On the Power of Norms and the Norms of Power

I had a meeting recently with an economist at the World Bank. Part researcher and part policy-maker, he explained that the Bank had been pleased to see marked and measurable improvement in the lot of women and girls in almost two dozen countries they'd track and fund.  Hearteningly, the improvements spanned a variety of metrics, including economic participation and civic and political engagement.

But in a number of key areas -- partner violence, reproductive health, education, and having their voices heard -- women continued to worryingly lag behind.

Being the World Bank, they brought immense resources to bear to better understand what the hidden barriers might be. They convened focus groups in 20 countries, from Papua New Guinea to Poland and Peru.  Over 4,000 people in 93 communities were heard.

The result is a magisterial 160 page report: On Norms and Agency. Their conclusion is that the hidden barrier is gender norms. Or to use their language, "Women’s and men’s opportunities and actions are determined as much by social norms—including gender roles and beliefs about their abilities and capacities—as by the conditions of the communities and countries they live in…Women must constantly negotiate and resist traditional [gender] expectations about what they are to do and who they are to be." [A brief abstract is here, the full report is here.]

The focus on normative beliefs, expectations and social scripts might seem a little startling from an institution that prides itself on data driven analyses that look at cold, hard facts on the ground.  And gender norms are historically considered one of those "soft" metrics you avoid if you want hard data, like economic indicators. Yet gender has become the core of their new approach.

Put succinctly, if we want to improve the lot of women and girls, we must begin challenging culturally relevant norms of masculinity and femininity, because that's what's holding them back.

This is an argument that TrueChild has been quietly making for several years. It's especially important because it has the capacity to bridge the disconnect in US gender work between the gender equity camp and the (much smaller) gender norms camp.

Most US funders say "adopt a gender lens" when what they really mean is more funding to improve gender equity for women and girls. This is an entirely important goal. But it is not a "gender lens." It not only overlooks men and boys (and LGBTQ), it skips over gender norms entirely.

The World Bank's report shows that if you unpack gender inequalities, it is cultural attitudes and beliefs about masculinity and femininity that sustain such disparities. This means if you want to improve gender equity, you have to go through gender norms: there's just no way around them.

For instance, we can pour funds into girls' higher education in developing country, but as long as the local gender culture dictates that "good girls" drop out to get marry early and raise families, there will be a ceiling on the progress we  can make.

(In terms perhaps more relevant for the US, we might say that we can keep funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) for girls, but as long as they internalize feminine norms that make self-worth a function of their looks and bodies rather than their brains and ability—not to mention that female "nerds" are considered unsexy and unpopular – we should similarly expect our progress to have a ceiling.)

This was revelatory stuff. I asked my guide at the Bank who could be the audience for a 160 page report? Personally, I'd rather wait for the movie to come out. It's not exactly the kind of thing most policy-makers or funders will sit and read at one sitting (although the brief introduction, "On the Power of Norms and the Norms of Power" is worth the price of admission).

He explained that it was an internal document, for their own people. The World Bank, one of our largest institutions for improving lives in developing countries, is working hard to educate their own people about gender norms because the data shows it will increase life outcomes and equity for women and girls.

Shouldn't we be doing likewise?

To help provide interested program officers get a leg up on things like terminology, the latest reports, and simple concrete steps they can take, we've launched a new online portal here. And you can join a unique webinar on gender norms' impact on young Black girls Tuesday, December 3rd by registering here.


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Executive Director