Gender Norms: What They Are, How They Impact Us And How To Change Them
Do we know how much it can impact the life of women and queer* people? Do we know precisely what are the roots of these norms, and how we can change the system to build a more inclusive society? Follow us as we tell you more about these challenges, where they come from and what we are doing to change the system.
*You will find a complete glossary at the end of this article, in case there are any terms you are unfamiliar with.
What are gender norms: understanding the binary classification of men and women and what is expected of them
Gender norms are social norms that define what a man is, what a woman is and how they should act. They act as implicit rules regulating our individual and social behaviours. In other words, gender norms determine how we should behave depending on our gender identity (read: man or woman, because gender norms establish a binary opposition between these two genders, carefully discarding all other gender identities) and how gender relations should be like (Includovate, 2017). We are taught to integrate them, apply them and teach them to others.
Gender norms may vary, depending on the culture, the time or the place. But they always set the standards of what is feminine and what is masculine, and teach us not to blur the lines between the two. For instance, in Western societies, emotions, gentleness, empathy and love are considered to be feminine. On the contrary, intelligence, strength, logic, and ambitions are viewed as masculine. If you are a boy, chances are you have been taught not to cry, because it is a sign of weakness. If you are a girl, you certainly have been told to study languages instead of sciences, because girls are bad at science.
Now, the system we live in is patriarchal. This means that society is created by and for men: they are the ones who hold the power (government, police, the military, etc.) as well as the resources (CEO, doctors, lawyers, etc.). They are the ones who make the rules and apply them. Hence, the gender norms fixed by the patriarchy discriminate against women and people who do not fit into the cis men* category. Have you ever noticed how certain characteristics can be seen as positive in certain cultures (ie: leisure in some African regions) and negative in others (ie: leisure in Western countries), but that they are only ever attached to women when they are seen as negative?
But gender norms do not only define how people should behave individually. As we mentioned earlier, they also define relations and relationships. They define what friendship and romance should be like. In our patriarchal society, for instance, we integrate early on that men and women are complementary opposites — that is what we call ‘binarity’ — and that true love is when a man and a woman fall in love. Gender norms do not only enforce gender roles at the detriment of women, they also enforce heteronormativity. That is, heterosexuality as the norm and the only acceptable option. When you are a girl, you are taught from a young age to look for your Prince Charming, while boys are told to search for their princess.
Here are some concrete examples of patriarchal, heteronormative gender norms:
- Women are expected to take care of everyone: their husband, children, parents, husband’s parents, etc.
- Men are taught not to show weakness.
- Women are encouraged to start a family, rather than to focus on their careers.
- Men are encouraged to pursue high-paid jobs, in order to provide for their family.
- Women are taught to be soft, gentle and loving.
- Men are taught to be strong, hard and ambitious.
- Women are told to look out for a man who can protect them.
- Women are constantly judged on their appearance, their sexual activity and their maternal skills.
- Men are taught not to wear feminine-looking clothing or to be too close with other men.
- Men who do not obey those rules are often violently reminded by other men that they should not cross these boundaries. This is part of what we call ‘toxic masculinity’. It refers to men exhibiting a set of behaviors that perpetuates domination and aggression, and have a negative impact on society and men themselves.
- People are taught that there are only two genders, man and woman, and that they should belong to one or the other.
- Men are expected to be in romantic and sexual relationships with women, and women with men.
- Women are perceived as superficial and less intelligent than men.
- Men are told that they are better at driving and other manual activities.
- Women are taught that men have a higher libido than them and that they should force themselves to have sexual relations, even when they do not want to, in order to please men.
- Men are taught that their desires and pleasure are more important than their partner’s and that they are entitled to sex.
And the list goes on and on. But what are the consequences of this set of behaviors and values? What impact do gender norms have on individuals?
Gender norms are harmful: statistical evidences of their negative impact
Gender norms are not just abstract concepts that people like to throw around once in a while. They are very real, and they have a concrete impact on our day-to-day, private and political lives. They affect who we can be, who we can love and how we can express ourselves. They have an influence on our job and housing opportunities, on our legal rights and even on our health. The consequences of gender norms are medical, psychological, social, political and economic.
