The Water We Swim In: A Conversation on Gender Norms
Decades of research have shown that rigid gender norms—the narrow and often invisible rules defining masculinity and femininity that we ingest and follow—adversely affect social, emotional, educational, health, and economic outcomes for people and societies. Despite the data, however, well-intentioned work by philanthropists, nonprofits, governments, and others to combat social ills and systemic inequities too often proceeds without a gender lens.
Enter Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of TrueChild, whose life’s work is to spur greater awareness, dialogue, and action through a more integrated (truly “intersectional”) approach to challenging entrenched gender norms. Wilchins connected with PFS communications specialist, Laura Bradley Davis, to discuss TrueChild’s work and the proven approaches they’re bringing to foundations, NGOs, and community-based nonprofits. What follows is an edited distillation of their riveting conversation
Let’s start with the obvious. Why does gender matter?
Opportunity in America continues to be structured by race and gender. What do we mean by “gender” here? It’s a bit of a three-headed hydra: there’s gender as sex, as in boy/girl, male/female; gender as gender identity, such as transgender; and then there are gender norms—these socially-constructed ideals, scripts, and expectations we all have for how to be masculine or feminine. If we can embed gender awareness in the social sector, we can begin to deconstruct the harmful gender stereotypes, expectations, and pressures that—along with race—continue to sustain structural inequity.
Talk a bit about TrueChild and what you do.
TrueChild is a network of experts and social science researchers dedicated to helping funders, policymakers, and nonprofits adopt intersectional approaches that connect and deconstruct limiting forces keyed to race, class, and gender. What we know is that challenging and ultimately changing harmful codes of masculinity and femininity is key to improving life outcomes across issue areas—from health to education, domestic violence, economic empowerment, criminal justice reform, and climate justice—especially among at-risk adolescents and teens. The problem is that too often, foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies design programs, policies, and funding priorities that fail to specifically address harmful gender norms.
Can you define “gender norms”?
Kids—and adults—live in a gender context. Gender norms are like invisible guard rails; you don’t see them, but they shape behavior, beliefs, and opportunities. Norms often show up as a kind of negative power, as absence rather than presence: doors that just didn’t open, choices that couldn’t be made, opportunities that just seemed out of reach. For anyone who questions the power of norms, consider a silly example like burping out loud. In some cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable, but not in ours. It’s completely harmless, but for most people, it’s simply not normal behavior. If an adult is too afraid to burp in public and challenge a norm, what do you think it’s like for a 12-year old girl to go against the behaviors, ideas, or dress code prescribed as “girl appropriate”? Or consider how a precept as reflexive as “big boys don’t cry” can be a painfully limiting aspect of doing “boyhood” in the right way. This the power of social norms: they may be invisible, but we’re constantly navigating them in every social situation and they’re very hard to transgress.
Considering they’re so influential, why do you think gender norms are underappreciated as a factor in so many issue areas?
I think we’re experiencing a long-overdue moment of national focus on racial justice. But you can’t really discuss race without discussing gender. Because racial bias is always raced, and racial bias is always gendered. This is the heart of what we call “intersectionality.” Many funders are doing real and important work to deepen their engagement with racial equity; and now, we need to help them do the same with gender. Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to think about gender, and it can be hard to fully grasp new ideas just by reading about them. I find when one mentions gender in a policy or program context, people think of “trans,” and the gender nonconformity part of it is important. But when we silo gender work as something just for transgender individuals or women and girls, we lose how rigid gender norms also limit or hurt the other 90% of people who generally conform to expectations of masculinity or femininity. And even when people “get it” intellectually, when it comes to programmatic work in foundations, the gender lens often gets lost.
As you describe this, I’m reminded of the anecdote1 about the two young fish who are swimming along and meet an older fish who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on until one looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?” The point being, gender norms are like the water, so ubiquitous to the human experience that they’re difficult to see and talk about.
That’s a great story, and it picks up on something really important. I think of race as a “perceptual given”—something you can actually see—but gender expectations are attitudes, they’re below the surface. So even though we’re navigating them all the time, they’re harder for people to talk about. The funny thing is, everyone already knows pretty much everything about gender norms that we cover in our trainings because they made it through middle school, which is the time when most of us get an in-depth education on how society expects us to “do” masculine or feminine. We just haven’t learned to examine this because, well, it’s the water we swim in! And like water, it’s invisible.
So, just like I’m doing with you and PFS, we have to reach out and engage people. TrueChild does lots of talks, brown bag lunches, open conversations—all to open a dialogue. I’m a great believer in starting conversations. Because so much of the discourse around gender norms circulates endlessly in academic silos without emerging to impact the real-world priorities and problems every progressive funder wrestles with solving, particularly in the U.S. But once the door is open, foundations tend to quickly see the need, and many that we work with have made gender a central pillar of their equity model. And fortunately, most youth-serving nonprofits are already well aware of the need, even if they haven’t put a name to it yet.
