism in ‘glimpses of ground-breaking changes in household cooperation, open dialogue, and even power sharing.’ However ‘the task of initiating more open dialogue is placed on men’ and there are hints of desperation in citing Poland and Serbia to make their case. One of the more interesting findings was ‘the polarizing dynamics of economic stress on men’s and women’s agency’: economic crisis drives women into the public arena and relaxes gender norms, Rosie the Riveter style. But men’s identity is so wholly bound up with being the breadwinner, that economic crisis triggers emotional turmoil. The result unfortunately is at least as likely to be destructive (drinking, abandonment, violence) as ‘hey, let me do the cooking for once’. Which reinforces the growing focus within the gender rights movement on the construction of masculinity.

Violence Against Women falling but slowly: (see chart)norms GBV

What does all this mean for women’s ability to make choices? The report detects ‘a window to aspire’ in which ‘women have gained some autonomy to decide about their education, jobs, marriage (who and when), and reproduction, although they still are permanently challenged not to neglect their domestic duties. Men in the study are showing more willingness to consider sharing power (if not actually share it) and to release some control over household decisions to women. Shared decision-making means men have to bend constraining norms, but it introduces a better decision-making process into their households. And as these men and women change, they transform the traditional playing field in their communities. In the domestic sphere, the women are stealthily altering traditional definitions of duties and responsibilities associated with their expected roles, which may induce change in the norms or make them more flexible.’

Just how deep these changes go is reflected in adults’ sex preferences for children (see chart) – a remarkable degree of equality in whether would-be parents want daughters or sons. That feels hugely significant.

norms baby gender preferencesA universal story, with no magic bullets: The report stresses ‘the universality and resilience of the norms that underpin gender roles’ across the 97 research sites. To their credit, the authors acknowledge that they failed to find equally universal solutions and interventions. But education, a focus on domestic violence, moral support for women, and well publicized and enforced legislation are held up as hopeful ways forward.

One nagging doubt – in focussing so much on people’s aspirations are we mistaking dreams for reality? Would we have got many of the same results if we had done this report a generation ago? The authors think not, but I’m not sure how certain they can be. But all in all, a fascinating, and cautiously encouraging survey.