- On average, 80% of LGBTIQ+ people living in Switzerland will face abuse and discrimination in their life because of who they are (Swiss LGBTIQ+ Panel, 2020).
- Intersex*, asexual* and aromantic* people are still unknown to the majority of the population, leading to stereotypes, fear and exclusion.
- Same-gender marriage just got accepted in Switzerland at the end of 2021, and founding a family remains costly and difficult.
- In the United States, 40% of homeless youths identify as LGBTIQ+, whereas the queer community accounts for 7% of the total youth population (Healthline, June 2021).
- In Switzerland, 59% of women will experience seuxal harassment in their life (Amnesty, May 2019).
- In Switzerland, 22% of women have had non-consensual sexual relations in their life (Amnesty, May 2019).
- In Switzerland, 20% of transgender people are unemployed, which is 7x higher than the national average (TGNS, 2018 ).
- Swiss women still earn, on average, 19% less than their male counterparts — a rate that has been worsening in the past years (Swissinfo.ch, 2021).
- 59% of women work part-time in Switzerland, compared to 18% of men (Federal Statistical Office, 2017).
- 82% of mothers with young children work part-time, compared to 13% of fathers in the same situation (Swissinfo.ch, June 2021).
- Although it is difficult to evaluate precisely the dropout rates of LGBTIQ+ students, the American Psychological Association estimates that around a third of them drop out of high school — 3x the national rate (APA, 2012).
- In Switzerland, 70% of LGBTIQ+ people report a homophobic and hostile climate at work (Fédération Genevoise des Associations LGBT, 2014).
Well-being and health consequences
- American studies have shown that 1 in 3 LGBTIQ+ individual will experience a mental health disorder, which is 60% more than their cis heterosexual peers (Healthy Life Recovery, 2021).
- In the USA, LGBTIQ+ adults are 56% more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol and 3x more likely to develop a drug addiction than cis heterosexual adults (Healthy Life Recovery, 2021).
- A UK study has pointed out that 72% of trans teenageers have self-harmed (Stonewall, 2014).
- In the USA, 50% of trans youths have experiences discrimination and/or violence at school (The Williams Institute, 2014).
- In Switzerland, young LGBIQ+ people are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers — and it rises to 10 times more for trans youngsters (STOP SUICIDE, 2017).
- Suicide risks reach a peak during the period preceding and following the coming out — between 14 to 17 years old on average (Häusermann, July 2017).
- 50% of suicide attempts first occur before 20 years old (Häusermann, July 2017).
- 69% of trans youths in France have thought about suicide — 20% for the total youth population (Alessandrin, 2013).
- 63% of trans adults have had suicidal thoughts or have attempted to commit suicide prior to their transition. The number drops at 3% post-transition (Trans Mental Health Study, 2012).
- Unnecessary and nonconsensual treatments and surgeries are still forced on intersex people in Switzerland, keeping intersex people isolated from each other and withholding important information about their intersex variations are still common practices in medical 'care' — these issues have been condemned by several UNO Committees including the Committee Against Torture (CAT) and the Children Rights Committee (CRC).
- In Switzerland, a woman is killed every two weeks by her (ex)partner (RTSinfo, 2021).
Sadly, the situation is the same in our neighboring European countries. And that is when homosexuality and trans identities are not criminalized. In the world, 71 countries treat consensual homosexual sexual relationships as a crime. 11 countries resort to the death penalty as a punishment for consensual homosexual relationships. 15 countries criminalize trans identities, and many more have implemented laws threatening the safety and physical integrity of trans people (Human Dignity Trust, 2022).
The statistics are horrifying. And they are not just numbers. They are us. They are your friends, your children, your partners, your colleagues, your neighbors. Maybe they are you. They are very real human beings who still cannot be who they are, love who they love and achieve what they dream of. This needs to change — and, in order to achieve that, we need to understand where these norms come from.
