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  • v.7(4); 2021 Apr

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Gendered stereotypes and norms: A systematic review of interventions designed to shift attitudes and behaviour

Rebecca stewart.

a BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Breanna Wright

Steven roberts.

b School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Natalie Russell

c Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth), Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Associated Data

Data included in article.

In the face of ongoing attempts to achieve gender equality, there is increasing focus on the need to address outdated and detrimental gendered stereotypes and norms, to support societal and cultural change through individual attitudinal and behaviour change. This article systematically reviews interventions aiming to address gendered stereotypes and norms across several outcomes of gender inequality such as violence against women and sexual and reproductive health, to draw out common theory and practice and identify success factors. Three databases were searched; ProQuest Central, PsycINFO and Web of Science. Articles were included if they used established public health interventions types (direct participation programs, community mobilisation or strengthening, organisational or workforce development, communications, social marketing and social media, advocacy, legislative or policy reform) to shift attitudes and/or behaviour in relation to rigid gender stereotypes and norms. A total of 71 studies were included addressing norms and/or stereotypes across a range of intervention types and gender inequality outcomes, 55 of which reported statistically significant or mixed outcomes. The implicit theory of change in most studies was to change participants' attitudes by increasing their knowledge/awareness of gendered stereotypes or norms. Five additional strategies were identified that appear to strengthen intervention impact; peer engagement, addressing multiple levels of the ecological framework, developing agents of change, modelling/role models and co-design of interventions with participants or target populations. Consideration of cohort sex, length of intervention (multi-session vs single-session) and need for follow up data collection were all identified as factors influencing success. When it comes to engaging men and boys in particular, interventions with greater success include interactive learning, co-design and peer leadership. Several recommendations are made for program design, including that practitioners need to be cognisant of breaking down stereotypes amongst men (not just between genders) and the avoidance of reinforcing outdated stereotypes and norms inadvertently.

Gender; Stereotypes; Social norms; Attitude change; Behaviour change; Men and masculinities

1. Introduction

Gender is a widely accepted social determinant of health [ 1 , 2 ], as evidenced by the inclusion of Gender Equality as a standalone goal in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [ 3 ]. In light of this, momentum is building around the need to invest in gender-transformative programs and initiatives designed to challenge harmful power and gender imbalances, in line with increasing acknowledgement that ‘restrictive gender norms harm health and limit life choices for all’ ([ 2 ] pe225, see also [ 1 , 4 ]).

Gender-transformative programs and interventions seek to critically examine gender related norms and expectations and increase gender equitable attitudes and behaviours, often with a focus on masculinity [ 5 , 6 ]. They are one of five approaches identified by Gupta [ 6 ] as part of a continuum that targets social change via efforts to address gender (in particular gender-based power imbalances), violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health rights. The approaches in ascending progressive order are; reinforcing damaging gender (and sexuality) stereotypes, gender neutral, gender sensitive, gender-transformative , and gender empowering. The emerging evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of gender-transformative interventions points to the importance of programs challenging the gender binary and related norms, as opposed to focusing only on specific behaviours or attitudes [ 1 , 7 , 8 ]. This understanding is in part derived from a growing appreciation of the need to address outdated and detrimental gendered stereotypes and norms in order to support societal and cultural change in relation to this issue [ 9 , 10 , 11 ]. In addition to this focus on gender-transformative interventions is an increasing call for the engagement of men and boys not only as allies but as participants, partners and agents of change in gender equality efforts [ 12 , 13 ].

When examining the issue of gender inequality, it is necessary to consider the underlying drivers that allow for the maintenance and ongoing repetition of sex-based disparities in access to resources, power and opportunities [ 14 ]. The drivers can largely be categorised as either, ‘structural and systemic’, or ‘social norms and gendered stereotypes’ [ 15 ]. Extensive research and work has, and continues to be, undertaken in relation to structural and systemic drivers. From this perspective, efforts to address inequalities have focused on areas societal institutions exert influence over women's rights and access. One example (of many) is the paid workforce and attempts to address unequal gender representation through policies and practices around recruitment [ 16 , 17 ], retention via tactics such as flexible working arrangements [ 18 , 19 , 20 ] and promotion [ 16 ].

