Civic Engagement & Gender Norms

Decades of studies have found that understanding and addressing gender norms and gender disparities is central to the success of civic engagement initiatives and the issues they address.

Yet while race and class are considered core concerns, gender is often ignored or overlooked. And when it is addressed, it's often segregated as a "women's issue," disconnected from age, race, or class.

In fact, a landscape survey of the nation's leading civic engagement funders and non-profits found only a handful that integrated a strong focus on gender norms or inequities into their priorities.

Few philanthropic institutions are challenging grantees to do innovative work around gender, and few non-profits have put a gender analysis or remediating gender disparities at the center of their work. Often programs will address race, or class, but have no analysis of the impact of gender. Making programs and policies more effective for more people means connecting social justice and gender justice.


Gender Norms refers to ideals, expectations and scripts for how men and women should look, act and behave.

Gender Equity refers to all members of a population having equal access to resources, equal power to participate, and both legal rights and freedom from abuse or exploitation.

Gender Transformative refers to programs and policies that highlight, challenge, and ultimately try to change rigid gender norms and inequities.

Voting and Political Participation

Understanding gender norms is crucial to understanding who gets involved in civic engagement work, what kind, and for what reason.

For instance, women historically have lower levels of voting and political engagement, probably in part because they are more often socialized to be nurturing, dependent, and oriented towards family, caretaking, and community.

One of the strongest single predictors of political participation is being fully employed – presumably so one has the financial and personal resources to engage in organizing, voting, and campaigning.

Men are often more likely to be involved politically simply because more men have full-time jobs. Thus class must be taken into account as well.

When women do get involved civically, they often prefer more personal, social and private forms of activism, such as online advocacy, , religious programs, and community actions like boycotts and petition-signing. . Men are often comfortable with more individual and confrontational forms of advocacy.

In fact, research shows men and women don't so much have different levels of political participation, as different styles. And understanding the impact of race is also important. For instance, young Black women have been one of the more reliable voting blocks in recent years.

Issued-Based Organizing

Integrating a focus on rigid gender norms and inequities is also important to understanding the issues that community organizations often address, such as employment, immigration, health care, prison policy, housing, and welfare. Consider these examples:

  • Employment: Men are generally expected to be breadwinners and family providers, with larger incomes than their spouses derived from occupations they work at outside the home. Because of these and other factors, work usually performed by men is historically more valued than women's. Women are often paid less and given lower job titles for performing the same or equivalent work. And men who find themselves in "women's occupations" like nursing, waiting tables, or child-care may also find their labor devalued and underpaid (although still usually paid better than women), and their careers shunted away from management and promotion.
  • Prison Reform: Studies have shown that men – and particularly Black and Hispanic males – are much more likely to be given harsher sentences than women, even for first, non-violent offences. At the same time, many harsh sentencing policies overlook the effect of an absent male breadwinner –incarcerated hours away from home – on a female spouse with dependent children.
  • Welfare Policy: Government policies aimed at getting recipients back to work have consistently overlooked childcare as a key component, although women with dependent children are the largest group of beneficiaries. How can low-income single parents take advantage of retraining or workfare opportunities without child care? And with all the focus on welfare, too little attention is often paid to preventing dependency in the first place by keeping breadwinning males (and female heads-of-household) in jobs to begin with.

Intersectional Approach

It's important to understand that many of these disparities are not driven by gender alone; most often there are elements of age, race, class and educational level involved.

This is why authorities like Kimberle Crenshaw have pushed for "intersectional" approaches to civic engagement problems that treat gender, race and class as not interchangeable but deeply intertwined. In this way, we can connect social justice and gender justice together, rather than separating them out.

For instance, it makes little sense for a young Latina working on voter participation in East LA to address part of her efforts to her sex, another to her race and a third to her socio-economic level. All of these aspects meet and connect in her lived experience – our approaches to challenges she confronts should do no less.

Gender Norms

Even civic engagement analyses that are gender aware often look at gender equity and disparities between men and women but then completely ignore the effect of norms of masculinity and femininity.

