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How to criticise a gender norm

This post discusses 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 freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of these 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 reason. Yet it’s not clear which of these norms we really want to change. Presumably, 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. Further, 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 in 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 the gendered nature of a particular 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 – rather than the other way around.
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 the tendency to discount women as knowers may mean that for women 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 effective way 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.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



Equal Suffering: for a just distribution of airplane flight routes


Political Philosophy and Political Change


  1. Hi Anca, this is a fascinating post! I wonder, though, whether (c) can’t have more weight in some cases (and I assume people are interested in the origin of gender norms because they think, rightly or wrongly, that it has an impact on (c)). The argument would be something like this: some forms of behavior are hardwired in male or female nature (or let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are – I tend to think that many more features than we usually assume are culturally imposed, and that with regard to other features, they are broadly distributed among individuals, according to distributions that largely overlap, but may have a different mean and different tails). If this is so, forcing everyone to follow the same norm introduces a kind of injustice, because this is harder for some than for others. So we should probably allow for some flexibility, and acknowledge that differences will arise – at least as long as the overall positions of men and women are not completely unjust.
    I’m not particularly convinced by this argument; it obviously does not hold for all features (if some features lead to morally obnoxious behaviour, individuals have to suppress them, even if this is burdensome to them). But I’d be interested what you’d say to someone who holds such views.

  2. I'm grateful for this question, Lisa. I think that it is wrong to assume that behaviours or abilities that have a 'hardwired' element are difficult to change (and that behaviours or abilities that are 'socially constructed' are easy to change). Myopia may be hardwired, yet it is not difficult or expensive to help people who suffer from it to see properly: you give them glasses. The fact that I speak a particular native language is entirely down to social context, yet it may be extremely difficult – if at all possible – to now teach me to pronounce (even recognise?) certain sounds that other languages have, but not mine. Even if there was a fairly good correlation between abilities and behaviours partly determined by evolution and the costs of changing them, we'd still still need to assess the costs of potential change in each individual case. Normatively, this – not origins – is what matters.

  3. Thanks for the post, Anca. I am interested to follow Lisa's question here. I have some agreement with you that the evolution/culture question may not always track difficulties/costs involved in changes. But I wonder if the former remains relevant for (c) insofar as norms with different origins may allow for or warrant different kinds of response, especially over time. It seems possible that cultural norms may be something that, with the requisite changes, we could try to ensure do not arise in the first place, whereas perhaps evolutionary norms would need to be addressed via 'correctives' designed to provide counterbalance to a norm that does/will arise. For example, if women are more nurturing in virtue of cultural structures, it would appear that we need a policy aimed at neutralising our cultural structures in this regard, whereas if it were an evolutionary phenomenon, it would appear we need a policy consistently offsetting its effects (e.g., appropriately directed education/incentives/pressures). If so, I wonder if the question of distributing costs would re-emerge in the long term (e.g., because over time cultural changes could mean that nobody was any longer bearing costs for these correctives, whereas that would not be the case for evolutionary norms)? Even if not so, I wonder if the point remains of import insofar it would suggest that the question of norm origins would seem relevant in determining ‘what we ought to do’ (which I take to be a normative matter)?

  4. Andrew, thanks! I think you're right that, to the extent to which gender norms follow inborn dispositions, offsetting the norms would be a long-term business which could add to the costs (long-term but not infinitely so, since we're supposed to continuously evolve.)

    But even if origins can impact on costs, it seems to me that our primary concern should be with the normative evaluation of these norms. To the extent to which they undermine individuals' abilities to live up to their duties of justice (as some norms re aggression may be) or even to very important duties of beneficence, I think we should do our best to abolish them independent from their origins (and hence long-term costs.)

    There is another, pragmatic and epistemic, reason, for bypassing – for the time being – the issue of origins: As Mill noted a long time ago, we cannot possibly find out to what extent gender differences are 'inborn', because we don't have societies free from socially-generated gender norms. Hence, we cannot establish whether existing gendered behaviours result from social norms or whether they're 'hard-wired'. Only if and when we'll live in a world free of socially-generated gender norms shall we be in the position to detect any non-socially created gendered differences. And only then will it be possible to engage in a proper cost-benefit analysis of tackling non-socially created gendered differences.

  5. Anca, thanks for the further thoughts. I perhaps should have said that I share your views that the questions of normative evaluation and correction seem particularly pressing questions and that if norms are objectionable, we should work to abolish them (or their effects) whatever their origin. If my question leads anywhere, it might be only to ask whether we need to think about matters in terms of 'primary concerns' – could we not say that both lines of research would be useful, particularly insofar as, if my example is on the right track, answers in one area (norm origin) can help inform answers in the other (how we can and should best address the problems they create)?

  6. Yes Andrew, I think you're right!

  7. Hi Anca, thanks for this inspiring post! I fully agree that people can jointly criticize gender norms, regardless of how they think these norms came to be in the first place.

    The debate between social constructionists and evolutionary psychologists may become relevant here as soon as we consider one particular route to get rid of gender norms, namely, the route of trying to completely eliminate gender-nonsymmetric patterns of occupation and lifestyles altogether. If evolution has indeed shaped average female and male minds differently as to how humans develop in reaction to the cultural and environmental inputs they receive, it may be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to bring about fully gender-symmetric patterns of occupation and lifestyles. In particular, if evolutionary psychologists are right, female and males would probably not be maximally happy if the overall distribution of lifestyles and occupations were the same for both sexes and would not by themselves move towards such a distribution.

    Concerning your “Mill”-point about the impossibility of finding out where observed gender differences in our society have their origin (culture or biology), this may not be quite as hopeless as you suggest. Evolutionists may argue, for example, that with us being a mammal species with a well-documented record of monogamy/mild polygyny in our more recent evolutionary past and a modest average body size difference between the sexes you would expect females to be more interested in direct childcare than males and males more risk-seekingly competitive than females. These extremely rough and unspecific predictions would seem to broadly match the cross-cultural evidence and might be seen as evidence that the sex differences that we find have an at least partially biological basis. If this story is roughly correct and we want to get rid of gender norms, using its insights might in fact be a good way to go.

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