The focus of this review, however, is stereotypes and norms, incorporating the attitudes, behavioural intentions and enacted behaviours that are produced and reinforced as a result of structures and systems that support inequalities. Both categories of drivers (structural and systemic and social norms and gendered stereotypes) are influenced by and exert influence upon each other. Heise and colleagues [ 12 ] suggest that gendered norms uphold the gender system and are embedded in institutions (i.e. structurally), thus determining who occupies positions of leadership, whose voices are heard and listened to, and whose needs are prioritised [ 10 ]. As noted by Kågesten and Chandra-Mouli [ 1 ], addressing both categories of drivers is crucial to the broader strategy needed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Stereotypes are widely held, generalised assumptions regarding common traits (including strengths and weaknesses), based on group categorisation [ 21 , 22 ]. Traditional gendered stereotypes see the attribution of agentic traits such as ambition, power and competitiveness as inherent in men, and communal traits such as nurturing, empathy and concern for others as characteristics of women [ 21 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 ]. In addition to these descriptive stereotypes (i.e. beliefs about specific characteristics a person possesses based on their gender) are prescriptive stereotypes, which are beliefs about specific characteristics that a person should possess based on their gender [ 21 , 25 ]. Gender-based stereotypes are informed by social norms relating to ideals and practices of masculinity and femininity (e.g. physical attributes, temperament, occupation/role suitability, etc.), which are subject to the influence of culture and time [ 15 , 21 , 26 ].

Social norms are informal (often unspoken) rules governing the behaviour of a group, emerging out of interactions with others and sanctioned by social networks [ 27 ]. Whilst stereotypes inform our assumptions about someone based on their gender [ 21 ], social norms govern the expected and accepted behaviour of women and men, often perpetuating gendered stereotypes (i.e. men as agentic, women as communal) [ 12 ]. Cialdini and Trost [ 27 ] delineate norms by suggesting that, in addition to these general societal behavioural expectations (see also [ 28 , 29 ]), there are personal norms (what we expect of ourselves) [ 30 ], and subjective norms (what we think others expect of us) [ 31 ]. Within subjective norms, there are injunctive norms (behaviours perceived as being approved by others) and descriptive norms (our observations and expectations of what most others are doing). Despite being malleable and subjective to cultural and socio-historical influences, portrayals and perpetuation of these stereotypes and social norms restrict aspirations, expectations and participation of both women and men, with demonstrations of counter-stereotypical behaviours often met with resistance and backlash ([ 12 , 24 , 32 ], see also [ 27 , 33 ]). These limitations are evident both between and among women and men, demonstrative of the power hierarchies that gender inequality and its drivers produce and sustain [ 12 ].

There is an extensive literature that explores interventions targeting gendered stereotypes and norms, each focusing on specific outcomes of gender inequality, such as violence against women [ 13 ], gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health (including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support) [ 5 , 8 ], parental involvement [ 34 ], sexual and reproductive health rights [ 23 , 35 ], and health and wellbeing [ 2 ]. Comparisons of learnings across these focus areas remains difficult however due to the current lack of a synthesis of interventions across outcomes.

Despite this gap, one of the key findings to arise out of the literature relates to the common, and often implicit, theory of change around shifting participants' attitudes by increasing their knowledge/awareness of gendered stereotypes or norms, and the assumption that this will then lead to behaviour change. This was identified by Jewkes and colleagues [ 13 ] in their review of 67 intervention evaluations in relation to the prevention of violence against women, a finding they noted was in contradiction of research across disciplines which has consistently found this relationship to be complex and bidirectional [ 36 , 37 ]. Similarly, The International Centre for Research on Women indicate the ‘problematic assumption[s] regarding pathways to change’ ([ 7 ] p26) as one of the challenges to engaging men and boys in gender equality work, noting also the focus of evaluation, when undertaken, being on changes in attitude rather than behaviour. Ruane-McAteer and colleagues [ 35 ] made the same observation when looking at interventions aimed at gender equality in sexual and reproductive health, highlighting the need for greater interrogation into the intended outcomes of interventions including what the underlying theory of change is. These findings lend further support to the utilisation of the gender-transformative approach identified by Gupta [ 6 ] if fundamental and sustained shifts in understanding, attitudes and behaviour relating to gender inequality is the desired outcome.

In sum, much is known about gender stereotypes and norms and the contribution they make to perpetuating and sustaining gender inequality through the various outcomes discussed above. Less is known however about how to support and sustain more equitable attitudes and behaviours when it comes to addressing gender equality more broadly. This systematic review aims to address the question which intervention characteristics support change in attitudes and behaviour in relation to rigid gender stereotypes and norms. It will do this by consolidating the literature to determine what has been done and what works. This includes querying which intervention types work for whom in terms of participant age and sex, as well as delivery style and duration. Additionally, it will consider the theories of change being used to address attitudes and behaviours and how these shifts are being measured, including for impact longevity. Finally, it will allow for insight into interventions specifically targeting men and boys in relation to rigid gender stereotypes and norms, seeking out particular characteristics that are supportive of work engaging this particular cohort. These questions are intentionally broad and based on the framing of the above question it is expected that the review will capture primarily interventions that address underlying societal factors that support a culture in which harmful power and gender imbalances exist by addressing gender inequitable attitudes and behaviours. In asking these questions, this review consolidates the knowledge generated to date, to strengthen the design, development and implementation of future interventions, a synthesis that appears to be both absent and needed.

