Have you ever modified your public behavior because you felt pressure to act in a certain way? Do you expect others to behave in a particular way according to their age, gender, or occupation? What happens when people do not behave as they are expected?
In this article, we explore the effect of social norms on behavior, examining how stereotyping impacts behavior, potentially limiting potential.
What Are Social Norms?
Each of us expects others to behave in a particular fashion. We expect people to act in a “proper” way.
When we apply these expectations to society, we create social norms – unwritten rules that govern behavior. We expect others to abide by these rules and try to follow them ourselves to gain acceptance.
These expectations guide us on how to behave in a particular social context. A social norm is essentially the standard of behavior to which we expect a particular social group to adhere.
Ranging from a small group of friends to the population of an entire country, for example, social groups can vary substantially in size and type. Fulfilling expected social norms is “conformity.” Social norms are a powerful way of understanding people, enabling us to predict how they will behave and what they will do.
Social norms dictate appropriate behavior for all social groups. As we shift from one social group to another, we modify our behavior accordingly. For example, we tend to expect teachers and students to behave differently from one another, but if a teacher undergoes training, his or her role and behavior change to those of a student.
Social norms provide order, guiding and directing human behavior. They provide predictability in social relationships and help us understand others’ actions. We often feel pressure to conform to social norms in order to gain others’ acceptance and approval.
Is Conformity Always Beneficial?
Since social norms dictate that smoking in others’ homes without permission is unacceptable, would-be smokers are generally reluctant to light up, as they want to avoid criticism or hostility. The power of popular law is conformity.
Nevertheless, conformity can be tool for evil as well as good. Conformity encourages people to ignore their consciences – to stop thinking and simply obey. Conformity makes soldiers follow orders unquestioningly, even in the face of danger or death. Some regimes rely on this to control the public, maximizing conformity to strengthen their hold over the country.
The most obvious example of this is the rise of fascism leading up to World War II, culminating in the persecution of millions of Jews and people from other ethnic minorities, as well as those with disabilities. Unfortunately, certain regimes still impose brutal and inhumane laws, where those who do not conform are severely punished or killed. Family members are often punished alongside offenders if they fail to testify against them. This creates fear, encouraging citizens to report dissidents, no matter how close, effectively turning family members against one another. It forces the public to conform, no matter the cost.
How Does Conforming to Social Norms Affect Our Opportunities?
Boys are better at math. Girls are better at English.
How many times have you heard this? Contrary to this age-old belief, a Stanford University study concluded the following after evaluating 260 million test scores:
– Boys only slightly outperform girls in math.
– That gap is steadily closing.
– The math gender gap is predominantly in wealthy, suburban schools.
– Girls outperform their male classmates in math in low-income districts.
– Socioeconomic status likely plays a role in gender stereotyping.
If a girl is told she is bad at math because of her gender, this undermines her confidence. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A study by New York University Steinhardt shows that teachers consistently assigned lower math grades to female students than to their male counterparts, deeming them less capable based on gender rather than results.
Boys and girls approach problem-solving differently. Boys are taught to take risks, whereas girls methodically follow instructions. The study indicated that the difference in math achievement might be attributable to differences in problem-solving approaches – differences we learn as part of social norms rather than those with which we are born.
Published in 2017, the Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will take approximately 217 years to close the gender gap. Instead of making inroads against gender stereotyping, we actually appear to be going backwards.
Gender equality is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ main aims. Governments and business leaders are increasingly recognizing the importance of female empowerment and gender equality – not just from a moral perspective, enhancing the lives of girls and women all over the world, but also in helping businesses and societies as a whole benefit from an influx of domestic skilled workers.
Nowhere is the gender gap more obvious than in STEM education and employment. With an ever-widening skills gap in STEM sectors, it is vital that we address gender inequities to attract more women to STEM learning and professions.
A wealth of research suggests that, innately, girls and boys perform similarly across all academic subjects. Leading experts suggest that, in general, gender gaps are a social fabrication.
As bestselling author Brene Brown puts it, “Perhaps we need to let go of who we think we are supposed to be and embrace who we really are.”