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Why developing more measures of social and gender norms really matters for gender equality

03 Mar 2021
Why developing more measures of social and gender norms really matters for gender equality

By Supriya Sthapit

Supriya Sthapit recently completed an internship at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. In this blog, Supriya reflects on her work reviewing existing gender equality measures on social and gender norms, and how they can be used to strengthen research and evaluation studies, including on gender equality and social protection.
In August 2020, I joined the Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Social Protection (GRASSP) Team at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti as a research intern. Working with my colleagues Elena Camilletti and Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, we mapped and reviewed available measures of gender equality outcomes, including ones on social and gender norms across the life course used or tested in research and evaluations in low- and middle-income countries.

Why measure social and gender norms?

In recent years, there has been growing interest in social and gender norms (Box 1 provides definitions), in part due to their role in shaping gender equality outcomes. Depending on how restrictive or progressive these norms are, they can either foster positive social transformation or hinder progress.From a social protection perspective, prevailing norms can influence the design, implementation, and outcomes of programmes (see ALIGN and GRASSP Think Pieces). For instance, if the design of conditional cash transfer programmes is informed by norms around family and care expecting women to comply with conditionalities, they may risk increasing their existing care and domestic work, especially if appropriate services and infrastructures are not in place.Efforts are underway globally to better understand social and gender norms and their influence on gender equality outcomes (see recent works by EMERGE on Gender Norms and Social Norms, OXFAM, and UNICEF). However, more methodological investments are needed to appropriately measure norms, which must be sensitive to different ages and stages in the life course. This research in GRASSP contributes to these global efforts.


Using existing repositories of measures from EMERGE and Population Council (Gender and Power Metrics), as well as additional surveys and evaluations[1], the measures were mapped and assessed to identify whether they:
  1. align with the underlying theories on empowerment and norms
  2. cover a range of thematic areas in the GRASSP conceptual framework, such as health
  3. cover different life course stages from childhood to old age, and
  4. cover different countries and regions.
while journal articles and research reports claim to measure norms, they in fact measure attitudes

Some Preliminary Findings

Most of the existing measures of gender equality are on attitudes - only few focus on social and gender norms. So far, 419 measures of gender equality have been reviewed. Of these, only 31 were found to be on social and gender norms. This is significantly lower than 226 measures found on attitudes and perceptions. Upon further review, while journal articles and research reports claim to measure norms, they in fact measure attitudes. This is in line with findings from ALIGN on gender norms, and suggests the need for a more careful conceptualization and operationalization of the concepts of norms and attitudes.Only a few of the thirty-one measures of social and gender norms are reported to be reliable. Of the twenty-three measures on norms that could be tested for reliability, nine of these report at least one measure of reliability, such as internal consistency. Of those, only seven had Cronbach alphas of more than 0.80. For the remaining 14 measures, journal articles reviewed did not report information around their reliability. This calls for greater attention to validity and reliability, and rigor, by researchers when developing or employing measures in research and evaluations.Most of the thirty-one measures on social and gender norms focus on empirical expectations. Twenty-one of these measures on norms focus on empirical expectations (see Graph 1 below for the breakdown on the number of questionnaire items). For instance, a 2019 paper drawing on findings from GAGE Bangladesh and Ethiopia baseline surveys includes a measure on “Community-Level Restrictive Gender Norms”. This assesses empirical expectations related to gender and education by asking respondents to agree or disagree with statements such as "Adolescent girls in my community are more likely to be out of school than adolescent boys".A further 13 measures are on normative expectations. For example, a South Africa survey  contains a measure on "Norms about Partner Violence Scale", asking respondents to agree or disagree with the statement "Most people in community think a boy can assault a girl".Finally, two measures were found to assess what actions are taken if individuals transgress prevailing norms in their communities (sanctions). Additionally, one measure was found on the nature and influence of the reference group (who and how individuals who matter to a person influence his/her decisions).Most of the thirty-one measures on social and gender norms are on adulthood From a life-course perspective, 28 measures on norms focus on adulthood (18-59 years). This is in line with the number of measures of attitudes, which overwhelmingly focus on this stage of the life course. A further six measures focus on adolescence (10-17 years), and two measures focus on old age (60 onwards)[2]. No measures were found on early childhood (up to 5 years) and ‘middle’ childhood (5-9 years). Finally, across life course stages, most questionnaire items focused on empirical expectations, followed by normative expectations (see Graph 2).Although there are sufficient measures on adulthood which can be utilized to learn about their norms, understanding the prevalence of norms in other stages of the life course is equally crucial. As studies suggest that children start to learn about social and gender norms from an early age, and to internalize them, especially during their adolescence, future research could develop and test measures on norms to be administered to children and adolescents. These measures can help understand the distribution of norms in certain populations, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions on changing these norms, and assess if and how such norms moderate the effectiveness of interventions on other outcomes.

What’s Next?

In completing this work, a visual database and accompanying briefs will be published, presenting additional findings by geographical coverage and gender equality outcome areas. The study will also analyze measures specifically employed in research and evaluations of social protection programmes, to understand how gender equality concepts are operationalized. As GRASSP progresses, these ‘best practice’ measures will inform the development of survey instruments for primary research, and feed into the production of Monitoring and Evaluation guidelines. So, stay tuned!Supriya Sthapit is a public health undergraduate from Nepal who joined the UNICEF Innocenti as an intern in August 2020 to work with the GRASSP team. She has been working in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights for past four years. For further information on UNICEF Innocenti’s FCDO-funded GRASSP project, click here. 
[1] These include surveys from Young Lives, the Transfer Project, and measures include in J-PAL Women’s Economic Empowerment.
[2] For the measures on social and gender norms across the life-course, the same measure may have been used across more than one stages of life course. Hence, when we add the number of measures on social and gender norms across each stage of life course, it does not equal to the total number of measures on social and gender norms.