The Past, Present and Future of Gender Norms (2023)

What determines your destiny? That’s a big question with what should be a complicated answer. But for many, the answer can be reduced to one word: anatomy. Freud’s assertion in 1924 that biology is the key determinant of gender identity, for instance, was for years a hegemonic idea in both law and culture.

Ever since Freud made this notion famous, critics have been objecting to body parts as central predictors of one’s professional and personal path. Many now believe that identity isn’t solely the domain of nature or nurture, but some combination of the two. Still, Freud’s theory isn’t yet dead; enduring gender norms show us that the bodies we’re born into still govern lives of women and men around the world.

But according to some recent research, its influence may be fading. In one new study, a majority of millennials surveyed argued that gender shouldn’t define us the way it has historically, and individuals shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to traditional gender roles or behaviors. Enforcing norms can even have health risks, according to another study. Some women’s colleges are now reportedly rethinking their admissions policies to account for gender non-conforming students. And even President Obama is getting in on the norm-questioning trend: While sorting holiday gifts for kids at a Toys for Tots in December, the president decided to place sporting equipment in the box for girls. “I’m just trying to break down these gender stereotypes,” he said in a viral video.

(Video) Gender Norms: Past, Present and Future (WGS 240 Collage)

But will continuing to challenge gender norms and document their harmful impacts lead to their extinction? To answer that question, we need to first consider another: What’s so bad about traditional gender norms and the way we currently categorize men and women?

For one thing, the way we categorize gender is far too facile, explained Alice Dreger, a leading historian of science and medicine, in a 2010 TED Talk. “We now know that sex is complicated enough that we have to admit nature doesn’t draw the line for us between male and female… we actually draw that line on nature,” she told the audience. “What we have is a sort of situation where the farther our science goes, the more we have to admit to ourselves that these categories that we thought of as stable anatomical categories that mapped very simply to stable identity categories are a lot more fuzzy than we thought.”

Fuzzy – and maybe not entirely real in the first place.

“If there’s a leading edge that is the future of gender, it’s going to be one that understands that gender is relative to context,” said author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein at a recent New America event, noting that geography, religion, and family attitudes are all contextual factors that can alter one’s perception of gender as a determinant of identity. As long as we hold onto the notion that gender is a constant, “we’ll keep doing things to keep the lie in place,” she said. But the fact is that “it doesn’t stand on its own, and is always relative to something.” Bornstein argues that the trick to stripping these norms of their harmful power is to mock and expose them for both their flimsiness and stringency.

Which is what photographer Sophia Wallace attempts with her work. Girls Will Be Bois, for example, is a documentary of female masculinity, featuring women who have traditionally “un-feminine” occupations – bus driver, boxer, basketball player – and a sartorial masculinity (baggy pants, and bare-chested). In Modern Dandy, Wallace switches up the way women and men are directed to look at the camera (or not) in photographs – whether to appear submissive (traditionally feminine) or dominant (traditionally masculine). Cliteracy, Wallace’s most recent work, uses imagery of the clitoris and text about female sexuality to illuminate a paradox: we’re obsessed with sexualizing female bodies, and yet the world is “illiterate when it comes to female sexuality.”

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But it’s not as bad as it once was. Wallace thinks that photography is evolving – that some gender-focused imagery is less tinged with ignorance today. “There’s so much that I’ve seen that has been hopeful,” she said. “There are actually images of female masculinity, trans-men and trans-women now that didn’t exist when I was in my teens and early 20s. In other ways we have so far to go.”

Part of the struggle of relinquishing gender norms comes from an uncomfortable truth. “Men have everything to gain when we overthrow patriarchy…but they also have something to lose from giving up their traditional masculinity,” said Tavia Nyong’o, an associate professor of performance studies at NYU, emphasizing that male rights vary widely across race and class divisions and that white men have even more to lose than men of color. What do they lose, exactly? Privileges (the ability to open carry a gun and not be worried that they’ll be shot by the police, Nyong’o argued). Control – over political, economic and cultural domains. Access – to networks, jobs and economic opportunities. Put simply, they lose power.

