Can hashtags hack gender norms? Seven Principles in Communicating for Gender Equality


By Felix Zimmermann, Co-ordinator, Development Communication Network (DevCom), OECD Development Centre


With individual actions, we can all help the world achieve gender equality. That is the message behind #GenerationEquality, the theme for International Women’s Day on Sunday, 8 March. While #GenerationEquality is easily tweeted, the 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) [1] tells us that, around the world, discrimination remains deeply entrenched. Many countries have enacted laws to protect women’s rights. But laws can be easier to change than attitudes and behaviours. Shockingly, SIGI tells us that almost 1 in 3 women around the world still believe that spousal violence is sometimes justified. Almost 1 in 2 people think that men make better political leaders than women.

To eradicate harmful practices and achieve gender equality, we need to change attitudes and shift gender norms.[2] The evidence confirms that those of us communicating for development have crucial roles to play. We can expose people to new ideas, encouraging them to reflect on their discriminatory attitudes or emulate positive role models. We can raise awareness about new laws and the benefits of gender equality, such as happiness or economic growth. UK-based think tank ODI shows how media initiatives like the interactive SSMK radio show helped transform the lives of adolescent girls in Nepal.

Meanwhile, digital media have opened up new possibilities for dialogue and interaction. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have shown that social media platforms can galvanise people. However, it is still too early to tell whether online movements like these can translate into lasting changes in social norms. This is especially the case in countries where internet access remains low, particularly for women, or where Western notions of identity – inherent in #MeToo – are hard to translate into local contexts.

So how can we communicate more effectively for gender equality? Based on our DevCom[3] discussions with communications experts and leading campaigners since 2018, here are 7 PRINCIPLES IN COMMUNICATING FOR GENDER EQUALITY.

Principle 1: DO NO HARM!

As we promote online debate, we need to be vigilant about cyberbullying and other forms of online violence against women and girls. We also need to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes with our campaigns. This also means using more gender-inclusive language.


It’s easy to count “likes” on social media. But real impact requires deeper reflection, dialogue and commitment. #HeforShe has generated more than two billion social media conversations and encouraged thousands of men to commit to gender equality. In India, a soap opera has helped change people’s minds about social issues like early marriage.

Principle 3: EMPOWER & ENABLE

Instead of “broadcasting” or “preaching” at people, we should aim to build communities and interactive platforms where people can share their own stories, ask questions and propose answers. For inspiration, check out initiatives like Springster, Voices 4 Change (V4C) or Safecity.

Principle 4: DON’T DO IT ALONE

Whom do our audiences trust most? Who is best at campaigning and marketing? Who has the most powerful stories to tell? If it is not us, then we need partners. There are thousands of collaborators out there, representing all sectors and skill sets. Many will come together at the Generation Equality Forum later this year.


If your target audience is on TikTok, then forget Facebook. If they watch sports, then find an athlete. Our campaigns will have more impact if we begin by listening. We can learn a lot through social media analysis, policy consultations, opinion polls, focus groups and other sources of audience insights.

Principle 6: WIN HEARTS & MINDS

Many campaigns for gender equality are full of emotion, with relatable stories and inspiring role models. To reach government and business leaders, we also need to convey the facts, for example on how gender equality helps achieve their policy and business goals.


Some of the best campaigns are transmedia. They combine online and offline formats, resonating with audiences in different places at different times. In this ODI panel debate, experts from Girl Effect, the Population Foundation of India and BBC Media Action discuss the pros and cons of different formats.


To achieve gender equality and sustainable development, we need to seize the moment. Global commitment to achieve gender equality, embodied in SDG 5, has never been stronger, and the fight to empower women and girls is in the media spotlight. For policy makers and campaigners alike, this means embracing communications as a tool for change.

As International Women’s Day approaches, we are eager to hear from you. Which of our principles do you think is most important and why? Let us know on Twitter and/or Facebook!

Let’s show the world we’re #GenerationEquality!


[1] The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) measures discrimination against women in social institutions across 180 countries.

[2] The UN Statistics Division defines gender norms as the accepted attributes and characteristics of being a woman or a man. They are used as standards and expectations to which women and men should conform and result in gender stereotypes.

[3] OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom), part of the OECD Development Centre, is a global platform promoting better communications for sustainable development and international co-operation.

Thanks to OECD Development Centre interns Christiny Miller and Irene Rihuete for their research for this post.