In your experience, what’s the most effective way to address rigid gender norms?
The “most effective way” really depends on the funder, because each has unique needs, history, board priorities, and so forth. We try to meet organizations wherever they are in their equity journey and help them go to the next level. TrueChild doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all method—it’s more like fashioning a swiss army knife of tools to give organizations what they want and need, and we work this out together. This can include youth-facing materials, curricula, or professional-facing collateral. For example, we’ve created a curriculum that improves STEM outcomes by teaching girls to think critically about feminine norms. We’re completing a similar one to address boys’ beliefs that reading is nerdy or less manly than sports. Often, we start by doing an anonymous survey to determine what people within an organization really think, or do an assessment of the organization’s Equity Footprint. Once we get to know them, we can take action to promote change, whether internally, in an organization’s culture or policies, or externally, on websites and external communications and programs. For placed-based nonprofits, the approach has to be both top-down and bottom-up, so we’re engaging management as well as the youth they’re serving. At TrueChild, we develop the content and then train and empower others to use it.
What sectors or groups have been the most receptive?
Advancing this kind of work is like a wave that breaks on the shore at different times. TrueChild started out working with a lot with the women’s foundations but it’s grown quickly and now we’re engaged with a range of organizations at the local and national levels. Our partners include donors and funders, public agencies, school districts, and nonprofits, from the CDC to the United Way, dozens of foundations, and even a Catholic Diocese.
How can philanthropists bring a more comprehensive gender lens to grantmaking?
It starts with dialogue and conversations. It’s important for funders to “walk the walk” themselves before they try to “talk the talk” with grantees. We encourage funders to get training, so they feel confident and comfortable. It doesn’t require having a specific focus on gender identity or even equity. This work is relevant to mental health, criminal justice, education, climate change—really, every issue area. Take climate, for example. We know climate change disproportionately affects women, so gender equity has to be part of the solution. Research has also shown how gender norms affect green behaviors; for instance, men tend to view recycling as “girlie” or unmanly. Or consider the influence of gender norms during the pandemic. The New York Times just published a powerful story about how stereotypes of masculinity have kept many men from taking common-sense health precautions. Challenging a gender norm, albeit difficult, can literally be a matter of life and death.
Several PFS clients focus their philanthropy in single-issue areas, like childhood social-emotional health. How does working with gender norms fit with that kind of grantmaking?
As I said, organizations don’t need to have equity as a funding priority to do this work. I haven’t met an organization that funds nonprofits working with youth that doesn’t want to see better outcomes and addressing gender norms is a powerful tool toward that end—it translates directly into a higher return on any philanthropic investment. Childhood social-emotional health is a perfect example. Kids start policing gender by early third grade with taunting and teasing. A majority of girls are already dieting by third grade. Think about the central social learning task for every adolescent: for boys, it’s to be seen as masculine and for girls, to be seen as feminine, and yet we don’t talk about the intricate connections between those norms and social and emotional intelligence. I have yet to see an SEL curriculum that really examines or challenges the ways these gender constructs relate to social-emotional learning. How can we teach young people emotional intelligence without talking about gender? It’s this huge issue hiding in plain sight.
How does gender relate to structural inequality?
Gender norms never impact behavior in isolation; they’re always interacting with other factors like race, sex, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, and so forth. If we want a more just, fair world and we know from the research that race, class, and gender all shape outcomes, gender simply must be considered. To cite just one example, gender norms are deeply enmeshed in exactly the kinds of brutality towards communities of color that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. A raft of studies has now documented in detail the serious results when the hyper-masculine culture of policing manifests in their interactions with civilians. We have tools that help groups deepen their racial justice engagement by infusing gender equity into the work.
Your latest book, Gender Norms & Intersectionality: Connecting Race, Class, and Gender was written for a lay audience. How how is it being used?
Gender Norms & Intersectionality was an attempt to translate thirty years of research on issues like health, education, and economic empowerment and make it accessible to funders, policymakers, NGOs, community activists, and nonprofits who can really use it. It was written in high school English without academic jargon. I think of it more as a reference book; an intro to gender norms 101 that’s available to anyone.
Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of TrueChild, is a researcher, activist, and author of five books on gender theory and politics.
Laura Bradley Davis, principal of LBD Consulting, partners with leaders and teams in the arts, philanthropy, education, and social change sectors to catalyze internal effectiveness and external impact.
1 Source: David Foster Wallace
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