ALIGN frequently asked questions about gender norms

The ALIGN project team has compiled answers to commonly-asked questions about the ALIGN project and gender norm change. 

What are gender norms and how do they relate to social norms? 

The terms ‘social norms’ and ‘gender norms’ are becoming more common in development research, policy and practice. While these terms are not new, they have become increasingly used when discussing gender equality. In the past, norms were often ignored as ‘too complex’ to address, part of culture and outside the scope of development activity, or just ‘the way we have always done things’. But now, social norms and gender norms are being actively addressed by international development actors, and in social justice work, including those working on economic empowerment, efforts to end child marriage, improve sexual and reproductive health and enforce human rights law, among  other issues. This growing attention to norms presents an opportunity for innovation to promote gender justice. 

How people understand ‘norms’ differs, depending on their background (see the next section). ALIGN defines social norms as the implicit, informal rules that most people accept and abide by. Social norms are influenced by belief systems, the economic context, and sometimes by perceived rewards and sanctions for adhering to (or not complying with) prevailing norms. Norms are embedded in formal and informal institutions and produced and reproduced through social interaction. They change when sufficient numbers of people choose to act (or are compelled to act) in a different way, thus creating a new norm. For example, norms about pre-marital sex are changing among adolescents in many contexts through peer influence, even if this is not explicitly acknowledged by their elders or in idealised descriptions of gender norms.

Gender norms are a sub-set of social norms that describe how people of a particular gender (and often age) are expected to behave, in a given social context. Gender norms often reflect and reinforce  unequal gender relations, usually to the disadvantage of women and girls and to men and boys who do not conform to the prevailing gender norms. Gender norms are generally understood in a binary way – defining the expected behaviour of people who identify as, or are identified by others as male or female – and generally do not accommodate non-binary or gender-fluid identities. 

How do different disciplines understand social norms and gender norms?

Ben Cislaghi, Karima Manji and Lori Heise (2018) offer a useful summary of different perspectives in Social norms and gender-related harmful practices:

‘Social theorists, including anthropologists, sociologists and feminist scholars, have tended to conceptualise norms as rules of behaviour at the level of culture or society. Gender norms exist in the world, including outside of the individual’s mindset. Through various mechanisms (including socialisation in the family, the media and through other institutions such as schools and religious bodies), gender norms are learnt and can be internalised as well as being represented and enforced through the institutions of society. Other disciplines, such as social psychology, philosophy and behavioural economics, have tended to define social norms as people’s beliefs about what others expect of them. Norms thus exist primarily inside the mind. Both perspectives have value; they differ, however, in how they understand and conceptualise the path to norm change.’

The table (adapted from Cislaghi, Manji and Heise 2018) summarises the differences between these approaches.


Gender norms in the gender literature Social norms in social psychology and behavioural economics
Gender norms are everywhere in the world, embedded in institutions and reproduced by people’s actions. Social norms are in the mind; people’s beliefs are shaped by their experiences of other people’s actions and manifestations of approval and disapproval.
Gender norms are produced and reproduced through people’s actions and enforced by power-holders who benefit from people’s compliance with those norms. Social norms are equilibria that maintain themselves, not necessarily benefiting anyone.
Gender norms are often studied as shaping people’s individual attitudes. Social norms are often studied as diverging from people’s individual attitudes (with a focus on identifying when people agree or disagree with the norm).
People follow the gender norms of their culture, society, or group, the boundaries of which are usually blurred. People follow the social norms of their reference group (the set of people whose views matter to them), the boundaries of which are usually fairly well defined.
Changing gender norms requires changing institutions and power dynamics. Often, this will happen through conflict and renegotiation of the power equilibrium. Changing social norms (at its simplest) requires changing people’s misperceptions of what others in their reference group do and approve of.
Changing gender norms is a political process that leads to equality between women and men. Changing social norms can be a technically driven process that aims to promote greater well-being for women and men.

These approaches are increasingly converging. For example, behavioural science-inspired approaches, which had implicitly assumed that people were free to adopt new norms and behaviour, are now paying increasing attention to power dynamics and the institutions that constrain behaviour and norm change. People working on gender norms are also increasingly taking into account behavioural science insights about how people’s perceptions of what other people think and do influence what people actually think and do.

