This post is about how to go about criticising gender norms (in a wide sense of the term, including explicit expectations but also things like gender schemas – implicit bias and stereotype threat.) Like many other feminists, I find gender norms bothering because of the undue pressure they put on people to behave in ways that limit their social freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of this inequalities; I will not rehearse here all the counts on which women are worse off than men even in liberal egalitarian democracies that are formally committed to gender justice. (They include political representation, the holding of well-paid, prestigious and interesting jobs, income gaps and various daily, micro-inequalities.) Also – and maybe unlike some feminists – I think that men, too, can be the victims of gender norms – for instance they get conscripted into armies and killed in wars more than women, and probably suffer more injustice than women at the hands of police and the criminal system – especially when gender combines with race, as in the case of black men.

So there’s a clear prima facie case against gender norms: most of us would benefit if they were to disappear, and we’d also have a fairer world for that. Yet it’s not clear which of these norms we really want to change. Presumably not all, or at least not all gender norms are equally bothering and in need of urgent rethinking; also, some may be very difficult if at all possible to change. Also, it is not clear what we want to put instead of the existing gender norms. Take an example: one stereotype has it that women are nurturing and men are competitive. In combination with a competition-based economy and the fact that we as a society don’t reward care generously, this stereotype results in women ending up with less pay and social status and men ending up with less family time and, possibly, fewer caring relationships overall. Now, there are many ways in which we could aim to change this situation into one that is more gender-symmetrical: We could try to change the gender norm of women = care and men = market success into a norm that requires women and men to be equally focussed on market success (and let the care be done by whoever happens to want it, or can’t avoid it). Or we could try to change it into a norm that requires men and women to take equal responsibility for both care and market success. Or we could try to change it into a norm that universally values care in both personal relationships and relationships amongst citizens, and is therefore critical of the very ideal of market success.
Now, some of this discussion has been taking place, but, to my mind, not enough of it. I assume one explanation is that the (academic and popular) debate about gender norms often gets stuck at the question of their origins, as if their origins was overwhelmingly important. Much debate is about the social construction of gender: Some people stress that gender norms are not given but created by social practices and institutions. Others – often seen as unsympathetic to feminism – argue that they are a result of evolution. I’m increasingly of the opinion that whether gender roles are a result of evolution (as evolutionary psychologists often claim) or of social construction (as many others think) has in itself little normative relevance. More important than the origin of a gender norm are, to my mind, the following questions:
(a) Is it desirable to get rid of a particular gender norm?
(b) Does the gender norm in question promote a behaviour that is morally valuable, morally neutral or morally indifferent?
(c) Is it possible to change the norm in question, and at what (moral) cost?
Defenders of evolutionary psychology and of the social construction model can in principle meet on the same answer to (a). If a gender norm puts some people at arbitrary disadvantage then we have a plausible reason for opposing it, whatever it’s origin. If boys come into the world with less ability to express themselves and women with less talent for maths, then maybe we should invest more in boys’ linguistic competence and girl’s mathematical skills.
On (b): Some of the gender norms that regulate women’s and men’s behaviour seem to be, in themselves, morally neutral: for instance, those related to dress, appearance or courtship codes. (This is not to say that it cannot be harmful to aim for some ideals of feminine beauty, or that it is fair to expect women to invest more in their appearance than men in order to be socially acceptable.) There’s no harm in just abolishing them. But other gender norms have moral content. Women are expected to be more nurturing and caring than men. It’s very contested that women do in fact tend to respond to individual needs and relationships better than men. But the norm itself promotes a morally valuable behaviour, which suggests we should universalise, rather than abolish, it.
Yet, moving on to (c), it may be feasible to get to a less gendered society only by universalising the norms associated with male behaviours. Take professional success: Some people claim that, in order to ‘get ahead’ as a woman you need to emulate male behaviour (and over-do it a bit.) And the existence of implicit bias and tendency to discount women as knowers may mean that as a woman it is particularly important to be self-assertive in order to be taken seriously (an interesting discussion here.) If so, as a parent or mentor you may have only one effectiveway to undermine gender norms: to nudge your female child or mentoree to be more self-assertive and, more generally, emphasise that women can and should be just as self-assertive as men. This, I assume, it a genuinely difficult moral choice.
In any case, it seems to me that it’s not worth spending so much energy on discussing the origin of gender norms, but focus instead on whether we want them around and what we should replace them with. I’m curious to find out what you think.