Have you ever thought about why we behave in certain ways? Why we hold particular beliefs or attitudes towards various topics, people, or issues? But I mean really thought about it.

Why is it that in the West we know to shake hands in a professional environment, unconsciously take the place at the end of a line, say ‘hello’ when we pick up the phone, and politely laugh when someone cracks a tired joke. Some believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that a job should start at nine and finish at five, and that hitting children is a natural part of raising them.

Understanding and adhering to these social norms helps us fit into our social networks, gain approval, and cultivate relationships. And we all engage in them, whether we are aware of it or not. This works fine most of the time, but there are many norms that actually perpetuate inequality and prejudice, and drive violence. Some social norms dictate how we should refer to others and influence our perception of them; in other cases we internalise norms and are conditioned to mirror them. Women are a prime example of the latter: we learn to apologise before making a direct demand because we are valued in society if we are meek and agreeable; we are less confident in professional situations and apply for jobs when we meet 100% of the criteria compared to men who go in at 60%; we are ashamed of our bodies and police ourselves to stay away from the beach whilst concurrently forking out a small fortune for beauty products; and we knowingly end up doing the majority of the housework, feeling too guilty to ask for help even when drowning under the pressure and a mound of diapers. We continue to engage in these behaviours because that is the way we have learned to exist within the patriarchal system.*

Social norms can be gendered and reinforce gender inequality. Examples of gendered social norms include the expectation that women should take the bulk of maternal leave, remember the birthdays of all family members, and be nurturing and chaste (yet sexy). We might expect men to pay for dinner, open the car door for their date, be strong, be the main breadwinners, not cry, open jars, be competent decision-makers — and we’re surprised when we find that their ironing skills are actually pretty alright. The patriarchy affects us all in different ways, and men can be negatively affected by it too.

Social norms are enforced and maintained by reference groups. These are the people you consider when making a decision, participating in a behaviour, or engaging in a belief. All social norms have reference groups: when you dress for work you consider what your colleagues expect you to wear, when you invite people over you offer them food and drink because that is what you learned is the right way to be a host, and it might acceptable within your group of friends that you drive home after consuming too much alcohol.

In this campaign, the New Zealand Government strongly featured the influence of the reference group as being an important factor in young people's decision making in the case of drink driving.

When engaging in gendered social norms, as a woman your reference group can be your mother-in-law who criticises you for letting your husband leave the house in an unironed shirt, your grandfather who hints that your heel should be a few centimetres higher, your boss who has made it very clear that he dislikes when you talk too much in a staff meeting, or the other attendees at a mothers’ meeting from whom you gain praise or approval for being a champion breast feeder. As a man your reference group can be your friends to whom you prove your toughness by starting a fight with a peer or drink alcohol to excess, your colleagues who like you more when you participate in sexist banter, your male friends egging you on to chat up a clearly disinterested woman, or your in-laws who tease you about being subservient to your wife so you hit her to reassert your dominance.

Gendered social norms act to reinforce inequalities and reference groups police behaviour and sanction individuals for stepping out of what is deemed appropriate. In many communities, violence is used against women when they step out of prescribed gender norms, or women’s ‘unruly’ behaviour is used as an excuse for inflicting violence upon them. Depending on the culture or society, violence against women can range from a woman receiving a slap for ‘mouthing off’ or a young girl being subject to genital cutting in order to control her sexual behaviour and make her more worthy of marriage. Violence against women is as diverse as the social and cultural norms that underpin it. And it is never deserved or excused.

Not all social norms are harmful or gendered. But many are. The good news is that they can be unlearned.

The next time you express a belief or engage in a behaviour, take a moment to consider where your actions are coming from. Is it the right thing to do? Or is it just expected that you do it? Are you hurting a person or group by engaging in that action? Could you be more inclusive? If you talk to people from different spaces and experiences from your own, you’ll probably find that there are things that you do, often unintentionally, that contribute to inequality or that harm others. What we can all do is listen, learn from others, and be aware of our choices and behaviours. That way we can create change and work towards a more equal society.

* The social system in which we live where men hold primary power in public and private spaces to the detriment of women and other minorities, resulting in male privilege.