2.1. Data sources and search strategy

This review was undertaken in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines [ 38 ]. A protocol was registered on the Open Science Framework (Title: Gendered norms: A systematic review of how to achieve change in rigid gender stereotypes, accessible at https://osf.io/gyk25/ ). Qualitative, quantitative and mixed method studies were identified through three electronic databases searched in February 2019 (ProQuest Central, PsycINFO and Web of Science). Four search strategies were developed in consultation with a subject librarian and tested across all three databases. The final strategy was confirmed by the lead author and a second reviewer (see Table 1 ).

Table 1

Search terms used.

There were no date or language exclusions, Title, Abstract & Keyword filters were applied where possible, and truncation was used in line with database specifications. The following intervention categories were included due to their standing in public health literature as being effective to create population level impact and having proven effective in addressing other significant health and social issues [ 39 ]; direct participation programs (referred to also as education based interventions throughout this review), community mobilisation or strengthening, organisational or workforce development, communications, social marketing and social media, advocacy, legislative or policy reform. Table 2 provides descriptions of each of these intervention categories that have been obtained from the actions outlined in the World Health Organisation's Ottawa Charter [ 40 ] and Jakarta Declaration [ 41 ] and are a comprehensive set of strategies grounded in prevention theory [ 42 ]. For the purposes of this review, legislative and policy reform within community, educational, organisational and workforce settings were included. Government legislation and policy reform were excluded.

Table 2

Public health intervention categories.

2.2. Screening

Initial search results were merged and duplicates removed using EndNote before transferring data management to Covidence for screening. Two researchers independently screened titles and abstracts excluding studies based on the criteria stipulated in Table 3 .

Table 3

Inclusion and exclusion criteria.

The University Library document request service was used to obtain articles otherwise inaccessible or in languages other than English. In cases where full-text or English versions were unable to be obtained, the study was excluded. Full-text screening was undertaken by the same two researchers independently and the final selection resulted in 71 included studies (see Figure 1 ).

Figure 1

PRISMA diagram of screening and study selection.

2.3. Data extraction

Data extraction was undertaken by the first author and checked for accuracy by the second author. Discrepancies were resolved by consensus with the remaining three authors. The extracted data included: citation, year and location of study, participant demographics (gender, age), study design, setting, theoretical underpinnings, motivation for study, measurement tools/instruments, primary outcomes and results. A formal meta-analysis was not conducted given heterogeneity of outcome variables and measures, due in part to the broad nature of the review question.

2.4. Quality appraisal

Three established quality appraisal tools were used to account for the different study designs included, the McMasters Critical Review Form – Qualitative Studies 2.0 [ 43 ], the McMasters Critical Review Form – Quantitative Studies [ 44 ], Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT), version 2018 [ 45 ]. The first author completed quality appraisal for all studies, with the second author undertaking an accuracy check on ten percent of studies. The appraisal score represents the proportion of ‘yes’ responses out of the total number of criteria. ‘Not reported’ was treated as a ‘no’ response. A discussion of the outcomes is located under Results.

2.5. Data synthesis

Included studies were explored using a modified narrative synthesis approach comprising three elements; developing a theory of how interventions worked, why and with whom, developing a preliminary synthesis of findings of included studies, and exploring relationships in studies reporting statistically significant outcomes [ 46 ]. Preliminary analysis was conducted using groupings of studies based on intervention type and thematic analysis based on gender inequality outcomes driving the study and features of the studies including participant sex and age and intervention delivery style and duration [ 46 ]. A conceptual model was developed (see Theory of Change section under Results) as the method of relationship exploration amongst studies reporting significant results, using qualitative case descriptions [ 47 ]. The narrative synthesis was undertaken under the premise that the ‘evidence being synthesised in a systematic review does not necessarily offer a series of discrete answers to a specific question’, so much as ‘each piece of evidence offers are partial picture of the phenomenon of interest’ ([ 46 ] p21).

3.1. Literature search

The literature search returned 4,050 references after the removal of duplicates (see Figure 1 ), from which 210 potentially relevant abstracts were identified. Full-text review resulted in a final list of 71 articles evaluating 69 distinct interventions aligned with the public health methodologies outlined in Table 2 . Table 4 provides a list of the included studies, categorised by intervention type. Studies fell into eight categories of interventions in total, with several combining two methodology types described in Table 2 .

