Real Choices, Real Lives: Identifying 'glitches' in the gender socialisation process
Real Choices, Real Lives Cohort Study
Real Choices, Real Lives is a longitudinal study tracking over 120 girls and their families across nine countries, from their birth in 2006 until the age of 18 in 2024.
Through qualitative research, Real Choices, Real Lives focuses on understanding how age, gender, and poverty interact in a girl’s life and influence her opportunities and outcomes.
Real Choices, Real Lives provides rich insight into the realities of growing up in a gendered world. Our in-depth data reveals both the outcomes of gender inequalities as well as how the process of gender socialisation – where males and females are taught to follow ‘gendered norms’ that determine how they should and shouldn’t behave – is influenced across the course of a girl’s life.
Exploring the potential of 'I don’t think it’s fair'
I began working on the Cohort study in 2018, when the girls turned 11/12, an age where the changes and challenges, as well as the opportunities, that adolescence brings become increasingly prominent.
This year, we decided to look deeper into our analysis – beyond the girls’ experiences of gender inequality and the reproduction of gendered norms, to identify where the girls demonstrate ‘slippages’, or ‘glitches’, in this process.
In three regionally-focused reports, looking at the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Togo, Uganda); South East Asia (Cambodia, Philippines, Vietnam); and Latin America and the Caribbean (Brazil, Dominican Republic, El Salvador), we will explore our longitudinal qualitative data to see when and where, and more significantly how and why, the Cohort girls demonstrate some level of disruption to the gender socialisation process.
We’re doing this because even the subtlest of ‘glitches’ – for example, a simple recognition that girls and boys are expected to behave differently or take on different roles – can present a moment of powerful potential for change.
If we can understand why these ‘glitches’ happen, we can help inform the way NGOs and governments facilitate social norm change, on the path to gaining gender equality.
Speaking out against gendered expectations
At first glance, it appeared to me that there were a dishearteningly low number of ‘glitches’ demonstrated by the girls, as many show acceptance or approval of gendered inequalities, such as restrictions on their freedom of movement, which don’t apply to boys; their disproportionate household responsibilities; or expectations that in entering adolescence, they should stop playing and behaving as children while their male peers are free to continue.
However, as we delved deeper into the longitudinal data, we found that every girl had, in fact, at some point noticed, questioned, or spoken out against the gendered expectations placed on them.
The realisation that something is unfair is a feeling that we have all experienced, but it is how we then react to that recognition of injustice that can be crucial. The moment can pass quickly in our reluctant acceptance that 'it’s just the way things are', or it can instead cause an upheaval of our opinions and actions.
When it comes to social norms – the ‘informal rules’ which decide what is and is not acceptable behaviour in a society – the tendency to follow the crowd and obey the ‘rules’ can often be overwhelming.
This is because the communication and enforcement of social norms is often multi-layered, coming from a range of influences in our lives: our family, our friends and community, our education, the media and technology we access, the political and economic situation where we live, which all shape our understanding of what is considered ‘normal’ behaviour. We know that the way these influences interact is complex, as well as different for each of us at different points in our lives.
That is why identifying how, when, and why one or more of these influences helps cause a girl to stop and question a social norm she has been taught to follow can inform policy and programming, that seek to transform the gendered norms which are at the root of many of the inequalities that girls and women, as well as boys and men, face.
Understanding ‘glitches’ within a girl’s context
We are placing this year’s data into the girls’ specific contexts through in-depth case studies to map the influences – people and relationships, events and changes, institutions and policies – which help to form or break gendered norms and inequalities.
In observing both the differences and similarities between the girls’ cases, within their country contexts and across the Cohort, we can see the absolute importance of understanding a girl’s full reality and experience, if we wish to analyse how and why she makes choices to ‘accept’ or ‘disrupt’ gendered norms.
Our first report will focus on the Sub-Saharan Africa Cohort countries of Benin, Togo, and Uganda, and will explore how our 37 girls in these contexts challenge the gendered norms that shape: girls’ interaction with boys; girls’ obedience and deference; girls’ future roles; and girls’ household responsibilities.
This first report in the series of three will be launched at CSW 2019 in New York and will be available online on the Plan International UK website from 12 March 2019.
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