Are Gender Norms Changing? 4,000 Women and Men in 20 Countries Weigh In

February 26, 2013

Inequality is a lifelong experience for women and girls. Today women are less likely to survive their first year, have clean water, own land and control their money.

World Bank Group

  • A study conducted in 20 countries asked women and men to describe the influence that gender norms have on their day-to-day lives and decisions.
  • The picture that emerged was of gender norms relaxing in many communities, but not necessarily changing.
  • The results hold lessons for creating more inclusive global development that empowers both women and men.

In Sisum’s childhood home in a rural village of Bhutan, the men eat dinner first and the women must wait until they finish. But at her uncle’s house in the city, where she lived while in school, the family eats together. “Such practices are not allowed there,” she says. “They are all educated, and they feel it is not right.”

She remembers the day she asked her parents about the village’s tradition. Her mother told her the practice had been followed by their ancestors. When she later asked her father, she said, he became angry and lashed out at her mother, telling her that before the marriage she was nothing, and without him she would have no food or shelter. He said it was up to the men whether she ate at all, Sisum recalls. She feared her mother would have been beaten if her brother had not stepped in.

The young woman’s experience reflects findings on the state of gender relations in a new study that convened focus groups involving more than 4,000 men and women from a range of ages, economic mixes, and rural and urban communities in 20 countries.

By working with single-sex focus groups in 97 communities, and discussing how gender norms shape the participants’ everyday lives and decisions, the researchers were able to look deeper into how gender norms affect decision-making at the household and individual levels, as well as markets and formal institutions.

Relaxing gender norms

The picture that emerged from every focus group across the 20 countries was of communities that continue to adhere to long-held gender norms of men as breadwinners and women in domestic roles. Children learn those norms early – “If we went to school, who would do the housework?” a girl from rural Tanzania asked.

But within many homes and communities, particularly in cities, there is a clear relaxing of traditional norms as more men and women assume new responsibilities.

Girls are being allowed to stay in school longer, and they are aspiring to become scientists and business leaders. In fact, a larger percentage of teenage girls than boys in the study – 60 percent to 40 percent – expressed the desire to earn a graduate degree. “Now women can go out to work and hold a high ranking job, even in the army and the police. This is a great change since our parents’ time,” a young man from urban Sudan said.

The women talked about wanting their daughters to be more courageous, and about their own increasing opportunities to earn incomes and about feeling more control over their lives. Most of the participants, with the exception of rural men, also nominally agreed with the ideal of equality between men and women. “The moment that you know that you can do things by yourself and not have to depend on a man is the moment you begin moving up,” said a woman from urban Tanzania.

The relaxing of gender norms is not necessarily changing traditional norms, though, as the conversations revealed.

" Norms are changing, but the change is slow and incremental, and its pace does not always keep up with economic opportunities and development. As a result, women, as well as men, get excluded from opportunities perceived as gender-inappropriate.  "

Carrie Turk

Report Co-Author, World Bank Country Manager for Rwanda

In a village in Tanzania, for example, women are now making clay pots and growing vegetables to sell at market. The work is generating income, but within the community, it is viewed as an extension of women’s domestic duties and not as a breadwinner role.

Almost everywhere, the focus groups described men remaining the primary income earners and decision makers, and the allocation of free time, responsibilities, and power being unequally distributed. Nearly one-third of the groups said domestic violence was common and reinforced gender norms.

“Norms are changing, but the change is slow and incremental, and its pace does not always keep up with economic opportunities and development. As a result, women, as well as men, get excluded from opportunities perceived as gender-inappropriate,” said Carrie Turk, a World Bank gender specialist and co-author of the report. "Development programs can help alleviate these constraints, since change needs to happen on all levels to take effect: on individual, household and community levels."

Lessons for development

“The development community needs to think about where it is financing gender-sensitive projects,” said study co-author Maria Beatriz Orlando, a social development specialist at the World Bank. “In the `90s, a lot of women’s development work focused on traditional gender roles – a lot of the projects were in crafts or in food. We have to question how much jam can be produced.”

“While respecting culture, we can also challenge these norms for the benefit of both women and men,” added Ana Maria Munoz,a co-author of the report, also co-authored by Patti Petesch and Maria Angelica Thumala.

Creating gender-neutral learning opportunities could also open more doors for future generations of both sexes, the authors write. Education and laws that help reduce domestic abuse can also increase empowerment and opportunities for women.

Laws and regulations promoting gender equality can promote change, but they must be well publicized and enforced. The study found that outreach and public understanding were uneven among the focus groups, particularly in rural communities. “In none of the sample countries did we find either men or women to be really well-informed of their rights, entitlements, or obligations with respect to key laws intended to promote gender equality,” the authors write.

The World Bank’s work

In its work, the World Bank assesses the gender dimensions of development within and across sectors in each country where it has active programs, and it uses Regional Gender Action Plans to lay out proposed directions to ensure that gender and inclusive development are better integrated into country and regional programming.

Gender is also a special theme of the Bank’s $49.3 billion fund for the poorest, the International Development Association. Its Gender Action Plan, started in 2007, has boosted attention to innovative programs to promote women’s economic empowerment. And the Road Map for Gender Mainstreaming directs more of the Bank’s technical assistance, projects, and programs towards giving women better economic opportunities.

The new focus group study adds to a body of knowledge that includes the World Development Report 2012 and suggests that when communities find ways to relax norms, men’s and women’s individual and collective sense of control over their futures can increase – and reinforce one another.