Table 4

Included articles categorised by intervention type.

3.2. Quality assessment

Overall, the results of the quality appraisal indicated a moderate level of confidence in the results. The appraisal scores for the 71 studies ranged from poor (.24) to excellent (.96). The median appraisal score was .71 for all included studies (n = 71) and .76 for studies reporting statistically significant positive results (n = 32). The majority of studies were rated moderate quality (n = 57, 80%), with moderate quality regarded as .50 - .79 [ 119 ]. Ten studies were regarded as high quality (14%, >.80), and four were rated as poor (6%, <.50) [ 119 ]. Of the studies with significant outcomes, one rated high quality (.82) and the remaining 31 were moderate quality, with 18 of these (58% of 31) rating >.70. For the 15 randomised control trials (including n = 13 x cluster), all articles provided clear study purposes and design, intervention details, reported statistical significance of results, reported appropriate analysis methods and drew appropriate conclusions. However, only four studies appropriately justified sampling process and selection. For the qualitative studies (n = 5), the lowest scoring criteria were in relation to describing the process of purposeful selection (n = 1, 20%) and sampling done until redundancy in data was reached (n = 2, 40%). For the quantitative studies (n = 47) the lowest scoring criteria were in relation to sample size justification (n = 8, 17%) and avoiding contamination (n = 1, 2%) and co-intervention (n = 0, none of the studies provided information on this) in regards to intervention participants. For the Mixed Method studies (n = 19) the lowest scoring criteria in relation to the qualitative component of the research was in relation to the findings being adequately derived from the data (n = 9, 47%), and for the mixed methods criteria it was in relation to adequately addressing the divergences and inconsistencies between quantitative and qualitative results (n = 6, 32%).

3.3. Measures

Measures of stereotypes and norms varied across quantitative and mixed method studies with 31 (47%) of the 66 articles reporting the use of 25 different psychometric evaluation tools. The remaining 35 (53%) of quantitative and mixed methods studies reported developing measurement tools specific to the study with inconsistencies in description and provision of psychometric properties. Of the studies that used psychometric evaluation tools, the most frequently used were the Gender Equitable Men Scale (GEMS, n = 6, plus n = 2 used questions from the GEMS), followed by the Gender Role Conflict Scale I (GRCS-I, n = 5, plus n = 1 used a Short Form version) and the Gender-Stereotyped Attitude Scale for Children (GASC, n = 5). Whilst most studies used explicit measures as listed here, implicit measures were also used across several studies, including the Gender-Career Implicit Attitudes Test (n = 1). The twenty-four studies that undertook qualitative data collection used interviews (participant n = 15, key informant n = 3) as well as focus groups (n = 8), ethnographic observations (n = 5) and document analysis (n = 2). Twenty (28%) of the 71 studies measured behaviour and/or behavioural intentions, of which 9 (45%) used self-report measures only, four (20%) used self-report and observational data, and two (10%) used observation only. Follow-up data was collected for four of the studies using self-report measures, and two using observation measures, and one using both methods.

3.4. Study and intervention characteristics

Table 5 provides a summary of study and intervention characteristics. All included studies were published between 1990 and 2019; n = 8 (11%) between 1990 and 1999, n = 15 (21%) between 2000 and 2009, and the majority n = 48 (68%) from 2010 to 2019. Interventions were delivered in 23 countries (one study did not specify a location), with the majority conducted in the U.S. (n = 33, 46%), followed by India (n = 10, 14%). A further 15 studies (21%) were undertaken in Africa across East Africa (n = 7, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda), South Africa (n = 6), and West Africa (n = 2, Nigeria, Senegal). The remaining fifteen studies were conducted in Central and South America (n = 4, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Argentina), Europe (n = 3, Ireland, Spain and Turkey), Nepal (n = 2), and one study each in Australia, China, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. Forty-seven (66%) studies employed quantitative methods, 19 (27%) reported both quantitative and qualitative (mixed) methods, and the remaining five studies (7%) reported qualitative methods. Forty-two of the quantitative and mixed-method approaches were non-randomised control trials, 13 were cluster randomised control trials, two were randomised control trials, and eight were quantitative descriptive studies.

Table 5

Summarised study and intervention characteristics (n = 71).

