The Undoing Project

Written by Malavika Mani


Social conditioning that predicates gender behavior and norms is deeply rooted in societies across various income groups. Undoing this conditioning to empower different groups becomes an arduous task, as an endless cycle is established where gender behavior and norms further shapes conditioning and strengthens beliefs, constructing gender behavior. So, what do we undo first? Social conditioning or gender specific behavior and norms?

Conditioning sets unreasonable expectations, that manifest other issues that trivialize one’s identity in this struggle to conform. Wood and Karten (1986) elaborated on how people respond better to others who conform to gender role expectations. When society dictates one to conform in order to appease others, conformity could result in displacement and an alternate reality for individuals.  Wood et al. (1997) further discussed how men and women adopt these gender roles prescribed by society into their own personal identities. Costa et al. (2006) too confirmed that behavior differences can be attributed to societal norms and conditioning more than gender itself.

Interventions to address development challenges and socio-economic empowerment can be effective through changing behavior, which could also further the interventions’ reach. Prior to changing behaviors and norms, one needs to diagnose the problem. However, when the problem is deeply rooted in individuals and manifests with each passing day, working on effective behavior change is increasingly onerous. Culture, for instance, plays a key role in establishing norms and predicating conditioning, especially about gender. Who creates culture, if not society?

Culture is defined by sociologists as a set of values, norms and beliefs amongst a group of individuals that form a society. Beliefs mandate individual behavior that sculpt preferences resulting in choices and decisions, that establish a set of values and norms. Whilst one can elaborate more on the outcomes of beliefs, one easily forgets the antecedents of those beliefs – facts and experiences. In our world, scant disinterested information and differing opinions – that may be violent – limit individuals to strengthen their beliefs rationally using facts. Scarcity of information and inability to update beliefs limits choices, coercing individuals to behave according to a set of norms, traditions, and ideologies mandated by society and paving a path for social conditioning.

An erstwhile norm constantly reinforced by society, is the binary outlook on gender and instilling a sense of superiority of one of the said binary genders over the other. This conditioning set forth a narrative establishing bigotry, discrimination, violence, and a perpetual power struggle which was adopted as part of traditional culture in various societies.

In many societies, traditional culture has been unkind to women and any individual who does not identify with the binary genders, and still continues to inflict its atrocities upon them due to social conditioning. Inhibiting social and economic empowerment, an argument that one is often hears is, “It is part of our culture.” Culture – be it religious, secular, ethnic, or intellectual - is often used as a tool to strengthen priors, resulting in relegation of roles that further shape gender-specific behavior. Adichie in her coveted essay “We Should All Be Feminists”, articulated her thoughts on culture and its role on gender – “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” This sentiment must resonate with intersectional feminists across the world.

Undoing conditioning and breaking norms about gender is the way forward to bringing about behavioral change. Conditioning has manifested over the years, behavior has been established, and roles have been relegated. This conditioning can be undone by adopting certain measures. Identifying cultural characteristics that bolster would be the place to start, as social conditioning further manifests with culture. Once the characteristics are identified, systems need to be reformed with transparent information and by working on those characteristics. With information symmetry, individuals can update their beliefs. The undoing project, even though a cumbersome one, is possible through effective advocacy.

I believe we can undo the conditioning, if we all try. I believe the full humanity of all gender identities must be our culture. I believe that objectivity and rationale are two distinct elements, crucial to the human race yet often lost on them due to behavioral nuances. I believe that every individual is entitled to identifying or not identifying themselves with a specific, binary gender. I believe that our society continues to dictate norms that individuals are conditioned to follow. I believe that we live in a bigoted world, where the asymmetric information paints varied pictures bolstering ignorance, whilst a few individuals struggle to ensure symmetry and peace on all fronts. I believe we can reduce and hopefully eliminate, gender-based violence. This undoing project can help us strive for harmony in our society, eliminating bigotry, and achieve peace.

References:
  1. Wood, W., Christensen, P. N., Hebl, M. R., & Rothgerber, H. (1997). Sex-typed norms, affect, and the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 523-535. 
  2. Wood, W., Karten, S. J. (1986). Sex differences in interaction style as a product of perceived sex differences in competence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2), 341-347.
  3. Costa, E., Moragas, C., Mussons, F., Deu, A., Zurita, M.L. (2006). Behavioral gender differences in the neonatal period according to the Brazelton scale. Early Human Development, 83(2), 91-97.