Yet as the extensive new World Bank report, "On Norms and Agency," makes clear, if you unpack gender disparities underneath you often find gender norms at work.

This is true of each of the four examples cited above. Addressing gender disparities with an awareness of underlying causes not only informs the work theoretically but can help make any grantmaking initiative more effective and inclusive.

What About Men

A second limitation of most analysis of gender equity in civic engagement issues is that while they may state that gender is an issue for everyone, they often focus solely on women and girls.

For instance one recent high profile report noted prominently that "effective gender analysis does not stop at the experience of women – rather, it examines how restrictive norms oppress people across the gender spectrum, including men, women, and trans and intersex people." Yet the accompanying graphic told the tale: "In social justice work: Who is excluded? Women. Who experiences financial inequality? Women?"

This has led to confusion, where groups are asked to "develop a gender analysis" assume that what is really being asked is to launch a program focused on women and girls, or recruit more women for upper management. This "diversity answer" does not substitute for a real understanding of how gender impacts individuals' rights, participation, and privilege.

Many programs are "gender neutral," meaning they don't address gender at all. This means they may disadvantage women and girls, as well as gay or transgender people. In some cases it will mean they overlook the disproportionate impact on young men and boys.

For instance, an immigration initiative that proceeds as if all undocumented immigrants are single males with no children will ill-serve mothers with dependent children.

There are also issues where men and boys have markedly low or lower outcomes, such as school expulsions and "push-out" policies, educational under-achievement, bullying, prison sentencing, handgun violence, and substance abuse, to name a few. And these disparities can be amplified with young men of color in low-income communities, or for men who are openly gay and effeminate.

For instance, take health care. One leading analysis of ObamaCare noted that women pay 60% of doctor’s office bills, make 80% of family health care decisions, and during their reproductive years spend 68% more on average for out-of-pocket care. They are also more likely to skip a medical treatment, fail to fill a prescription, or put off needed health care because they lack insurance coverage and money.

What it didn't note is that when individuals are insured, and health care is readily available at little or no cost, it is often men – especially in low-income communities– who suffer most. Rigid codes of manhood on the street have taught young males to "suck it up," never complain, never admit to pain or weakness, and always go it alone. Such men postpone asking for care until easily treated illnesses have put their bodies into expensive, life-threatening crises, because doing so would be a sign of weakness, dependence and vulnerability – in a word, of femininity.


A more gender aware view of civic engagement would also address the challenges faced by gay and transgender individuals, many of whom are unable to participate in community organizing or political advocacy because doing so might "out" them publicly, exposing them to violence, economic discrimination, or familial rejection.

And in areas like employment, effeminate gay men and transgender women often face many of the same obstacles as women, and often for similar reasons.

Transgender women in particular, many of whom are unable or unwilling to "pass" and blend in, are less able to participate in civic engagement efforts both because of animus against them as because they may place themselves at risk if they move into the public eye or become identified as transgender.

Gender Transformative

There is now a growing awareness of the need for what leading authority Geeta Rao Gupta called "gender transformative” programs and policies.

Approaches which are gender transformative highlight, challenge and ultimately try to change rigid gender norms and inequities.

One acronym for thinking of how to do this is BRAND.

Background and history – How did the disparities come about, what attitudes sustain them?

Representation and participation - Who is in a decision-making capacity and who is not?

Access to resources – Which groups have full access to resources, who does not and what inhibits them?

Norms, roles and expectations – What beliefs about masculinity and femininity prevent full participation?

Division of labor – How is labor divided up and who ends up doing which responsibilities?

Clearly to make civic engagement programs and funding priorities more effective, they need to integrate a strong gender analysis, and do so in ways that reconnect race, class, age, ability and gender.

This is why "gender mainstreaming" – making gender awareness an integral part of every aspect of projects from research and data collection to legislation, fundraising, and policy development – has been adopted as the gold standard by leading international organizations and agencies.

Our Work

This is the direction US groups need to take, and TrueChild is dedicated to helping them do so. Our experts help civic engagement organizations, funders and policymakers integrate a gender analysis in ways that reconnect social and gender justice.



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