Challenging Social Norms An Appreciation of Women's History Month

Social constructs or social norms are developed ways of thinking and being that are created by a given culture. Social norms can vary greatly among different countries. What applies to one culture may not apply to another. Social norms are major influencers, and they shape our lives, but we also help to shape them based on our current values and beliefs. Consider how we previously thought about smoking, the institution of marriage, or even race. These are perfect examples of how social norms exist and evolve. So what are some of social norms that have created challenges for women? Here are just a few: the pressure to marry and have children or to adhere to external standards of beauty; the unquestioned expectation of being the primary caregiver in a family, or of having limited career opportunities.

All of these pressures and expectations were influenced by previous biases and laws that formed the foundations of how society has thought about women. Historically, policy makers, usually all men well into the 20th century, had little or no input from women. Research continues to provide us with evidence that when teams are homogeneous and not diverse, the potential outcomes will be limited and most often biased. A bias can be a strong inclination of the mind or a preconceived opinion about something or someone. A bias can be favorable or unfavorable depending upon perspective. What were some of the early laws that perpetuated biased thinking toward to women? In 1769, colonial law (influenced by English law) prevented women from keeping their work earnings or owning property in their name. In 1777, all thirteen original states passed laws prohibiting women from participating in the electoral process. It would be laws such as these that implied women had less value than men.

In the nineteenth century, Susan B. Anthony of Rochester, New York, a social reformer was a strong lobbyist in Washington, D.C., advocating for women’s rights in education, property ownership, careers, and the right to vote. Anthony knew back then about bias thinking and its impact.

“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”

—Susan B. Anthony

Yes times are changing, and we have evolved to a place where gender equity continues to make strides. However, how can we continue to challenge social norms that attempt to take us backward to a less desirous time? The first step is for us to continue to raise our awareness. We can disrupt bias thinking by listening to new perspectives. We can support and participate in platforms or discussions that broaden our ways of thinking. We can consider taking a position when we are in discussions that we find are one sided within our own space. As a result, all involved might be enlightened by the conversation. Also, we can seek to promote respectful relationships proactively among all people. If we are in a position of authority we can incorporate inclusive language into a mission statement or project intentions. We could also consider ways to elevate the history and accomplishments of women and others whose stories have not been told or not told adequately. This can be done through social media platforms. Sometimes it’s as simple as a matter of asking questions that help people understand the bigger picture.

A frequent contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal, Pawling resident Obed Figueroa is a published researcher, columnist, and doctoral candidate at Northeastern University.