How would you define a “good boy” or a “good girl”? Would he help with chores around the house? Would she earn good grades in school?
In a study to learn more about how gender norms influence people’s lives today, the World Bank asked more than 4,000 men, women, boys, and girls from 20 countries about their beliefs about gender and how gender norms shape their everyday lives and decisions. The study  put them into single-sex focus groups so the participants could challenge one another’s ideas and build on new ideas.
One question that went to the youngest focus groups – boys and girls ages 12-17 from Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, India, Fiji, Bhutan, North Sudan, Yemen, and West Bank and Gaza – was this: What traits make a “good boy” or a “good girl”?
The answers show how beliefs about gender roles take root at a young age. But they also show how once-strict gender roles are starting to relax.
In Thimphu, Bhutan, a focus group of girls described the “good girl” along traditional lines: “a very reliable daughter; she can take care of the house and at the same time behave well outside, too.” In rural India, a group of boys described the “good girl” as religious, soft-spoken, obedient, and able to do all the domestic chores under her mother’s supervision.
In Suva, Fiji, girls said a “good boy” would be useful around the house. In many focus groups, boys were described as helping around the house more than they had just a few decades ago. A woman in a focus group in rural Indonesia said, “In the past, boys weren’t even allowed to go into the kitchen; now boys are told to help in the kitchen.”
What didn’t the teenagers like to see? Promiscuity, violence, disrespectful behavior, smoking, drinking, and drugs were all linked to “bad girls” or “bad boys”.
The focus groups also showed how teenagers’ beliefs about gender and dreams for the future are changing in these countries.
More than 60% of the girls, rural and urban, hoped to earn college degrees – compared to 40% of the boys. “Education is a girl’s best weapon to face the world,” said one girl from Rafah, West Bank and Gaza. She’s right. The study reflected how education is changing perceptions of women and their expectations of themselves. Among the boys, some questioned the value of education when there were no jobs.
Women across the study described becoming more empowered through work and leadership roles, and wanting more for their daughters. In Burkina Faso, women described wanting their daughters to be more courageous and less passive. “They must fight more for themselves and be more daring,” one said.
You can read more quotes and opinions about gender roles in the report .
On March 6, you can join the report’s authors in a live chat about empowerment, along with the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development and the director of its gender department. Send in your questions, experiences, and ideas about empowerment now and join the chat live at 11 a.m. EST.