“You walk out the door in the morning with a penis and your income is 20 percent higher on average for nothing that you did,” said Gary Barker, the international director of Promundo, an organization that engages men and boys around the world on issues of gender equality.

When asked whether the future of gender was evolution and extinction, Barker, Nyong’o, Wallace and Bornstein all said they hoped for extinction. But at the same time, each acknowledged how difficult that goal would be to achieve. Beyond the power dynamics, there’s a level of comfort in well-worn identities. “It’s easy to sit in these old roles that we’ve watched and to feel a certain comfort in their stability in a world that feels kind of hard to understand,” Barker said.

But change is not impossible. Barker advises demonstrating how our traditional version of masculinity may not actually be worth the fight. “Men who have more rigid views of what it means to be men are more likely to suicidal thoughts, more likely to be depressed, less likely to report they’re happy with life overall, less likely to take care of their health, more likely to own guns, the list goes on,” he said. “There is something toxic about this version of masculinity out there.”

(Video) What Started the Cultural Fixation on Gender?

Detoxing society requires ripping off a mask of sorts. “It’s about getting as many people as possible to have that Matrix moment, Barker said, when they realize, “wait – [masculinity] isn’t real. It’s all illusory, it’s all performance.”

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate director of New America’s Global Gender Parity Initiative. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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(Video) Gender Roles in the past and present

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How can gender norms change over time? ›

Economic developments (either new opportunities opening up or existing opportunities ending) can lead to rapid change in gender roles, which can, in turn, lead to changes in gender norms. But there is often a time lag between changes in a given norm and changes in the practices those norms lead to.

What are gender norms today? ›

For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold. Every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations, but they can be very different from group to group.

Why are gender norms changing? ›

Rising education levels, shifts in economic structures that create more job opportunities, and gender-egalitarian changes in laws and policies can all interact in a virtuous cycle, leading to shifts in gender norms around paid and unpaid work.

What are gender norms and why do they exist? ›

Gender norms are social principles that govern the behavior of girls, boys, women, and men in society and restrict their gender identity into what is considered to be appropriate. Gender norms are neither static nor universal and change over time.

What were gender roles in past? ›

Men were the primary wage earners, while women were expected to be primarily responsible for housework and childcare, though both sexes participated in all these activities. Women's paid employment was typically low status, low paid, and involved fewer skills and responsibilities than men's.

How do gender norms affect behavior? ›

Gender norms influence women to perform behaviors in stereotypically less masculine ways, and men to perform them in stereotypically more masculine ways. Accordingly, if masculine performance increases testosterone, men's stereotypically more masculine performance of behavior may lead to more increases in testosterone.

What is gender norm example? ›

For example, a common gender norm is that women and girls will and should do the majority of domestic work. Using this definition, gender norms differ from informal rules or expectations that relate only or primarily to the behaviour of one sex, such as norms about whether, how, and how long to breastfeed.

How did gender norms start? ›

The term gender norms first entered the health and development lexicon in the last decade of the 20th century, at a time when several international bodies were making a global commitment to promote gender equality (Connell and Pearse 2014).

What are some examples of gender norms that are harmful to society? ›

Ten harmful beliefs that perpetuate violence against women and...
  • Women must be submissive to male family members in all aspects of her life. ...
  • Men are expected to exercise coercive control. ...
  • Men have the right to discipline women for 'incorrect' behavior. ...
  • Women cannot deny their male partner sex.

What is changing gender norms and social attitudes? ›

Changing gender norms is a political process that leads to equality between women and men. Changing social norms can be a technically driven process to promote greater well-being for both women and men.

What influences gender roles in today's society? ›

Gender roles are influenced by the media, family, environment, and society. In addition to biological maturation, children develop within a set of gender-specific social and behavioral norms embedded in family structure, natural play patterns, close friendships, and the teeming social jungle of school life.

