Efforts for gender equality often encourage people to challenge gender norms through individual behavioural changes. But do these individual changes really have an effect on transforming gender inequality? To investigate this question, this study used interviews and participant observation during a gender sensitization and intimate partner violence prevention program in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The program aimed to challenge and change existing gender hierarchy for participants through group discussions. The study found that while the program changed individuals’ daily division of labour – i.e., men did more domestic tasks that were previously thought to be women’s work – men still adhered to and reinforced gender norms by insisting on maintaining control over these changes and their household. Changing their individual behaviour did little to undermine gender hierarchy. This research suggests that at least in the short-term, changing individuals’ behaviours may be unlikely to transform norms that subordinate women.
While scholars agree that people’s everyday actions construct gender–such as women doing domestic work and men doing paid labour–it is uncertain whether changing these actions also change long-standing gender norms. For example, is there an effect of men taking on more childcare responsibility on gender hierarchy? This study investigated whether changes to gender social norms result from changing gendered behaviour.
The research was carried out in 14 communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where gender roles in the household are strictly defined: men are the head of household and provide income while women care for children and do housework. The study took place in concurrence with an international development program that comprised of 16 weeks of discussion groups with 700 men. The program aimed to erode unequal power relations and gender hierarchy, such as through reducing intimate partner violence and shifting to gender equitable behaviour in households. Data for the study was collected through in-depth interviews and participant observation with program participants across six months.
The program caused men to change their behaviours at home and become more committed to the idea of equally sharing labour. Throughout the program they took on more traditionally women’s work, such as fetching water, taking care of children, and sweeping. These were consequential changes for women that helped unburden them of some domestic work.
However, men participants still resisted changing gender hierarchy. In fact, they undermined the transformative potential of their behaviour by controlling their behavioural changes and their meaning. For example, men agreed to changing the division of labour in their household, but did not believe that women should be able to share power as a head of the household. They insisted that they, and not women, would decide when and how they would contribute to household tasks. The men also perceived their behavioural changes as assisting women when they needed help, rather than sharing responsibility with them. Therefore, women remained in a subordinate role in their households, and unequal power relations did not change.
Men’s refusal to change gender norms may have been protective, in case they were socially penalized for these changes. Since the study took place during the program implementation, it could be that the transformation of their belief in gender hierarchy will only play out in the long-term.
Changing gendered behaviour is important but is not a full solution to changing gender hierarchy – In this study, men made meaningful changes in their behaviours, but their perceptions about gender did not change, and instead they continued to reproduce the existing hierarchy. This suggests that while transforming individual behaviours can help reduce instances of gender inequality, it does not necessarily change unequal systems. Similarly, organizations should not assume that behavioural change of employees or leaders will automatically create more gender-equal environments.
Changing gender inequality requires long-term and structural changes involving people of all genders– To erode gender hierarchy, behavioural change likely needs to occur alongside other measures that transform social norms, such as education about gender equality from a young age, and public and organizational policies that facilitate equality (such as universal childcare and workplace flexibility). In addition, it is important that people of all genders are included in such processes so that learning and transformation occurs holistically.
Pierotti, R. S., Lake, M. and Lewis, C (2018). Equality on His Terms: Doing and Undoing Gender through Men’s Discussion Groups. Gender & Society 32(4): 540-562. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121418782185
Research brief prepared by: CARMINA RAVANERA