Going with the flow more attractive than going against it

Going with the flow more attractive than going against it

Gender inequality continues to persist

For many young people, conforming to gender norms seems a more attractive option than deviating from them, according to the thesis of Dr Laora Mastari, with which she obtained her doctorate at VUB. She conducted her research among Flemish children and young people aged between 10 and 25.

Men and women are legally equal in Belgium, but there remains structural gender inequality. For example, women take on the majority of household work as well as the care of children, they are less active on the labour market, they earn less than men and they are underrepresented in decision-making positions. The list of examples of inequalities is long. According to the calculations of the European Institute for Gender Equality, it will take at least another 60 years to achieve gender equality in Europe.

For her dissertation, Mastari investigated why young Flemings have certain attitudes, display behaviours and make choices that not only emphasise the differences between men and women, but also perpetuate gender inequality.

People are social beings

The first reason is that humans are social beings, who want to be surrounded, recognised, appreciated and loved by others. Because young people are strongly influenced by how others think about them, they also tend to conform to social norms. In doing so, they avoid negative reactions and the risk of not fitting in, which is a major concern during adolescence.

Two studies show that especially for boys, experiencing pressure from others to conform to gender norms translates into exhibiting gender-typical behaviours and developing a preference for “typical” male occupations. Experiencing this pressure explains to some extent why boys avoid occupations in the care, education or beauty sectors, for example. The fact that pressure to conform is especially important for boys as a way of explaining gender-typical behaviour and gender-typical preferences is in line with other research that illustrates that boys are punished to a greater extent if they do not conform to gender norms.

Another aspect highlighted through this PhD is how conforming to gender norms appears to provide benefits on a relational level. For example, one of the studies illustrated that gender-typical youth are more satisfied with their friendships. This suggests that conforming to gender norms allows one to belong better.

Other studies show that people are generally happier and more satisfied with their relationships when they do not challenge prevailing social norms and instead conform to them. However, while this is beneficial on an individual level, it maintains the status quo on a structural level.

Boys in TSO and BSO endorse sexist attitudes more strongly

One striking finding in the study is the importance of the form of education in which boys are taught.  For example, two studies in this PhD show that boys from technical and special education (TSO and BSO) subscribe to subtle and overt sexism to a higher degree than boys from general and arts education (ASO and KSO).

Mastari: “I think this can be explained in part by the difference in social prestige between the forms of education. In knowledge societies, education has become an increasingly important source of social status. Young people from TSO and BSO are to some extent aware that their directions are looked down upon. As a result, they compensate for this perceived stigma by emphasising their gender identity more strongly.”

Shifting focus from gender differences to status differences

Mastari sees one key approach to combating gender inequality: it involves seeing gender differences not so much as gender differences per se, but primarily as status-related differences. Masculinity still enjoys more status than femininity. As long as people do not recognise this, no progress can be made, she says.

“The bottom line is that developing a certain gender identity should not lead to social inequality. It is about time that ‘femininity’ was no longer seen as inferior. In addition, people should be free to develop their own gender identity. Unfortunately, my doctorate shows that this freedom is not self-evident: many young people experience pressure to meet certain gender norms.”

The research was conducted among Flemish children and young people aged between 10 and 25. Data from the Youth Research Platform (JOP) from 2013 and 2018 was used.

More information

Laora Mastari, [email protected], 0498 36 77 31

From 2016 to 2021 with the Department of Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Research Group Tempus Omnia Revelat (TOR)

Supervisors: Prof Dr Bram Spruyt (VUB) & Dr Jessy Siongers (UGent & VUB)

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