What Is a Gender Norm?

Why is the color blue designated for boys and pink for girls? The color choices have to do with cultural gender norms. The term "gender" refers to the social differences between males and females, which is different from "sex," which refers to whether someone is biologically male or female. Gender norms define what society considers male and female behavior, and it leads to the formation of gender roles, which are the roles males and females are expected to take in society. These gender roles and norms have changed significantly over the years and continue to evolve.

Definition

A "gender norm" is a behavior or attribute that society attributes to a particular sex. Gender norms change from culture to culture and throughout history, since they're based on the expectations of societies that are consistently evolving. Anything society attributes to a particular gender to can be considered a gender norm. Concepts as simple as the colors boys and girls typically wear are gender norms; people usually consider pink to be a girl's color, while blue is for boys. Until the turn of the 20th century, pink was a color reserved for male children and blue was assigned to girls showing that gender norms change over time even in apparel. Gender norms in the past have been deciding factors in the type of work someone can do. For example, in the early 1900s in the U.S., most women didn't work and were expected to take care of the family from the home while men farmed or worked in industrial settings. Until the 1960s, most middle class women had similar daily lives as the gender norm of the time. As of 2006, the number of stay-at-home fathers has been rising in the U.S., a trend that challenges the gender role for the male of the household to be the "breadwinner." Despite this, the stay-at-home father is still not a traditional gender role which ties into the gradual changes in gender norms beginning in the mid-20th century.

Formation

When you see a baby in a pink dress, there may be the assumption it is therefore a girl. Gender roles start forming early in development through a child's interactions with parents, teachers, interactions in their surroundings and their peers. A boy might be given toys designated as a male-gender toy like trucks or toy guns while girls might receive princess toys or dolls. Regarding a child's surroundings, parents might choose to decorate their baby's rooms emphasizing the same set gender roles. Once a gender role is established, children who attempt to deviate from it may experience peer pressure and even bullying. This behavior may further reinforce the gender norm that is deemed acceptable, even if the child wants to personally choose a different gender role path.

Controversy

Critics of gender norms say they put pressure on males and females to behave a certain way in the home. Women have been gender-normed to do more cleaning and not work outside of the home in past generations. Jobs in more physical settings have been assigned to men within the traditional gender roles based on a perceived need for masculine strength, i.e. working in a construction zone. Some people are also uncomfortable with the gender role society places on them because of their sex. A boy who has a pink bike or who is taking ballet classes may deal with the same negative responses as a girl with very short hair or who plays with trucks. The perception of gender norms may not be reflected in a specific gender. For example, the girl with short hair may just dislike long hair and have no opinion on the more masculine style as a definition of her gender. As gender norms change, those negative responses may also change to a more positive response to gender roles that don't fit the expected ideas.