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Towards a clearer understanding of gender socialization in adolescence

07 Mar 2017
Gender socialization story

(8 March 2017) Outcomes for  women in employment, education, social protection, politics, science and many  other areas of well-being, lag far behind those for men. This inequality often starts in childhood and holds across the life course. In many places in the world, girls are born into a context of inequality and have limited opportunities to change their situation.

The process of ‘gender socialization’ – the way people learn to behave according to internalized gender norms as they become actors in society – and the many factors that influence it, contribute greatly to unequal outcomes for girls and women across the world. Working with the  International Center for Research on Women, UNICEF Innocenti has just published a discussion paper: Gender socialization during adolescence in low- and middle-income countries which provides an overview of the gender socialization process from its basic theoretical foundations to contemporary programme interventions that aim to influence it.

The new discussion paper has been published by UNICEF Innocenti today in honor of  International Women’s Day 2017, which this year carries the theme of Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030 . The aim is to focus on achieving gender equality in the labour force globally, recognizing it as an “ imperative for sustainable development.”

“As a starting point, we wanted to gain a better understanding of gender socialization by writing a well-researched discussion paper to explore theories from key disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology). Our aim was to capture what these disciplines say about gender socialization and its influences and outcomes by developing a socio-ecological framework which could be used to guide programmes and policy-making,” said UNICEF Innocenti's Nikola Balvin, who supervised the project.

Defining gender socialization

The new paper's extensive literature review allowed the authors to develop a comprehensive definition of gender socialization: "a process by which individuals develop, refine and learn to ‘do’ gender through internalizing gender norms and roles as they interact with key agents of socialization, such as their family, social networks and other social institutions.” But just what does this mean in everyday life?

“Gender socialization begins to take place as soon as children are born and sometimes even in utero. In most contexts, parents and family members treat boys and girls differently. They may dress them in different colours or buy them different toys and as they get older, they may punish and reward differently, give them different household duties, provide different opportunities to go to school, socialize with friends and so on. As children get older, the list of people who communicate what constitutes appropriate gender behaviour to them expands beyond the family and includes, peers, teachers, community leaders, public figures and many more,” says Balvin. Children do not remain passive in this process and themselves internalize gender identities and enforce norms and expectations in their interaction with others.

Gender socialization during adolescence

Being the bridge between childhood and adulthood, adolescence is the critical period where many of the outcomes of gender inequality manifest or intensify. Disadvantages experienced by adolescent girls include harmful practices and negative outcomes such as child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, teenage pregnancy, school drop out, and a high prevalence of HIV. (UNICEF, 2014; WHO, 2016)  Adolescence is also a period when along with rapid physical, sexual and brain development, the  shaping of gender beliefs and attitudes intensifies.

UNICEF and others have come to see adolescence as a “second window of opportunity” to redirect negative trajectories from childhood and start new ones that lead to positive outcomes for girls and boys, and later in life women and men. The discussion paper also includes a rapid review of gender socialization interventions aimed at adolescence. It identifies 31 such evaluated programmes and groups the strategies they employed to make recommendations for more holistic programming.

Structural factors and gender socialization

“Programme interventions usually focus on individuals and communities and we wanted to make sure that the bigger picture within which gender socialization is shaped does not get left out,” said Balvin about the paper’s objective to review societal level factors such as migration, fertility, global media and socio-economic development. The paper recognizes the importance of the labour force in achieving more equal gender power relations. In low- and middle-income countries the global economy has resulted in more women entering the work force, shifting women’s work location outside the household, going from unpaid to paid employment and urban migration where women and men may be exposed to more progressive gender norms, etc. However, the opportunities presented by economic growth are usually mediated by patriarchal social forces that negatively impact on women in the work-force: the type of work they do, the work load they may be burdened with, unequal pay and conditions, all making the world of work a significant contributor to unbalanced gender norms and values. 

“The paper spends a lot of time unpacking the macro, meso and micro factors that influence gender socialization during adolescence to provide a comprehensive understanding of the process and guide a more integrated approach to making decisions about programmes and policies to achieve gender equality and… sustainable development.”