Where do gender norms come from and how are they perpetuated: a brief summary of how the system works
At BØWIE, we have identified 3 main reasons as to where these gender norms come from and how they are perpetuated. These roots are often interconnected and work together to establish and reinforce social norms.
Root 1: Lack of education
Generally speaking, there is a lack of education and knowledge on gender-related topics. Queer sexual health is not addressed in school, for instance. In many schools, there is no awareness at all that queer sexual health is a topic that needs to be addressed specifically. But not informing young queer people about their sexual health can have dreadful consequences on their mental and physical health.
Misinformation on sexual health does not happen in a vacuum, its effects ripple across the entire community. It is the reason why poor sexual education has such weighted consequences. It leaves people to rely on myths to make decisions on their sexual health, as well as lead to dangerous stigmas on those who have contracted and live with an STI.
A Quick Refresher On STIs And Why Addressing Queer Sexual Health Is Vital, 2021
Many people around us have no idea what queer people and women go through. Generally speaking, it is hard to apprehend and/or understand the reality of others around us. But it is even harder when said realities are not often represented. Women and queer people do have a story to tell. And our voices deserved to be heard as well.
Root 2: Mainstream representations
White cis valid heterosexual men still make up for the majority of social representations, be it in the media, politics, officials, governments and any other position of authority. They are actively presented as the norm, and depicted in a positive light. On the other side, there is a lack of accurate, diverse, positive representations of people not fitting these norms. This reinforces the idea that there are good/normal people and bad/queer people.
This is slowly changing, as we are seeing more queer people and women in the media. However, these representations still lack diversity, accuracy and agency. For instance, dialogue times are not distributed evenly between men and women in movies; male characters speak way more than female characters (Anderson & Daniels, 2017). Trans people are still mostly depicted as sex workers or dead bodies in fictions — sometimes both. White cis gay men still make up for the majority of queer characters featured in movies (GLAAD, 2018).
We need to do more. We need to do better.
Root 3: Gatekeeping
People tend to reproduce social norms they grew up with. This is a well-known sociological phenomenon called ‘social reproduction’ (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 2021). People reproduce inequalities and adhere to what is presented as the norm.
Some people can become violent trying to defend what they think is the ‘truth’. On top of that, realizing that you do not fit the norms and that you are exploited by them can be rather painful and fearful. Some choose not to face it. But it is necessary that we become aware of the inequalities in the system, in order to break the cycle and change the norms.
On top of these reasons, there are other aggravating factors, like generational gaps, religion or traditions. In other words, cultural norms reinforce social norms and ensure they are followed. But none of the reasons listed above are set in marble: we can change the rules.
How can we build a more inclusive world?
Here, at BØWIE, we want to create a world where everyone can be who they are, love who they love and achieve what they want. Because no one should be harassed because of who they are; no one should not have access to job opportunities because of who they love; no one should be in danger because of their gender identity, gender expression, or sex characteristics. We believe that everyone should be able to become who they want to be, regardless of their identity.
And we believe that you can help.
Pillar 1: Inspire
Our first pillar of actions is to share the stories and experiences of queer and feminist people all around the world, to help redefine the norms.
A recent example is our ‘Stories Of Us’ Podcast (for our French-speaking friends): a podcast where young women and queer people can come and tell their own story, their struggles and their achievements. Because we think that every story is worth telling, and that representations matter. And we firmly believe that every time a woman or a queer kid can express who they are, the world becomes a better place.
We also devote BØWIE’s website and Instagram account to increasing the visibility of queer and feminist creators, and to creating more representation and visibility in mainstream media. We showcase the stories of passionate queer and feminist creators from all around the world, whose ideas and actions show, everyday, that we can collectively harness our creativity, passion and fearlessness to create a society where inclusion is truly lived, not only talked about.
We create a stage for people to be heard, because everyone deserves to be acknowledged. By showcasing amazing queer and feminist projects, we hope to raise awareness, fight stereotypes and, most importantly, inspire action. Our goal: increase the number of queer and feminist creators in Europe and beyond — which leads us to our second pillar.