When did gender become different? ›

Some archaeological evidence suggests that gender, in the sense of social and behavioral distinctions, arose "at least by some 30,000 years ago".

How do you deal with gender norms? ›

  1. Be aware of sexism. Question certain stereotypes that we take as normal but which in reality are social constructions.
  2. Deal with the issue of equality without complexes. ...
  3. Join forces for equal education. ...
  4. Think laterally.

What is a positive gender norm? ›

Positive gender socialization refers to processes that challenge and change harmful norms in order to achieve gender-equitable outcomes. Gender stereotypes are generalizations about the characteristics of a group of people based on gender.

What is the difference between gender role and gender norm? ›

The easiest way to distinguish between gender norms and gender roles, is to understand that gender roles flow from gender norms. In other words, the values a society has with respect to how a 'male' and 'female' should look and behave, shapes the roles of each gender.

How has gender roles changed since 1950? ›

Today, gender roles are much less strict and more fluid than they were in the 1950s. The extreme dichotomy between male and female roles is no longer the expected life pattern. For example, both men and women can pursue careers, and both can choose to dedicate their lives to home and family.

How have women's roles changed today? ›

The modern woman has started caring for her social, emotional, cultural, religious and economic needs. She has now become tool for social change in India. It can be said that women have more freedom than earlier however not true in many respects because prejudice still remains in the society.

When did gender roles start in history? ›

Whatever may be the case, it's clear that gender roles as we know them today mostly originated during the Victorian era. The Victorian era, which comprises most of the 19th century, was characterized by strong ideas regarding the roles of each gender in society.

What are gender issues in society? ›

Gender issues include all aspects and concerns related to women's and men's lives and situation in society, to the way they interrelate, their differences in access to and use of resources, their activities, and how they react to changes, interventions and policies.

What are 3 examples of norms? ›

Everyday Social Norms
  • Shaking hands when greeting someone.
  • Saying "please" and "thank you"
  • Apologizing when one makes a mistake.
  • Standing up when someone enters the room.
  • Making eye contact during a conversation.
  • Listening when someone is speaking.
  • Offering help when someone is struggling.
  • Respecting personal space.
Oct 31, 2022

How do gender norms affect society? ›

Gender roles in society can create certain expectations, and the pressure of gender stereotypes can often get ugly. Almost all the young people we spoke to said they have heard jokes or comments being made about other people's bodies or looks. It's like girls are expected to fulfil certain ridiculous expectations.

What is the best example of a norm? ›

Social norms are what make society tick and can be found throughout all cultures. Some examples include: forming a line at store counters, saying 'bless you' when someone sneezes, or holding the door to let someone enter your building after themselves because it is polite. Social norms theory is a diverse field.

What are examples of gender inequality in society today? ›

Gender Inequality Examples:
  • Gender inequality in girls education. Even before the pandemic, girls were more likely than boys to never set foot in a classroom and be denied equal opportunities. ...
  • Child marriage. ...
  • Gender-based violence. ...
  • Child labor.

How do gender norms affect boys? ›

Gender norms around masculinity commonly confer power and status to boys and young men, which might in part explain why norms around masculinity are difficult to shift. Paradoxically, these dominant masculinities carry risks for poor mental health.

What are gender norm violations? ›

Gender norms violations can be identified as adoption of behavior patterns and actions atypical for a given sex and prescribed to an opposite gender.

Can you change your gender at any time? ›

You can start living in a new gender at any time, and you can have your new gender, name, and title updated on all your documents and records including your passport and driving licence. Your birth certificate can also be updated but, unlike other records, not straightaway.

When did the concept of gender change? ›

The modern academic sense of the word, in the context of social roles of men and women, dates at least back to 1945, and was popularized and developed by the feminist movement from the 1970s onwards (see § Feminism theory and gender studies below), which theorizes that human nature is essentially epicene and social ...

What is the difference between gender norms and social norms? ›

The relation between the norms and personal attitudes - Gender norms are often studied as shaping people's individual attitudes, whereas social norms are often studied as diverging from people's individual attitudes.


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