Based on total study sample sizes, data was reported on 46,673 participants. Sample sizes ranged from 15 to 122 for qualitative, 7 to 2887 for mixed methods, and 21 to 6073 for quantitative studies. Of the 71 studies, 23 (32%) reported on children (<18 years old), 13 (18%) on adolescents/young adults (<30 years old), 29 (41%) on adults (>18 years old), and six (8%) studies did not provided details on participant age. Thirty-seven (52%) studies recruited participants from educational settings (i.e. kindergarten, primary, middle and secondary/high school, tertiary including college residential settings, and summer camps/schools), 32 (45%) from general community settings (including home and sports), three from therapy-based programs for offenders (i.e. substance abuse and partner abuse prevention), and one sourced participants from both educational (vocational) and a workplace (factory).

As per Table 5 , the greatest proportion of all studies engaged mixed sex cohorts (n = 39, 55%), looked at norms (n = 34, 48%), were undertaken in community settings (n = 32, 45%), were education/direct participant interventions (n = 47, 66%) and undertook pre and post intervention evaluation (n = 49, 69%). Twenty-four studies reported on follow up data collection, with 10 reporting maintenance of outcomes.

Intervention lengths were varied, from individual sessions (90 min) to ongoing programs (up to 6 years) and were dependent on intervention type. Table 6 provides the duration range by intervention type.

Table 6

Intervention type and duration.

Of the 71 studies examined in this review, 10 (14%) stated a gender approach in relation to the continuum outlined at the start of this paper, utilising two of the five categories; gender-transformative and gender-sensitive [ 6 ]. Eight studies stated that they were gender-transformative, the definition of this strategy being to critically examine gender related norms and expectations and increase gender equitable attitudes and behaviours, often with a focus on masculinity [ 9 , 10 ]. An additional two stated they were gender-sensitive, the definition of which is to take into account and seek to address existing gender inequalities [ 10 ]. The remaining 61 (86%) studies did not specifically state engagement with a specific gender approach. Interpretation of the gender approach was not undertaken in relation to these 61 studies due to insufficient available data and to avoid potential risk of error, mislabelling or misidentification.

3.5. Characteristics supporting success

Due to the broad inclusion criteria for this review, there is considerable variation in study designs and the measurement of attitudes and behaviours. With the exception of the five studies using qualitative methods, all included studies reported on p-values, and 13 reported on effect sizes [ 51 , 60 , 66 , 69 , 70 , 71 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 83 , 92 , 99 , 110 ]. In addition to this, the centrality of gender norms and/or stereotypes within studies meeting inclusion criteria varied from a primary outcome to a secondary one, and in some studies was a peripheral consideration only, with minimal data reported. This heterogeneity prevents comparisons based purely on whether the outcomes of the studies were statistically significant, and as such consideration was also given to the inclusion of effect sizes, author interpretation, qualitative insights and whether outcomes reported as statistically non-significant reported encouraging results, which allowed for the inclusion of those using qualitative methods only [ 53 , 73 , 81 , 82 , 98 ].

As outlined in Table 5 , the studies were grouped into three categories based on reporting of statistical significance using p-values. Two categories include studies reporting statistically significant outcomes (n = 25) and those reporting mixed outcomes including some statistically significant results (n = 30), specifically in relation to the measurement of gender norms and/or stereotypes. Disparate outcomes included negligible behavioural changes, a shift in some but not all norms (i.e. shifts in descriptive but not personal norms, or masculine but not feminine stereotypes), and effects seen in some but not all participants (i.e. shifts in female participant scores but not male). It is worth noting that out of the 71 studies reviewed, all but one reported positive or negligible intervention impacts on attitudes and/or behaviours relating to gender norms and/or stereotypes. The other category include those reporting non-significant results (n = 2) as well as those that reported non-significant but positive results in relation to attitude and/or behaviour change towards gender norms and/or stereotypes (n = 14). These studies include those which had qualitative designs, several who reported on descriptive statistics only, and several which did not meet statistical significance but who demonstrated improvement in participant scores between base and end line and/or between intervention and control groups. The insights from the qualitative studies (n = 5) have been taken into consideration in the narrative synthesis of this review.

Studies reporting statistically significant outcomes were represented across seven of the eight intervention types. The only intervention category not represented was advocacy and education [ 48 ] which reported non-significant but positive results. The remainder of this section will consider the study characteristics of the statistically significant and mixed results categories, as well as identifying similar trends observed in the qualitative studies which reported positive but non-significant intervention outcomes. When considering intervention type, direct participant education was the most common, with 49 of the 55 studies reporting statistically significant or mixed outcomes containing a direct participant education component, and all but one of the five qualitative studies.

