Gender norms: hope among the complexity and adversity

Gender norms. It’s likely you’ve been conforming to them in some way since you could walk and talk. But what are they and where do gender norms originate? Are they helpful or harmful to society? And perhaps most interestingly, will gender norms continue to play a part in our rapidly changing world?

So many questions! We chatted with Charles Sturt University’s Dr Donna Bridges to explore the complex issues around gender norms. Dr Bridges has been teaching and researching sociology for more than 20 years. Her work focuses on:

  • gender norms in society
  • gender constructions
  • workplace inequality
  • discrimination
  • harassment.

What is gender?

First things first. Before we dive into the norms, we should understand gender. The World Health Organization explains: Gender is used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that are biologically determined. People are born female or male, but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men.

Dr Bridges says that makes gender roles easy to define, but gender norms are a little more involved.

“Gender roles encompass a range of behaviours and attitudes that we would consider acceptable for a man or a woman and we associate those with the biological sex.

“Gender norms are more complex, being a principal or idea. They emerge from the gender roles and are socio-cultural expectations. Basically, it’s a particular way you are expected to behave depending upon whether you’re a man or a woman.”

Where do gender norms come from?

Well, it seems societal stereotypes have been creating male and female behavioural expectations for aeons.

“We’re so used to gender norms because they’re currently how we function. They are part of every society’s foundation. People argue that these norms are natural, saying that cave people were performing a gender role. But these expectations also act as a control mechanism.

“It’s really interesting that we conform to gender norms very early on. There is a standard, an expectation, and we are aware of that from a young age. We then internalise the idea that gender should be performed by us in a certain way. It becomes conscious and unconscious. We consciously do it, but there is a lot about it that’s unconscious behaviour.”

Young mother going against the norm teaching her son domestic tasks

Are gender norms valuable or destructive?

Short answer? Destructive.

“Problems arise as some people struggle to conform to the rigid norms. Then other members of our society see it as their role to regulate that conformity.

“Socio-cultural regulation is where members of society take it upon themselves to discourage what they deem undesirable behaviour. They want to regulate it and punish anyone who steps outside of those gender norms.

“If you’re not complying there are certain regulation mechanisms that may be uncomfortable to the individual. And it may make having a role in society difficult for that individual.

“A woman going into a line of work that’s considered a masculine occupation will often face too many consequences which are negative. A man choosing a role considered to be a woman’s will also face consequences. For example, consider a young male in regional Australia wanting to become a dancer or an artist. Or a woman who wants to pursue a career in aviation. 

“Consequences range from not fitting in, to other people querying and questioning your choice, being confused about it or perceiving that there’s a problem with it, right through to the possibility of experiencing violence because of your choice. 

“There’s a range of consequences that are unacceptable and unlawful. Yet we as a society – on many levels – consider it appropriate. We justify it by saying that behavioural regulation is understandable.

“For a lot of people that regulation results in them not being free to be their true selves. Some will fit the norm though it’s uncomfortable and some will try and be themselves and face the consequences, such as teasing, being bullied, socially excluded or even physically harmed.

“While some consequences can seem minor – like teasing and laughing – they can be very difficult for the individual who wants to deviate from the norm.”

Can we move towards a new norm?

The times they are a-changin’, but have we begun the journey to a new norm? (Excuse the pun.) Dr Bridges believes a shift is possible, though it will take time.

“A lot of people feel we are having a revolution in terms of gender roles, gender norms and gender stereotypes. There’s a great resurgence of society’s questioning of them. But if we did ditch gender constraints and thinking, it would take a very long time. They are part of society’s fabric.

“Gender norms remains a very complex area. And though there are an increasing number of people who believe we should let go of them and not worry about who identifies where on the gender spectrum, it won’t happen just yet. For a few reasons.

  1. Most people still do associate with the gender norms and operate with an understanding of the male/female gender binary.
  2. Though there’s increasing awareness around dismantling gender norms, there are also others in society who are resisting the push. Many people are pretty definite that gender norms are normal, natural and correct. Therefore, they expect that everyone should conform to this binary.
  3. Production and consumption, more than ever, promote the gender binary – especially for babies and children. Take a walk down a toy aisle and you’ll see princess-themed toys for girls and all sorts of trucks, cars and planes for boys. Pink for girls and blue for boys.
  4. Media also plays a large role. I used to think of media as a minor institution in society, but these days it’s a major institution. A socialising institution that we encounter while very young and which gives us a lot of messages about how we should behave and act. Who we should be and what’s important. Movies and TV have characters who mostly remain gendered and people associate with them.

Ditch the norm and discover freedom!

The United Nations acknowledges that harmful gender stereotypes and wrongful gender stereotyping are one of the root causes for discrimination, abuse and violence around the globe. But when we see people do things in a way we perceive as different or unusual we can become threatened by the change and how we ourselves fit in. They can propel some to initiate socio-cultural regulation.

It’s a complex problem, and one reason why we still need to study the humanities. But Dr Bridges believes we should be working towards a disparate understanding.

“We all need to behave as human beings and not slot into any gender roles. Be the best you that you can be. Be a nurturing man, or a woman who’s a strong leader. We have human behaviour and human characteristics – we don’t need to associate certain ones with men and certain others with woman. Or worse, disassociate some characteristics with women and men.

“Removing the gender norms will bring the freedom for both men and woman to do any of the things they want to do, without facing socio-cultural regulatory consequences that are harmful to the individual.”

You can make a difference

When you understand how individuals, communities and global networks function – you can make a difference. Play a vital role in our sustainable future with a Bachelor of Arts (with specialisation) from Charles Sturt University. You can specialise in sociology to explore this crucial area of society. Or, if you’re ready, how about pursuing your own research? Let’s get to work!