How gender norms and stereotypes are damaging our health and ability to live free from violence

by Women’s Agenda
Thursday 2 February 2023

Close up of Emma Fulu

Gender norms and stereotypes are everywhere, impacting us from the earliest of ages right through life.

From the gifts we give our children, to the main characters featured in picture books, and what we are expected to do in the home and at work as adults – the stereotypes and norms we are subjected to are pervasive. 

As Executive Director of The Equality Institute, Dr Emma Fulu explains, we’re all affected by these norms regardless of our gender identity and they can be extremely harmful – leading to serious negative health outcomes and significant gender inequality. 

In fact, a recent study from Deloitte estimated we could unlock $128 billion in the Australian economy if we broke down our most entrenched gender norms. 

“I would argue that everyone experiences negative outcomes from harmful gender norms because they basically restrict what society deems acceptable for all people based on their gender or biological sex,” Dr Fulu, a global expert on violence against women, says. 

It is often suggested that men should not show emotions or not seek help, or they need to be tough and dominant, or they need to demonstrate their heterosexual performance. All these things then have very serious negative health consequences. 

“We know men have high rates of suicidality in Australia. That is in part because we have gender norms that restrict men's ability to seek help and to show emotion.”

Gender norms place significant constraints on women too, Dr Fulu explains, whether that's the way they dress or the jobs they’re “supposed” to do or their roles as parents. 

“These norms are also very harmful to people who identify as non-binary because the very nature of gender norms is they want to squeeze us into the binary box, right?” she says.

Frighteningly, Dr Fulu makes clear a rigid adherence to gender stereotypes and gender norms is one of the primary underlying drivers of violence against women. 

“It’s these ideas that to be a man you need to be tough or that women shouldn't be in certain jobs,” she says. “They may seem in some ways far removed from gender-based violence, but they’re not.”

“It’s those norms that create the environment of sexism and devaluing women and ideas of manhood that lead to violence against women.”

This link between harmful gender norms and violence against women is important to acknowledge, because it can inform how we can prevent gendered violence from occurring in the first place. 

“We know that there are high rates of violence against women in society and the global average is one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime,” Dr Fulu says. 

“Approximately 50,000 women and girls are killed every year by someone in their own family. We also know that since the outbreak of COVID, all forms of violence against women have only gotten worse.”

Evidence suggests in countries where there is less adherence to rigid gender stereotypes, there is also greater gender equality and lower rates of violence.

“When we look at an individual, those who hold more rigid gender attitudes are more likely to perpetrate violence,” she says. “It happens at both an individual and a society level – that those norms directly influence rates of violence.”

So how do we recognise gender norms? And what can we do about them?
Gender norms are not static, they change over time and across cultures, and they can often be hard to see because they’re so normalised. 

“In a way, gender stereotypes and norms are invisible. We live with them and are born into them,” Dr Fulu explains. “But I do think we are starting to see them change.”

“If you imagine back to 50 years ago, women would have been unseen in many industries, and they were basically excluded from the workforce once they got married.

Norms like that are now starting to unravel, but they are also still there in many aspects of life.

In Australia, for example, women do much more of the unpaid care work. Women are much more likely to take parental leave and be the primary carers of children. We also have a very gender segregated workforce in Australia and female-dominated industries tend to earn less.

Even though we have a long way to go, there is some significant progress being made and our education on these topics is becoming much better. 

In fact, education is the key to undoing our adherence to strict norms. Education is key at all levels, and the earlier it starts, the better.

“Gender norms get set early in childhood, and by the time you're an early teenager, gender norms are very well established,” Dr Fulu says. “We need to be working in early childhood development, and early childhood education to make sure that those harmful norms aren't being reinforced there.”

What is the Equality Institute working on?
In 2023, the Equality Institute, in partnership with QUT and Accountability Matters Project, will be starting a national study on the perpetration of violence, that will in part look at the underlying attitudes and norms that drive violence. 

Dr Fulu says the research will be important in helping us recognise these underlying gender norms, and what strategies actually work to prevent violence. 

The Institute is also part of a global program called What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls, which includes a number of studies across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to better understand what types of strategies work in changing harmful social and gender norms at community, regional and national levels.