Gender, Power and Progress: How Norms Change

December 16, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

A very good paper on a fascinating and important topic, by Caroline HarperRachel MarcusRachel GeorgeSophia M. D’AngeloEmma Samman, published by ODI and ALIGN.

The research questions are ambitious:

  • how gender norms have changed over the past quarter-century,
  • what has supported and blocked changes to gender norms in a number of sectors, and
  • how to ensure change is faster, and robust enough to resist backlash and crisis.

The methodology seems v sensible:

‘First, data on attitudes and outcomes available from key longitudinal datasets (such as the World Values Survey and Demographic Health Surveys). Second, we use qualitative evidence from literature on gender norms and norm change. Finally, ALIGN’s in-depth research draws on qualitative evidence and observation from middle-aged and older women in Nepal and Uganda.’

And the Conclusions are well worth reading:

Forces of change
The conceptual framework

‘Despite the many challenges identified in this report, there is cause for optimism. Gender norms can and do change, and far more is known now than ever before about what drives that change. However, large knowledge gaps and major barriers to action continue to impede efforts to achieve the human rights and gender equality aspirations and commitments laid out in Beijing in 1995.

One key message of this report is that for norm change to be sustainable it must capture the hearts and minds of individuals and transform society as a whole. In other words, it is not only personal social expectations, attitudes and behaviour that must shift, but also the ways in which these are represented and enforced in wider society, across all the formal and informal rules and laws and practices that govern the way human beings behave.

Changing hearts and minds means supporting behaviour change among individuals, in communities and society. Therefore, civic action and community dialogue, mentoring and training schemes need to work alongside the efforts of, for example, social movements and mass media to influence social norms, attitudes and behaviours.

This report identifies a general pattern of progress towards gender equality, starting with educational achievement, moving on to greater control over fertility, participation in the labour force, and finding political voice. Each shift has required gender norm change. However, progress in the short term is not linear, and even when progress towards gender equality seems to be on track, it can be halted or reversed. The report makes three important observations about the nature of norm change:

  • Shifts in gender norms often take a long time to develop and progress often stalls and plateaus before moving on. Our expectations regarding the speed of change must be realistic;
  • Changes in gender norms often take place at unequal speeds, with the most disadvantaged often left far behind. Attention to issues of intersectionality are vital to progress change;
  • Progress often seems to stall, repeatedly, at the very point when women are poised to achieve significant change or power. Persistence is essential.

Taking these patterns, and the evidence of progress discussed in this report into account, we note reasons to be hopeful. It is reasonable to be optimistic, for example, about the pace and scale of change, given the ever-widening interest in norms; the evidence for work at scale, especially in education; promising new norm changing media channels; and suggestions that success breeds success (with shifts in one norm area fuelling shifts in others). Taken together, these are valid reasons to believe that change can gather momentum.

‘This report identifies a general pattern of progress towards gender equality, starting with educational achievement, moving on to greater control over fertility, participation in the labour force, and finding political voice’

In relation to inclusion, however, it is remarkable how rarely the available data aim to understand intersectionality. We regard this as a critical flaw in analysis and action. If only some people or groups benefit from norm change, societies cannot progress. Yet a new focus on intersectionality is emerging and, with sufficient support, could lead to important change.

Regarding the depth of change, we note that, all too often, changes are superficial. For example, assertions by male politicians about power-sharing with women politicians are often accompanied by a range of contradictory behaviours such as verbal abuse, controlling behaviour, talking over and harassing women, not listening to them, and criticising their physical appearance. If changes are superficial, the potential for stalling, backsliding and reversals is obvious. However, given the enhanced focus on and interest in norm change, we expect more linked-up efforts around meaningful change in individual attitudes and behaviour, with concurrent changes in social expectations and in institutions.

Finally, if a phenomenon is not named it can remain unseen. If it is not shown in the data, it remains misunderstood. This applies to understanding patriarchy, social and gender norms, and to intersectionality, all of which are often invisible, complex and under-documented. But the naming of patriarchy and norms is increasingly commonplace. Spreading this language and understanding to an ever-widening geographical and sectoral community of policy and practice will, in time, produce results.

Political voice and representation

The challenge we face is to change millennia-long structures of power. As Beard asserts, ‘when it comes to silencing women, western culture has had thousands of years of practice’. And it is not just in western culture – multiple cultures endure long-standing discriminatory patriarchies. Given a timeframe of discrimination that goes back so far, the changes we are seeing within a few generations – and sometimes even within one generation – are relatively swift. As one Nepali professor, who took part in the ALIGN research, said:

‘This is about the little space that you create – the little change that you make and the new awareness you have built and then, as in a relay race, you pass the baton on to others.’

This report shows that the baton is being passed on from one activist, one woman, one educator, one progressive leader, and one generation, to another. And as the baton passes forward, gender norms change.’

Plus lots of great infographics, as you can see.

Full report here; exec sum here. And below is the launch video. Top job.

December 16, 2020
Duncan Green