What’s normal? Tackling the norms that hinder gender equality

By Bathylle Missika, Head of Division – Networks, Partnerships and Gender and Gabrielle Naumann-Woleske, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

What do you consider ‘normal’? Is it normal that men earn more than women and make up the majority of parliamentarians, managers, presidents and CEOs? Is it normal that most men do less than 50% of unpaid care and domestic work and yet make the most important financial decisions at home?  What we think is normal is not only a reflection of what is typical or standard, but also implies that it is what we consider to be appropriate or acceptable. When it comes to men and women’s roles in society, our preconceived ideas of what is ‘’normal’’ might be reinforcing a system where men hold the power and women are excluded. In other words, a system that keeps us from achieving gender equality. To break these barriers, we need to question and measure these norms, including masculine norms, for a transformation based on evidence and data, rather than assumptions and stereotypes.

Is it normal that most leaders in politics and business are men? In 2021, men represented 75% of parliamentarians and, in 2019, more than 65% of managers worldwide. In 2020, many of us seemed to believe that this was normal; 41% of World Values Survey respondents declared that men make better political leaders than women do, while 36% stated that men make better business executives. The belief that men are better leaders than women may be based, at least in part, on stereotypes about men and women. For example in 2020, IPSOS respondents reported that leadership is a trait they associate more so with men than with women. In China for instance, 45% of respondents reported associating leadership more with men, while only 3% said they associate the trait more so with women. Despite the growing numbers of women leaders, this idea continues to be reiterated throughout society. It drives discrimination at work, especially when it comes to hiring and promotions, and in politics, where women face discriminatory media attention, harassment and even violence. This discrimination can also deter women from entering politics in the first place, which, in turn, perpetuates the view that men are leaders in society. 

Is it normal that there are jobs we consider better suited for men? Data on the gender composition of occupations reveals significant gender segregation, for example in 2020, 97% of builders and related trade workers were men while 88% of personal care workers were women. Not only does the data reveal that women and men work in different jobs, but it attests to gendered understandings of jobs. For example, builders or trade workers are often viewed as doing a “manly job” due to the common assumption that the physical strength required for these jobs is a manly attribute.  Meanwhile to be a care worker or health professional one might have to be caring and attentive to others—traits normally viewed as feminine. These beliefs about gender and job aptitude might seem normal, and even natural; however, it is increasingly clear that they underlie gender-based discrimination in the labour market, including discrimination in the law. The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) shows that in 2019, 88 countries had legal frameworks prohibiting women from entering certain professions. Moreover, the gender segregation in the labour force that these norms promote is one of the important factors contributing to the gender pay gap.  

Is it normal that men earn more money than women? In 2017, the global gender pay gap was still at 22%, and progress has been extremely slow. For example, between 2017 and 2019, the gender pay gap narrowed in only six of the nineteen G20 countries. Not only does the gender pay gap exist in practice, but beliefs about men and women’s roles in society promote its perpetuation. Indeed, masculine norms include the expectation that men work for pay and prioritise their jobs, while societies often continue to view women’s income as supplementary to the household. These beliefs about what’s normal for men and women in the world of work can lead women to unconsciously limit themselves and their aspirations and drive them to make the conscious decision not to negotiate their pay or ask for a raise. Meanwhile they may have the opposite effect among men, encouraging them to ask for raises and negotiate their pay. Moreover, decision-makers in the workplace also perpetuate these beliefs that form part of the conscious and unconscious biases informing decisions on pay, hiring and promotions.

To achieve gender equality we need to understand and measure the social norms, including masculine norms, that continue to drive gender inequality today. While social norms have gained greater attention—data on masculine norms are infrequently and unevenly available. In order to understand what societies believe to be normal and acceptable, and whether these ideas are changing, we need to collect comparable data over time to assess where masculinities are restrictive or becoming more gender-equitable. Only once we start unpacking what it means to “be a man” and using evidence and data instead of stereotypes and anecdotes, can we challenge the status quo and achieve gender equality in the private and public spheres. That should be the new normal.