The majority of interventions reporting achievement of intended outcomes involved delivery of multiple sessions ranging from five x 20 min sessions across one week to multiple sessions across six years. This included 48 of the 55 studies reporting statistically significant or mixed outcomes, and all five qualitative studies. Only one of the seven that utilised single/one-off sessions reported significant outcomes. The remaining six studies had varying results, including finding shifts in descriptive but not personal norms amongst a male-only cohort, shifts in acceptance of both genders performing masculine behaviours but no shift in acceptance of males performing feminine behaviours, and significant outcomes for participants already demonstrating more egalitarian attitudes at baseline but not those holding more traditional ones – arguably the target audience.

When considering participant sex, the majority of studies reporting statistically significant or mixed results engaged mixed sex cohorts (n = 33 out of 55), with the remaining studies engaging male only (n = 13) and female only (n = 9) cohorts. Of the qualitative studies, three engaged mixed sex participant cohorts. Interestingly however, several studies reported disparate results, including significant outcomes for male but non-significant outcomes for female participants primarily in studies incorporating a community mobilisation element, and the reverse pattern in some studies that were education based. Additional discrepancies were found between several studies looking at individual and community level outcomes.

Finally, a quarter of studies worked with male only cohorts (n = 18). Of these, four reported significant results, nine reported mixed results, and the remaining five studies reported non-significant but positive outcomes, one of which was a qualitative study. Within these studies, two demonstrated shifts in more generalised descriptive norms and/or stereotypes relating to men, but not in relation to personal norms. Additionally, several studies demonstrated that shifts in male participant attitudes were not generalised, with discrepancies found in relation to attitudes shifting towards women but not men and in relation to some norms or stereotypes (for example men acting in ‘feminine’ ways) but not others that appeared to be more culturally entrenched. These studies are explored further in the Discussion.

In summary, interventions that used direct participant education, across multiple sessions, with mixed sex participant cohorts were associated with greater success in changing attitudes and in a small number of studies behaviour. Further to these characteristics, several strategies were identified that appear to enhance intervention impact which are discussed further in the next section.

3.6. Theory of change

One aim of this review was to draw out common theory and practice in order to strengthen future intervention development and delivery. Across all included studies, the implicit theory of change was raising knowledge/awareness for the purposes of shifting attitudes relating to gender norms and/or stereotypes. Direct participant education-based interventions was the predominant method of delivery. In addition to this, 23 (32%) studies attempted to take this a step further to address behaviour and/or behavioural intentions, of which 10 looked at gender equality outcomes (including bystander action and behavioural intentions), whilst the remaining studies focused on gender-based violence (n = 9), sexual and reproductive health (n = 2) and two studies which did not focus on behaviours related to the focus of this review.

As highlighted in Figure 2 , this common theory of change was the same across all identified intervention categories, irrespective of the overarching focus of the study (gender equality, prevention of violence, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and wellbeing). Those examining gender equality more broadly did so in relation to female empowerment in relationships, communities and political participation, identifying and addressing stereotypes and normative attitudes with kindergarten and school aged children. Those considering prevention of violence did so specifically in relation to violence against women, including intimate partner violence, rape awareness and myths, and a number of studies looking at teen dating violence. Sexual and reproductive health studies primarily assessed prevention of HIV, but also men and women's involvement in family planning, with several exploring the interconnected issues of violence and sexual and reproductive health. Finally, those studies looking at mental health and wellbeing did so in relation to mental and physical health outcomes and associated help-seeking behaviours, including reducing stigma around mental health (particularly amongst men in terms of acceptance and help seeking) and emotional expression (in relationships).

Figure 2

Breakdown of study characteristics and strategies associated with achieving intended outcomes.

In addition to the implicit theory of change, the review process identified five additional strategies that appear to have strengthened interventions (regardless of intervention type). In addition to implicit theory of change across all studies, one or more of these strategies were utilised by 31 of the 55 studies that reported statistically significant results:

  • • Addressing more than one level of the ecological framework (n = 17): which refers to different levels of personal and environmental factors, all of which influence and are influenced by each other to differing degrees [ 120 ]. The levels are categorised as individual, relational, community/organisational and societal, with the individual level being the most commonly addressed across studies in this review;
  • • Peer engagement (n = 14): Using participant peers (for example people from the same geographical location, gender, life experience, etc.) to support or lead an intervention, including the use of older students to mentor younger students, or using peer interactions as part of the intervention to enhance learning. This included students putting on performances for the broader school community, facilitation of peer discussions via online platforms or face-to-face via direct participant education and group activities or assignments;
  • • Use of role models and modelling of desired attitudes and/or behaviours by facilitators or persons of influence in participants' lives (n = 11);
  • • Developing agents of change (n = 7): developing knowledge and skills for the specific purpose of participants using these to engage with their spheres of influence and further promote, educate and support the people and environments in which they interact; and
  • • Co-design (n = 6): Use of formative research or participant feedback to develop the intervention or to allow flexibility in its evolution as it progresses.