Pillar 2: Empower
At BØWIE, we provide an accessible support system for all queer and feminist creators out there. The BØWIE Incubator Program offers personal coaching, workshops and classes to activists and entrepreneurs on how to develop their project to help shape a better world, one idea at a time. We also have a dedicated program for artists, which includes representation through the BØWIE Gallery, dedicated coaching, and exhibition opportunities (for more information, you can contact the head of our art program). Our goal: increase the lifetime impact of each creator.
We believe that information and knowledge can transform people and society. And we believe that, by giving people information and representation, they will become active supporters of women and queer people, spreading that knowledge around them. Ultimately, when enough people believe in something, then society starts to shift towards a better, safer, more inclusive world.
Pillar 3: Connect
Last but not least, we act as a connector for the queer and feminist community across geographies, topics, sectors and identities. Through our Incubator Program, queer and feminist entrepreneurs from Switzerland and Europe can meet and learn from each other, connect with international role models and experts to boost their motivation and maximise the impact of their projects. We also organize events that bring together artists from all kinds of backgrounds and reinforce their link with the queer and feminist community. For instance, during Covid-19 lockdowns, we have partnered with the community association Les Levantins, to provide a space where Swiss queer and feminist performance artists could perform on a virtual stage, under the slogan ‘No Culture, No Future’.
Help us improve gender+ inclusion: what can you do to help?
At BØWIE, we know that every voice is precious. There are no small steps when it comes to inducing change. Here are some simple actions that you can take:
- Support your local queer and feminist artists, creators, activists and businesses by buying from them, attending their events or sharing their content on social media.
- Become a changemaker: launch your own queer and feminist project (check out our Incubator Program for activists and entrepreneurs and our Art Program if you are an artist).
- Follow our Instagram account or sign up to our newsletter to discover new queer and feminist creators from all over the globe, and share them with your friends.
- Read our articles and share them to inform those around you.
- Donate to support our programs to help queer and feminist creators.
Together, we can do better. Together, we can create a better, safer, more inclusive world. Together, we will start a (r)evolution. Are you with us? Join the BØWIE Community!
LGBTIQ+ people: an acronym designing lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex people. The ‘+’ at the end is here to remind us that other communities, such as aromantic people and asexual people are part of the acronym too. For more information on the specific terms, see below.
Bisexuality: a romantic and/or sexual orientation, characterizing people attracted to more than one gender.
Pansexuality: a romantic and/or sexual orientation, characterizing people attracted to other individuals, regardless of their gender and sex characteristics.
Transgender people: people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. It is an umbrella category, regrouping non-binary people, trans men and trans women (opposed to cis people).
Non-binary people: people who do not identify with their assigned at birth gender and do not recognize themselves in the social gender binary.
Queer: originally used as an insult (the English word meaning ‘weird’, ‘bizarre’), the term has since then been positively reclaimed. Designing both a political movement and an identity, ‘queer’ refers to what is not part of the cis heteronormativity.
Intersex people: people whose body presents innate sexual characteristics that do not fit or do not entirely fit the categories of ‘female’ and ‘male’ bodies as conceived by medical standards (opposed to dyadic people).
Aromantic people: people who feel no or little romantic attraction to other people. Like many sexual and romantic orientations, aromantism is a spectrum.
Asexual people: people who feel no or little sexual attraction to other people. Like many sexual and romantic orientations, asexuality is a spectrum.
Cisgender people: people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (opposed to trans people).
Dyadic people: people whose innate sexual characteristics fit the categories of ‘female’ and ‘male’ bodies as conceived by medical standards (opposed to intersex people).
If you want to further explore notions of gender(s), here is a helpful illustration. The gender unicorn represents the 5 different aspects linked to gender: gender identity, gender expression, sex characteristics, romantic orientation/attraction and sexual orientation/attractions. All of them are a spectrum and all 5 of them are independent. The gender unicorn is here to remind us that binarity does not exist and that everyone is free to express themselves as they wish and to love who they want. Why not try for yourself and see where you stand on the graph?