Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Over the twentieth century, more women gained education, economic autonomy, greater mobility and wider social networks. Many expanded their horizons, chose their own husbands, and kept their fertility under control.
Yet, a woman may still be abused at home, harassed on city streets, and unfairly treated at work. If victims cannot secure accountability, abuse persists with impunity. Women’s autonomy can also be circumscribed by legislation – forbidding abortion or stipulating obedience to male guardians. Men’s control – of property, custody, and women’s bodies – is thus legally entrenched. Façades of reform may be enacted by states keen to improve their international reputations but left enforced. And without family-friendly policies or cooperative partners, women remain saddled with childcare, depressing their earnings.
Seldom seeing egalitarian alternatives or successful resistance, women may internalise their subordination and reluctantly comply with a seemingly unchangeable status quo.
Gender inequalities persist if they are taken for granted
If men monopolise prestigious positions, others may regard them as natural leaders. Women may doubt their capabilities, be reluctant to put themselves forward or vote for others. These entrenched gender stereotypes curb deviation and contestation. And they are notoriously difficult to dislodge – for people pay more attention to information that confirms their priors.
Lacking exposure to more egalitarian alternatives, people may not question ideals of female submission and sacrifice. Those living in remote rural communities, growing up in violent homes, without access to critical discourses, may regard wife-beatings as normal. Women then try to endure what they perceive as inevitable. In Bemba (a Bantu language) this is called ukushipikisha. Likewise, live-in domestic workers in Latin America, associating only with their patronas, accustomed to servitude and daily reminders of their inferiority, may come to regard themselves as worth less.
That said, many men and women are privately critical of gender inequalities but comply because they anticipate social condemnation. Key here are 'norm perceptions': our beliefs about how we will be perceived and treated by others. By interacting and observing their communities, people gauge which behaviours are broadly practised and supported.
Seeing widespread compliance, people infer widespread approval
The 'norm perception' that peers, community elders, or government will chastise deviation furnishes individuals with a self-interested reason to conform. If men think they will be mocked for sharing care work, they may be reluctant to do so publicly.
This invisibility reinforces norm perceptions that men do not change nappies or sweep the floors. If women anticipate discrimination, they may not put themselves forward as leaders. Some women submit just to avoid being reprimanded, reproached, or beaten to a pulp. Added to that, many lack the economic autonomy to antagonise their social networks.
Widespread compliance perpetuates pluralistic ignorance, as potential allies remain invisible. So, women keep their heads down, take care of the kids, and endure patriarchal dominance.
Norm perceptions can depress use of government services, accountability mechanisms, and bottom-up pressure for reform. In parts of Latin America, domestic workers presume that government will not tackle labour violations, so do not report. Without seeing successful mobilisation, workers may be fatalistic, pessimistic about reform, reluctant to join a union or initiate labour claims. Likewise, if women think the police will be unsympathetic, they many not bother to report gender-based violence – as in Zambia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, and Pakistan.
Women may get stuck in a despondency trap, moderate their ambitions, and reluctantly perpetuate the status quo. We know from socio-psychology that individuals’ group efficacy beliefs strongly predict collective action. That is, if people believe resistance is futile, they regard it as costly and fruitless. But if everyone complies then pluralistic ignorance persists, as does the patriarchy.
This despondency trap compounds a negative feedback loop.
People only revise these norm perceptions when they witness widespread behavioural change (or hear of it from trusted sources). But if gender ideologies only change after behavioural disruption, what catalyses the initial behavioural change, amid risks of social censure? How do societies overcome this “chicken and egg” problem?
Feminist activism is fundamental to breaking the cycle
By speaking out, challenging patriarchal practices, collectively making a din, and thereby demonstrating broad support for social change, feminist activism can galvanise hope for reform, secure incremental advances, so as to catalyse further resistance and ultimately secure women’s equal rights, freedoms, and protection.