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World Bank

On Norms and Agency: Conversations about Gender Equality with Men and Women in 20 Countries

This paper summarises the findings of a qualitative field study with 4000 men and women in focus groups across 20 countries from all regions. The study looked at the impact of gender norms on women and men and the effect on their sense of agency and empowerment, as well as the changes in their lives as these gender norms flexed or persisted. The paper is divided into three key parts:

  • Part I focuses on gender norms and the dynamics of negotiation, acceptance, and resistance around them. 
  • Part II probes how norms interact with agency in strategic life choices. 
  • Part III examines the factors that individuals identify as primarily increasing their power and freedom, as well as the opportunity structures associated with them. 

The study findings reveal that behind the progress toward gender equality and persistent gender gaps lies an almost universal set of factors embedded in social and gender norms, as heard in the experiences related by focus group participants. Women’s and men’s opportunities and actions are determined as much by social norms—including gender roles and beliefs about their abilities and capacities—as by the conditions of the communities and countries they live in.


“The narratives from the sample communities show many commonalities across countries and cultures in how gender differences define women’s and men’s roles and dictate responsibilities in households, markets, and public life in their communities. They also reveal how innumerable social and cultural norms, traditions, beliefs, and general perceptions of the appropriate place and behaviour for women and men permeate all aspects of community and individual life. These informal institutions interlock with civic institutions, the institutions of the state, the market, and intrahousehold bargaining dynamics to shape and sometimes reinforce the gender inequities of power—and impact the choices and freedom of women and girls (and men and boys). 

Social norms play a central role in the relation between people’s agency and the opportunities that their communities provide. Social norms can either help or hinder an individual’s capacity to take advantage of available opportunities. Certain ideas or images that reflect ideal behaviours for men and women are remarkably similar across countries and locations within countries. Adolescents participating in the study reported little variation in the different tasks and behaviours demanded in order to be seen as a “good girl” or “good boy”—whether they live in a remote highlands village in Papua New Guinea or in a busy city in the Dominican Republic. Likewise, adult views of a “good wife” or a “good husband” reiterate a clear distinction between productive and reproductive gender roles, as well as expected feminine or masculine behaviours (loving and caring versus having authority and providing well). 

Yet everyday practices also include different forms of resistance to—and flexibility about—ideal gender roles. Negotiation and resistance to gender norms are evident throughout the study sample. Inasmuch as they imply a challenge to the sexual division of power, departures from the norm can sometimes be harshly punished. Among the consequences of conflict over gender roles or norm abiding, the most disempowering one is violence against women. “

Date published
  • 2013
  • Ana Maria Munoz Boudet
  • Patti Petesch
  • Angélica Thumala
Published by The World Bank
Key quote "Our analysis clearly shows how normative frameworks around gender are changing—albeit slowly—and opening space for new practices and producing more opportunities for women and men. However, this change is being contested: backlashes are common and the change is uneven. Movement in one area does not always mean movement in other areas or for everyone."