Exploring Gender Norms February 22, 2019 16:43


Gender norms have really been brought to our attention recently. I feel our roles in life, relationships and society should really be picked apart, customised for the individual, and reassembled into something sparkly, new and more effective.

I had the privilege of meeting Nicci Attfield recently and really enjoyed chatting to her about this and a few other gender based issues. 

She has an MPHIL in Diversity Studies and is currently exploring how to work towards an ecological - social future. She has experience as a facilitator with the Agents of Change Project and is interested in exploring how we live in the world and our relationship to ecology.



What have you noticed to be the biggest problem with gender norms?

Gender norms limit both men and women because they set strict limits on behaviour. We've heard that boys don't cry, for example, which often prevents men from expressing their emotions. Movies show men to be constantly in control. Women are constructed as nurturing and relationship focused. When young girls show leadership qualities they are more likely to be described as 'bossy' than boys. Creating very narrowed experiences of the world can limit who a person is able to become. Our society places a lot of emphasis on gender, and people who are seen to perform gender badly are often stigmatised. Young boys who take a feminine role or play with dolls may be stigmatised by their peers. Although girls are often more free to be tomboys, anger or competitiveness is sometimes seen to be less acceptable in girls.

In this rapidly changing society, how have you found gender norms to affect relationships?

Gender roles very often determine relationships from the very beginning. Sometimes popular books on relationships (Men are from Mars...) actively promote gender roles within relationships (and may even be widely accepted - how nauseating). Women may believe that they should not actively show interest in a man despite feeling very attracted to him. Gender norms may limit women's ability to show attraction, as women should be 'demure' and 'well behaved'. All nonsense of course.

We learn from a young age how to behave in relationship to one another. Fairy tales tell us that Beauty loves the Beast, and that love can cure him of his awful behaviour. Women often believe they should stay in relationships despite a niggling feeling that something is wrong. Men sometimes battle to express their emotions within a relationship. As a result it can be difficult to share everyday feelings of struggle or hurt. Emotional intimacy can be difficult to achieve when both partners feel confused and unsure how to share what they really need.

Relationships can be most limiting when both partners take very strong gender roles. The princess-like woman and her very masculine partner may both limit the possibility for sharing and exploring the depths of their relationship.

As women we have been conditioned to fulfil certain roles that we may no longer want to take on. How would you suggest dealing with this within a relationship?

I think by challenging gender roles and sharing what each partner truly needs, true intimacy is able to develop. Ultimately, breaking out of rigid gender roles is liberating for both partners. I think the most important thing is for couples to work together, looking at what 'we' need to make the partnership a success. How can 'we' parent our children? What would be the best approach to carrying out household tasks? What do we need, what are our priorities, and how can we create ways to bring what we need into fruition? I think when both partners are able to be vulnerable, stepping down from rigid roles, the relationship will feel far more free and dynamic.

How do we notice gender bias and conditioned role playing in our own behaviour?

I think gender bias influences us in all ways. From the time we were born we were dressed in different clothes, shown different toys or encouraged to play differently based on gender. Gender is a performance, and it determines our actions. I think breaking down the gender myths is really about coming back into our bodies as whole beings, noticing when we feel uncomfortable, stifled or unhappy because of the roles we take on, and asking ourselves why. I think it's about rediscovering what makes us feel whole, and what doesn't. Not only what we 'should' put into a relationship, but what a relationship makes us feel. I think we learn to let go of the 'rules' when we lean into ourselves, get to know our own embodied feelings and beliefs, and we give ourselves the space to explore these feelings. Sharing this with a partner will increase our emotional intimacy.

Many men seem to have good intentions, but because of conditioning, fall into prejudiced or biased behaviour. How can we help them see how this perpetuates an unhealthy patriarchy, without alienating them?

I think the way forward is to work in non-divisive ways, working to share thoughts and experiences. If everything we hold within us was once between us, then by sharing new thoughts and ideas, we seed possibilities for change. Ken Gergen shared that we are the result of all of the interactions we've had, and that we bring these interactions into every new conversation. We can debate what is right or wrong, or we can feel together, working towards new possibilities for a different future. I think when we create conditions where we speak, share, empathise and explore how 'we' can make a better world together, we can leave behind a space for rebuttals.

I think by encouraging men to see that feminism doesn't fight men, but it challenges narrow belief systems about both men and women, and that these belief systems can be very damaging to both genders. Feminism wishes to disentangle patriarchy. Brene Brown spoke about shame in relation to gender norms, and the expectations both genders have of one another. She said that while she was sharing at a conference about the shame placed on women, a man came up to her and said "How convenient to only look at struggles women face. Let me tell you, as a man, if I fall off my horse, I will be judged too. " When we understand each other, and how we can work to reduce our struggles, we can work towards a better world for all people.

Is there anything you’d like to add, or that you’re very passionate about, with this subject?

I am passionate about working towards a less exploitative world, where people are not made to feel shame for who we are. From my perspective, this can only come into place when we truly value 'being' as well as all of life. When we value each other I think we will learn to care, or to 'tend to' the needs we share. Wherever there is exploitation of one of us, we risk exploiting any of us. By working together with compassion and with solidarity to reduce the shame which perpetuates injustices, I think we will be able to join together, using our individual talents, to create a better future. As Shelley Sacks shares, a series of small acts can create a landslide.

Shooting silliness with Peter Driessel Photography.