Additionally, four of the five studies using qualitative methods utilised one or more of these strategies; ecological framework (n = 3), peer engagement (n = 1), role models (n = 2), agents of change (n = 2) and co-design (n = 1). Whilst only a small number of studies reported engaging the last two strategies, developing agents of change and co-design, they have been highlighted due to their prominence in working with the sub-set of men and boys, as well as the use of role models/modelling.

The remaining 24 studies that reported significant outcomes did not utilise any of these five strategies. Eight used a research/experimental design, the remaining 16 were all direct participant education interventions, and either did not provide enough detail about the intervention structure or delivery to determine if they engaged in any of these strategies (n = 13), were focused on testing a specific theory (n = 2) or in the case of one study used financial incentives.

Figure 2 provides a conceptual model exploring the relationship amongst studies reporting statistically significant outcomes. Utilising the common theory of change as well as the additional identified strategies, interventions were able to address factors that act as gender inequality enforcers including knowledge, attitudes, environmental factors and behaviour and behavioural intentions (see Table 7 ), to achieve statistically significant shifts in attitudes, and in a small number of cases behaviour (see Table 8 ).

Table 7

Factors supportive of gender inequality in studies reporting significant positive outcomes (n = 55).

Table 8

Changes observed in attitudes and behaviours in studies reporting significant positive outcomes (n = 55).

4. Discussion

This systematic review synthesises evidence on ‘which intervention characteristics support change in attitudes and behaviours in relation to rigid gender stereotypes and norms’, based on the seventy-one studies that met the review inclusion criteria. Eight intervention types were identified, seven of which achieved statistically significant outcomes. Patterns of effectiveness were found based on delivery style and duration, as well as participant sex, and several strategies (peer engagement, addressing multiple levels of the ecological framework, skilling participants as agents of change, use of role models and modelling of desired attitudes and behaviours, and intervention co-design with participants) were identified that enhanced shifts in attitudes and in a small number of studies, behaviour. Additionally, a common theory of change was identified (increasing knowledge and raising awareness to achieve shifts in attitudes) across all studies reporting statistically significant results.

The articles included in this review covered a range of intervention types, duration and focus, demonstrating relative heterogeneity across these elements. This is not an unexpected outcome given the aim of this review was to allow for comparisons to be drawn across interventions, regardless of the overarching focus of the study (gender equality, prevention of violence, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and wellbeing). As a result, one of the key findings of this review is that design, delivery and engagement strategies that feature in studies reporting successful outcomes, are successful regardless of the intervention focus thus widening the evidence base from which those researching and implementing interventions can draw. That said, the heterogeneity of studies limits the ability for definitive conclusions to be drawn based on the studies considered in this review. Instead this section provides a discussion of the characteristics and strategies observed based on the narrative synthesis undertaken.

4.1. Intervention characteristics that support success

4.1.1. intervention type and participant demographics.

The 71 included studies were categorised into eight intervention types (see Table 4 ); advocacy and education, advocacy and community mobilisation, community mobilisation, community mobilisation and education, education (direct participant), research and education, research, and two studies that utilised four or more intervention types (advocacy via campaigns and social media, community mobilisation, education and legislation, and, advocacy, education, community mobilisation, policy and social marketing). With the exception of the individual study that utilised advocacy and education, all intervention types were captured in studies reporting statistically significant or mixed results.

Direct participant education was the most common intervention type across all studies (n = 47 out of 71, 66%). When considering those studies that included a component of direct participant education in their intervention (e.g. those studies which engaged education and community mobilisation) this figure rose to 63 of the 69 individual interventions looked at in this review, 54 of which reported outcomes that were either statistically significant (n = 23), mixed (n = 26) or were non-significant due to the qualitative research design, but reported positive outcomes (n = 5). These findings indicate that direct participant education is both a popular and an effective strategy for engaging participants in attitudinal (and in a small number of cases behaviour) change.

