Gender Norms and the Economy: Insights from Social Research Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Rebecca Pearse and Raewyn Connell

The concept of gender norms has played a significant role in feminist economics discussions, especially about gender inequality and what forms of social agency will undermine it. Norms are commonly thought of as constraints on agency. Norms shape women’s occupations, their bargaining position, and so on. Gender equality norms can also be vehicles for change, particularly through social movement mobilization and institutional reform. Rebecca Pearse and Raewyn Connell draw on a range of social science research using a variety of methods, from large-scale surveys to close-focus ethnography, to summarize key insights, which require us to rethink issues about norms. The authors argue that feminist economics needs to take account of the fine-grained research on norms and agency in the other social sciences.

The concept. Norms are shared, social definitions of approved conduct. They state rules or ideals. Gender norms are such definitions applied to groups – mainly, to distinctions between women and men. (But also, to different groups within those categories, for example, “older women.”) Gender norms are part of the everyday weave of social and economic life. They do not stand apart from power, sexuality, or work.

It is quite common to think of gender norms simply as constraints on women’s voice and agency, as fixed “traditions” that hamper reform. Pearse and Connell caution against this view. Norms can be in favor of equality, as well as in favor of men’s privilege. There is constant debate and change in the normative realm. Gender norms are dynamic and multi-dimensional.

Consensus? When examining gender research, it soon becomes clear that norms are contested and often coexist with each other in contradictory ways. An appearance of consensus about gender norms may not be reflected in social practice! Contradictory gender norms often coexist in the same community. Gender norms can be stated abstractly, as they are in opinion-poll items, and this is liable to exaggerate consensus. But what really matters for the economy is the messy way norms are materialized in social life.

How norms persist. Pearse and Connell argue that we cannot explain how gender norms are realized, or how they persist, by assuming an automatic process of “socialization.” Much of gender theory, especially in the global North, does assume successful socialization. For instance men’s behavior is often explained as the internalization of a traditional male role. But there are strong reasons to question such models. There are likely to be multiple norms of masculinity. Even when correctly learned, norms are not faithfully practiced. Socialization models do not capture the contradictory and often turbulent processes of human growth. It is clear that children do receive norms from the adult world, but research shows they do not do this passively. Children are active in exploring norms, reproducing and remaking norms, and enforcing them among each other by ridicule, for instance.

Change in norms. Norms change both in response to broad socioeconomic changes and as a result of the dynamics of gender relations themselves. Contradictions in gender norms can be a source of change. The restructuring of gender orders at different historical moments gives scope for activism – and the collective agency of feminist activism has been vital in securing social change. Socialization and “social reproduction” models underestimate women’s and men’s agency, that is, their capacity to act intentionally and collectively to shape their world (under social constraints, including poverty and violence).

The rich literature on gender norms supports some, but not all, approaches in feminist economics. It indicates new possibilities for the field. Capturing the complex dynamics of change in economic life is a multidisciplinary task. Feminist economics can also contribute to other fields, for instance, by testing the feasibility of efforts to foster gender equality norms.

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