Traditional Gender Norms
Gendered norms have been a prominent aspect of society for a long time. These social principles dictate how one is expected to act, speak, and dress based on sex. Historically, these beliefs have segregated society into two genders – men and women – and the gender norms associated with both were rigid and restrictive. For example, women were expected to be loving and nurturing whilst men had to be strong and stoic. People were expected to adhere to these norms and this in turn, suppressed individuality and self-expression.
Over time, gender norms perpetuated inequalities in education, employment and in relationships. For example, women were often discouraged from entering manual-handling or STEM careers and men from rearing children at home. The limitation of opportunities – most commonly for women – often occurred in ways that were not recognised until recent times. For example, historically a pregnant woman may have been passed over for a promotion because of a gendered belief that she would not be able to perform as well following maternity leave.
From Rigidity to Fluidity
Today, we are seeing the conversations around gender and gender norms shift from rigid to fluid. Society at large has become more aware of the limitations and harms caused by traditional gender norms. Gender has also largely been reconceptualised as gender identity, where individuals now self-identify and express themselves through their mannerisms, clothing, names, and pronouns without the constraints of the gender binary (e.g., gender fluid, nonbinary, transgender, Two Spirit, etc.).
Furthermore, many countries and companies have policies in place to promote gender equality and to protect the rights of workers regardless of their gender or identity. This awareness has led to important conversations and education about stigma and how to break free from it.
Conforming to gender norms, especially if they do not align with your identity, can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. The pressure to conform can also lead to significant stress, as these norms often place unrealistic and harmful expectations upon individuals. Rejecting these norms allows individuals to express themselves authentically, embracing their true identities and interests rather than conforming to societal expectations. When individuals are free to express themselves without the constraints of gendered norms, it can lead to improved mental health and organisational success. It additionally opens equal opportunities in education and careers for all, regardless of gender or identity.
A sense of empowerment comes from freedom of choice. By celebrating one another and challenging gender norms we can contribute to fostering a more inclusive society, which values individuality and all genders. When peoples are not constricted by gender norms, it allows them to pursue relationships, careers and hobbies that align with their passion, rather than focusing on what is considered right or wrong based on their sex.
Even though we are seeing positive change, there is still more work to do. A recent study published last year examined how the gender wage gap has changed in Ireland over 30 years. Whilst the study showed positive changes – the mean gender wage gap fell by one-sixth – the study highlighted a consistent inequality of pay at the top of the distribution over the past three years in Ireland, with researchers describing it as “a persistent glass ceiling in Ireland” (Barrett et al., 2022, p.367). Essentially, this means that men and women who earn the highest salaries in the same occupation still experience a significant difference in wages, with men earning more than women.
Furthermore, in 2019, Safe Ireland revealed that men under 25 held a more traditional view on gender norms and roles than expected. In fact, some of their insights mirrored that of participants aged 65 years old and over. This study highlighted how the ‘traditional gender norms’ have not gone away and can still be playing a harmful role in society.
Using Your Influence
As individuals, we can have a direct influence on the power we give to gender norms in our lives and can prevent this kind of bias at work and in our personal live. Here are some ways you can contribute to the positive dialogue on gender norms:
1. Check your own biases:
What are your beliefs about specific genders / gender identities? What about your own gender or gender identity? Do you notice any micro-aggressions towards specific genders in your work or personal life?
2. Have open discussions:
Though it may feel uncomfortable, expressing how we feel about gendered norms, sharing our experiences of gendered norms, and approaching conversations about these norms with curiosity amongst peers and friends facilitates breaking down stereotypes.
3. Challenge the status quo:
Intervene when you notice gender-based discrimination that may impact someone individually or may impact a group of individuals. At work, ensure you understand how discrimination is addressed through formal and informal pathways, and speak up when needed e.g., discussions with your manager, raising concerns with HR or Senior leadership, etc. Consider the policies in place to protect gender equality in your workplace and bring to attention any gaps such as inflexible working arrangements for working parents.
Share social posts, educational books, and research that can spread the word or teach the youth of today on the harmful effects of gender norms.