Changing mindsets will change the world, when it comes to gender equality

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Women working on a construction site
Most development strategies focus on changing individuals, but making progress on gender equality requires addressing collective norms and mindsets. Copyright: Jason Florio/World Bank

Consider the stories you’ve been told about gender – what it means to be a girl, a boy, a woman, or a man. Perhaps you were told as a young girl not to be too loud, too assertive, or too “bossy.” Perhaps as a young boy you were told not to be so timid, not to cry, or to act tough.

For most of us, gender stories are fundamental to our social identity, often without our knowledge, and can have a dramatic impact on our lives. Identities can reduce uncertainty about who we are; but repressive gender identities can also become prisons, reinforcing harmful norms about appropriate roles, behaviors, and limiting potential for everyone.

Changing mindsets

A new paper developed to inform the World Bank gender strategy examines how we can better integrate an understanding of gender stories, our collective mindsets and norms to address – and, ideally, shift – unequal power relations among women, men, and other sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) groups.  

Gender stories are collective stories, yet most development strategies focus on changing individuals. But changing collective stories and mindsets requires addressing both collective agency and collective norms about gender across class, race and caste groupings.

In order to change collective mindsets – especially about power relations between men and women and people from other SOGI groups – policymakers must be aware of their own gender norms and address the collective agency and gender norms present in social groupings, including families, communities, offices, service providers, markets, schools, and colleges.

How can we change the collective, entrenched ideas about gender identity, patriarchy, power, and gender norms within policy dialogues and development projects to ensure impact? Here are three strategies to help change mindsets. 

1) Consider the story you’re telling, even quantitatively; how you frame facts can reinforce stereotypes.

Research from behavioral science has long demonstrated the impact that framing can have on influencing decisions and outcomes. This extends to the presentation of information, and how we frame statistics and facts in development and policy contexts.

For instance, even today the World Health Organization (WHO) states that one-third of women worldwide have been subjected to violence by an intimate partner. This statistic is quoted worldwide. But what and how statistics are presented reveal our biases about gender. By not mentioning men, and by presenting the statistic in a passive voice, the WHO statistic frames women’s safety as a women’s issue, and violence as a passive happening rather than an aggressive act committed mostly by men.

A better framing—one that doesn’t place the onus on women—is: approximately one third of men in the world commit physical or sexual violence against their intimate women partners. How you present information across a variety of settings can reinforce mindsets, so tread with awareness about your own gender norms.

2) Remember the impact of emotions and power dynamics on outcomes.

The power of emotions on our behavior and decisions is so important that even businesses and academia consider it in developing frameworks for negotiations. Emotional sanctions and rewards— disapproval, anger, punishment or the fear of punishment, the ‘silent treatment,’ withdrawal of praise and acceptance—uphold unequal power dynamics (how we exercise power over others or react to power being exerted over us). We are social creatures, and these emotions keep in place power inequality.

Development projects benefit when they incorporate elements that acknowledge emotions and power. For instance, there is increasing evidence that life-skills training among children and adults, which includes training in mental and emotional habits—such as understanding and managing emotions, non-violent communication, ability to set goals—reduces emotional distress, increases retention of girls in school, reduces teen pregnancy, reduces violence against women, and increases men’s sense of self-worth without engaging in violence. Development policy will likely be more impactful when it considers the whole human being and not just human beings as emotionless automatons.

3) Think collaboratively and collectively; include men and boys in your program design.

Men have been largely absent from most large-scale women’s empowerment approaches. There is now increasing evidence, that when treated with compassion, respect and trained in communication skills, men do shift violent behaviors that they think defines their masculinity.

In one example in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the NGO PROMUNO designed a 15-week intervention in 2013 involving men and their partners, during which men discussed how war and conflict had influenced their definitions of “being a man.” They explored their pain and trauma and learned how to cope with anger and loss using non-violent coping strategies. The intervention had far-reaching impacts on families evident even three years later and spread organically through the community. The majority of both men and women reported that violence at home had stopped altogether. They reported that men were more involved in childcare and that women were more involved in decision making. They reported that women were able to talk about their rape during the war, and that more men accepted the children conceived from rape. Men’s health also improved.

Similarly, one recent World Bank randomized control trial evaluation in Tanzania shows that engaging adolescent boys through soccer in conversations around forced sex, masculinity, and attitudes towards intimate partner violence, reduced the violence experienced by girls in the same communities.  Involving girls separately in a goal-setting activity, and changing mental habits also reduced the violence they experienced even if their partners had not participated in the soccer intervention.

Long-term change will require strong leadership

Leadership at the top of multilateral organizations like the World Bankssential to ensure the value, incentive, and resource shifts needed at all levels to support the achievement of gender equality. Without continuous and long-term championing, the institutional shifts needed will not happen, even though pockets of excellence may emerge. Hence, leaders will need to become adept at explaining the importance of this work to others for it to spread and take root. 


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