Other disciplines such as political science also offer important insights around how norms influence what people do. Political scientists consider how ‘norm entrepreneurs’ such as local human rights activists and 'transnational advocacy networks' can leverage opportunities such as political and economic change or the commitments that states sign up to (through international treaties and conventions, for instance) to promote or encourage the adoption of new social norms. ALIGN’s upcoming feature on key thinkers on gender and social norms will discuss these disciplines in more depth, as well as social psychological, anthropological, economic and historical contributions to understanding social norms and gender norms.


How do gender norms change? 

Just as societies and economies change over time, so do gender norms. In any given context, a range of social change processes are usually under way, some of which may help and some of which may hinder norm change. While some gender norms are rooted in religious or cosmological beliefs, or are understood as part of an overall world view, others have shallower foundations, are based on more situational factors, and may be more easily amenable to change.

Social psychological analysis focuses on the individual and group processes that underpin norms and facilitate change. In Social norms and girls’ well-being: linking theory and practice (Appendix A), Vaitla, Taylor, Van Horn and Cislaghi give an overview of how social psychological approaches can help us understand norms and how they change. They explain the insights from various theoretical approaches, including social constructivism, social convention theory, game theory, and social identity theory, among others. These theories help shed light on the relationship and tensions between individual attitudes and behaviour and collectively held norms, as well as how norms can enable societies to function smoothly. For example, norms help eliminate uncertainties, give order to societies and consolidate power hierarchies. They also highlight the role of individuals and social networks in both influencing how people behave (in order to comply with norms) and in spreading new ideas and ways of doing things that can lead to norm change when adopted by enough people.

Sociological and economic analysis has explored the drivers of norm change at two levels: institutions, and the broader society of which they form part. Drivers of norm change include: economic development, urbanisation, the spread of education or technological change, and social or political movements.  They also include changes within religious institutions, local societies and peer and interest group organisations, to name a few institutional forms.  Drivers at these levels typically change the context in which people make decisions about their own life (and livelihood) and their children’s lives, by creating new economic opportunities, exposing people to new information or ideas, or creating new means of communication. In some cases, existing norms can prove highly resistant to change (e.g. where norms about women’s primary place being in the home prevent them taking up growing economic opportunities). In other cases, old norms underpin the development of new norms (e.g. where increased educational opportunities have helped create a norm whereby both girls and boys attend secondary school).

Norms may also change as a result of deliberate efforts (see section below). 

Resistance to norm change
While some norms appear to change with little resistance, others are much more strongly contested. Strong resistance to gender norm change may reflect the influence of deep-seated religious or cosmological world views about how men’s and women’s roles in society, and thus how girls, boys, women and men should behave. Or it can represent reluctance to give up the power held typically by men (or certain groups of men) over others. Resistance is more common where discriminatory gender norms are upheld and promoted by institutions such as the media, schools or religions, or political movements mobilising in defence of ‘tradition’ and against gender equality. 

What practices and policies can be used to challenge harmful gender norms? 

There is growing evidence that some approaches are more effective in challenging harmful gender norms than others. These include approaches that are: 

  • structural (e.g. providing education, health and family planning services; supporting equal property rights or equal pay) – changes that  aim to transform the underlying contexts in which people live, as well as change harmful gender norms directly
  • focused on changing knowledge, attitudes and beliefs (which may be quite fundamental to a culture or social group) and on changing perceptions of what others approve or disapprove of. Both approaches typically use mass media, social media, community dialogue and interactive theatre
  • trying to replace a harmful norm or custom with a beneficial new norm or custom
  • focused on mandating change (e.g. through changing laws and policies).

Initiatives designed to change harmful gender norms target different audiences: some aim to change attitudes and norms among adolescents and young people. The most effective programmes generally also aim to change norms among the people who have influence over adolescents’ lives, such as parents, community leaders, religious leaders or politicians. Evidence suggests that norm change processes are more effective when:

  • people have a chance to discuss new information and ideas, internalise them and adapt them to their own lives and contexts
  • changes are framed in terms of positive gains, and tap into people’s aspirations
  • there is recognition that changing norms can be a slow process, which involves personal as well as institutional transformation
  • there is support available that enables people to continue to practise new behaviour (e.g. when young people have access to secondary education or family planning services or when people can tap into support from others in like-minded social networks). 

Many of these topics are explored in the ALIGN resource hub and will be discussed in ALIGN thematic guides

How do we know if norms are changing?

