Reducing gender gaps and removing barriers to gender equality is good for the economic and social development of countries, communities and families—the evidence is irrefutable. Governments across the South East Asian region have made commitments to this effect, and donors have adopted different strategies and approaches to support them in their efforts.
Although gender norms are increasingly recognised as a major hurdle to achieving gender equality, donors are hesitant to tackle this aspect, concerned that it may be perceived as outside interference in culture. Gender norms are, however, continuously evolving and a myriad of factors contribute to this. Thus, there seems little basis for donors to feel uneasy with helping amplify the voices of those who question norms and contribute to removing the constraints among populations that are ready for change.
The speed at which countries close gender gaps varies and depends on many interrelated factors. Progress in closing gaps can be made simply by providing more services and making them more accessible to women and girls, as well as to men and boys. For example, by building more schools and health centres, or providing more teachers and midwives, to close education or health gaps. Some gaps need to be closed with more direct policies, such as encouraging girls’ education or adopting quotas for women in politics.
Sooner or later though, social and gender norms as well as attitudes come into play and start to impose different limits on the behaviours and expectations—and therefore the outcomes, for women and men. Gender norms become a major and persistent obstacle to closing persistent gaps and can seem intractable and untouchable.
Shaping gender norms
Gender norms are not as static or enduring as often implied. They are shaped by many things, and evolve and change over time. The countries of South East Asia have moved through remarkably different historical trajectories over the last hundred years or so. The legacy of how this has influenced gender norms can still be seen today.
As part of its communist past, women in Vietnam were encouraged to work along with men, and services such as free childcare at worksites were provided to facilitate this. Although the services were later lost in the transition to market economy, women remained in the workforce, but also picked up most of the unpaid work in the home—arguably impacted by the earlier patriarchal culture. Vietnamese women have a strong awareness of bearing a double workload throughout their working lives and this has played into, for example, their resistance to raising the age of retirement.
In post-independence Indonesia, early feminists actively and successfully lobbied for equal rights in the new constitution. However, their later association with the communist party had devastating consequences in the brutal massacre of communists that swept the country in 1965. Women activists were murdered, raped, imprisoned and cast as sexually deviant in an organised campaign to discredit them. Feminist activism was set back by several decades and there was little dissent or protest when the New Order regime adopted a patriarchal and paternalistic ideology that cast women as wives and mothers, shaping the gender norms that persist to this day.
Different religions have contributed to reinforcing and maintaining gender norms across the region, while shocks such as war, conflict, political upheaval or financial crisis have been triggers to change norms. Sometimes, these shock-driven changes may be negative for women. On the other hand, economic survival strategies increased women’s labour force participation in some countries after the East Asian financial crisis, and political transitions, such as Timor Leste’s transition to independence, have opened new opportunities for women’s political participation. In cases such as these, the gender norms shift to accommodate these changes.
Economic structure can affect gender norms
At a macro-level, the structure of economies and how they change can influence gender norms. Research carried out in the Middle East on the factors influencing the rate at which a country closed gender gaps found that contrary to expectations, it was oil, and not religion, that had the biggest influence on maintaining the status quo and reducing progress for women . Growth in the export-oriented manufacturing sector is associated with a shift away from agriculture and more non-farm opportunities for women, including in the formal sector. In countries where this has been a key source of economic growth, gender norms and attitudes have been changed.
In Bangladesh and Cambodia, the expansion of the textile and garment sectors opened work opportunities for girls with junior secondary education. This influenced the decisions made by parents regarding their children’s education and a rapid improvement in girls’ education was seen.
In Bangladesh, where norms restricting the mobility of women and girls had previously been strict, women’s mobility increased significantly when an economic incentive for them to travel was given. Importantly, formal/semi-formal paid work has been shown to have a positive impact on women’s empowerment—especially compared to unpaid work in farm or family enterprises, which has the least transformative effect on women’s lives. Formal sector opportunities take women out of the domestic sphere in which norms tend to be reinforced, expose them to new networks and new ideas, and give them greater control over the income they earn.
While historical paths and economic growth might have been influenced by government policies, governments also make policies that directly influence and shift gender norms. Marriage laws and laws on tax, reproductive health, labour, etc. have often established or reinforced restrictive gender norms.