Changes in gender norms may be readily apparent from changing discourse in the media and in society more broadly. For example, the rise of the #MeToo movement or the movement against gender-based violence in India indicate pressure for a shift in norms about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Norm change may also be inferred from indicators of broader social change, such as reductions in the gender pay gap or increased use of contraception, though a number of factors normally underpin significant changes of this nature. Research to understand whether and why norms are changing may also be needed, particularly where people’s personal attitudes or behaviour appear to be out of step with gender norms. 

To understand whether norms are changing and how, it is helpful to combine qualitative and quantitative research and to take a long-term view (over a generation or more), as norm change processes can be slow. A good example is Naila Kabeer’s analysis of changing gender norms in rural Bangladesh. Taking a long-term view raises an important challenge for evaluations of norm change initiatives, as these usually take place shortly after the end of a project and highlight the need for more follow-up evaluations after a number of years, as some project impacts may only be visible after some years, or after more consistent, long term support for change. 

Some approaches to measuring norm change focus on proxies, such as outcomes or attitudes; others aim to measure norms themselves by examining perceptions of appropriate behaviour in particular circumstances. Visit ALIGN’s data, tools and measurement pages for curated materials on data and tools for measuring norm change.

What is ALIGN’s Community of Practice and how can I get involved?

ALIGN’s Community of Practice is a virtual network of people interested in learning about and promoting equitable gender norms. We encourage users to share ideas and contribute to the platform.  On this digital platform, you can search for resources in the resource hub, read thematic guides and blogs curated by experts, find information about funding opportunities, and view links to other relevant initiatives and web forums. ALIGN also hosts events and webinars, and encourages our community to recommend resources, attend events, apply for funding, and participate in our online discussions and webinars.

You can sign up to our newsletter for up-to-date information on the latest content, opportunities and events. 

We welcome recommendations for content, resources, and offers of contributions. Please contact us with your ideas, comments, questions or recommended resources. 

Where can I find out more about gender norms? 

ALIGN’s resource hub provides an extensive set of recommended resources for learning on gender norms. Here you can view resources by topic, country, author, publisher and date.  Here are some background reading sources that explore social norm and gender norm theory:

Bicchieri, C. and Penn Social Norms Training and Consulting Group (2015) Why do people do what they do? A social norms manual for Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Innocenti Toolkit Guide from the UNICEF Office of Research, Florence, Italy. (Cristina Bicchieri has written two key books on social norms, The grammar of society (2005) and Norms in the wild (2016), which are not currently available open access. This manual summarises and makes accessible much of her thinking.)

Cislaghi, B., Manji, K. and Heise, L. (2018) Social norms and gender-related harmful practices: theory in support of better practice, STRIVE Report 2,  London: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. As described above, this clearly lays out some of the main insights from social psychological and game theory, with examples of norm change programmes.

The Learning Collaborative for Advancing Research and Practice on Normative Change for Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Well-being’s Top 20 resources on social norms is a very helpful guide to key resources on different aspects of social and gender norms.

Mackie, G., Moneti, F., Shakya, H. and Denny, E. (2015) What are social norms? How are they measured? is a valuable piece for considering social norms measurement. It draws on 173 social studies, outlines a number of tools and approaches and proposes principles for social norms measurement.

Marcus, R. and Harper, C., with Brodbeck, S. and Page, E. (2015) Social norms, gender norms and adolescent girls: a brief guide, London: ODI. Drawing on fieldwork from Ethiopia, Nepal, Uganda and Viet Nam, this research and practice note offers a conceptual overview of gender norms and lays out some of the evidence useful for those considering programming in this area. 

Munoz Boudet, A.M., Petesch, P. and Turk, C. with Thumala, A. (2013) On norms and agency: conversations about gender equality with women and men in 20 countries. Washington DC: World Bank is a valuable report synthesising key literature on gender norms and primary multi-country data on various areas of gender relations and demonstrates how women and men’s agency are affected by social and gender norms. It finds that education, employment and a reduction in domestic violence have the greatest effect on increasing women’s agency and that norm change is a critical enabling factor.
Vaitila, B., Taylor, A., Van Horn, J. and Cislaghi, B. (2017)  Social norms and girls’ well-being: linking theory and practice. Washington DC: Data2X provides a useful literature review and case study report on gender norms, focusing on norms related to female genital cutting (FGC ) and child marriage, and offers suggestions for holistic programming to address harmful gender norms. Its appendix provides a detailed overview of social psychological and game theoretic approaches.


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