Marriage laws that formalise the role of men as the breadwinner and women as the secondary income earner with primary responsibility for family welfare have reinforced the norms for women’s role primarily in the domestic sphere. Labour laws that prevent women from doing certain jobs or restricting their work hours have reinforced the notion of women as weaker and more vulnerable workers.
Behaviours, policies and norms
Policies, attitudes (norms) and behaviours operate in positive feedback loops. Changes in any one of these can trigger changes in the other areas. The Social Norms, Attitudes, and Practices (SNAP) survey conducted in 2018 for Investing in Women indicates that attitudes towards the optimum length of paternity leave tended to follow the prevailing policy on paternity leave in the country. The attitudes and behaviours did not drive the policy in this case; rather, the policy has started to drive or nudge the norm (attitude). This change in attitude has not yet resulted in changes in behaviour.
It can be difficult to untangle the initial trigger in the norms, behaviour, policy and feedback loop. In the UK in the 1990s, the employment of women with preschool children rose by around 10%. The percentage of mothers of preschool children who thought children would suffer if the mother did paid work fell by a similar percentage, as did the percentage of the general public who thought the same.
Did norms change because more women went out to work, or did more women go to work because the norms changed? Did the development of government policy on the provision of subsidised childcare, which was evolving over that period, not only help reduce the real barrier to working that mothers of small children faced, but also nudge the norms?
Gender inequality erodes faster in urban areas than in rural areas in part due to the higher opportunity costs of gender divisions of labour; exposure to more women demonstrating equal competence and pushing boundaries; having more opportunities to share different ideas that challenge heterogenous gender ideologies and practices. The SNAP survey confirms that the attitudes of urban millennials in all three countries had started to shift from the norms associated with the general population; for example, with regard to women working and men participating (albeit not equally) in housework and care of children.
Migration, both international and domestic, exposes men and women to new ideas, different experiences and practical changes, such as living away from family support mechanisms. These too can cause changes in norms, attitudes and behaviours.
The key message, then, is that gender norms can and do change, and many things from the macro to the household level influence these changes, either purposively or incidentally. The SNAP survey indicates that many urban millennials are already questioning gender norms.
The pilot advocacy activities supported by Investing in Women in the first phase showed that a broad section of the target population is ready to engage in conversations about redefining norms. It seems reasonable, then, that in their effort to help promote economic and social development, donors help amplify the voice of local champions, open doors for local actors to accelerate change and help create space for men and women who want to redefine their roles and options to meet current challenges.
Want to learn more about gender norms in South East Asia? Download this report.
Gillian Brown is a Senior Gender Adviser to Investing in Women. She has worked on gender and social development issues in the East Asian and Pacific region for nearly 30 years at the World Bank, AusAID, and now as an independent consultant.
 See for example:
WorldBank. (2012). Gender equality in development. World Development Report 2012. Washington, DC: The World Bank. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552070512331332273
Kabeer, N., & Natali, L. (2013). IDS WORKING PAPER Volume 2013 No 417 Gender Equality and Economic Growth : Is there a Win-Win ? (No. 417) (Vol. 2013). London.
 See for example:
Jayachandran, S. (2015). The Roots of Gender Inequality in Developing Countries. Annual Review of Economics, 7(1), 63–88.
 Ross, M. L. (2008). Oil, Islam, and Women. American Political Science Review, 102(1). (note that later analysis carried out on a much broader set of predominantly Moslem countries and using different variables did not come to the same conclusions)
 Kabeer, N. (2012). Women ’ s economic empowerment and inclusive growth : labour markets and enterprise development.
 Social Norms, Practices and Attitudes Survey (SNAP) interviewed 1,000 men and 1,000 women aged between 18 and 35 in urban areas of Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam.
 Fischer, L., Hasell, J., Proctor, J. C., Uwakwe, D., Ward Perkins, Z., & Watson, C. (n.d.). Rethinking economics : an introduction to pluralist economics
 See for example: Evans, A. (2019). How Cities Erode Gender Inequality: A New Theory and Evidence from Cambodia Working Papers. Retrieved from https://bsc.cid.harvard.edu/files/bsc/files/2019-07-cid-wp-356-gender-equality-cambodia.pdf