Similarly, mixed sex participant cohorts were involved in over half of all studies (n = 39 out of 71, 55%), of which 33 reported statistically significant or mixed results, and a further three did not meet statistical significance due to the qualitative research design but reported positive outcomes. Across several studies however, conflicting results were observed between male and female participants, with female's showing greater improvement in interventions using education [ 85 , 89 , 114 ] and males showing greater improvement when community mobilisation was incorporated [ 51 , 60 ]. That is not to say that male participants do not respond well to education-based interventions with 13 of the 18 studies engaging male only cohorts reporting intended outcomes using direct participant education. However, of these studies, nine also utilised one or more of the additional strategies identified such as co-design or peer engagement which whilst different to community engagement, employ similar principles around participant engagement [ 77 , 79 , 87 , 91 , 92 , 96 , 97 , 99 , 105 , 107 , 111 , 115 ]. These findings suggest that participant sex may impact on how well participants engage with an intervention type and thus how successful it is.

There was a relatively even spread of studies reporting significant outcomes across all age groups, in line with the notion that the impact of rigid gender norms and stereotypes are not age discriminant [ 10 ]. Whilst the broad nature of this review curtailed the possibility of determining the impact of aged based on the studies synthesised, the profile of studies reporting statistically significant outcomes indicates that no patterns were found in relation to impact and participants age.

The relatively small number of studies that observed the above differences in intervention design and delivery means definitive conclusions cannot be drawn based on the studies examined in this review. That said, all of these characteristics support an increase in personal buy-in. Interventions that incorporate community mobilisation engage with more than just the individual, often addressing community norms and creating environments supportive of change [ 49 , 50 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 57 , 58 , 59 , 60 , 117 , 118 ]. Similarly, education based programs that incorporate co-design and peer support do more than just knowledge and awareness raising with an individual participant, providing space for them to develop their competence and social networks [ 70 , 75 , 77 , 79 , 81 , 86 , 90 , 91 , 92 , 93 , 97 , 103 , 107 , 109 , 110 , 111 , 113 , 115 , 116 ]. When it comes to designing these interventions, it would appear that success may be influenced by which method is most engaging to the participants and that this is in turn influenced by the participants' sex. This finding is reinforced further when taking into consideration the quality of studies with those reporting on a mixed-sex cohort, which were generally lower in quality than those working with single sex groups. Whilst it appears mixed sex cohorts are both common and effective at obtaining significant results, these findings suggest that when addressing gendered stereotypes and norms, there is a need to consider and accommodate differences in how participants learn and respond when designing interventions to ensure the greatest chance of success in terms of impacting on all participants, regardless of sex, and ensuring quality of study design.

4.1.2. Intervention delivery

The findings from this review suggests that multi-session interventions are both more common and more likely to deliver significant outcomes than single-session or one-off interventions. This is evidenced by the fact that only one [ 67 ] out seven studies engaging the use of one-off sessions reported significant outcomes with the remaining six reporting mixed results [ 63 , 66 , 68 , 69 , 78 , 90 ]. Additionally, all but two of the studies [ 78 , 90 ] used a research/experimental study design, indicating a current gap in the literature in terms of real-world application and effectiveness of single session interventions. This review highlights the lack of reported evidence of single session effectiveness, particularly in terms of maintaining attitudinal changes in the few instances in which follow-up data was collected. Additionally this review only captured single-sessions that ran to a maximum of 2.5 h, further investigation is needed into the impact of one-off intensive sessions, such as those run over the course of a weekend. While more evidence is needed to reach definitive conclusions, the review indicates that single-session or one-off interventions are sub-optimal, aligning with the same finding by Barker and colleagues [ 5 ] in their review of interventions engaging men and boys in changing gender-based inequity in health. This is further reflected in the health promotion literature that points to the lack of demonstrated effectiveness of single-session direct participant interventions when it comes to addressing social determinants of health [ 121 , 122 , 123 ]. Studies that delivered multiple sessions demonstrate the ability to build rapport with and amongst the cohort (peer engagement, modelling, co-design) as well as the allowance of greater depth of learning and retention achievable through repeated touch points and revision. These are elements that can only happen through recurring and consistent exposure. Given these findings, practitioners should consider avoiding one-off or single-session delivery, in favour of multi-session or multi-touch point interventions allowing for greater engagement and impact.

4.1.3. Evaluation

Very few included studies collected follow-up data, with only one third of studies evaluating beyond immediate post-intervention data collection (n = 24). Of those that did, ten reported maintenance of their findings [ 55 , 56 , 64 , 70 , 79 , 93 , 95 , 103 , 113 , 116 ], eleven did not provide sufficient detail to determine [ 50 , 52 , 57 , 65 , 66 , 82 , 91 , 92 , 94 , 102 , 105 ] and two reported findings were not maintained [ 61 , 90 ]. The last study, a 90 min single session experiment with an education component, reported significant positive outcomes between base and end line scores, but saw a significant negative rebound in scores to worse than base line when they collected follow up data six weeks later [ 63 ]. This study supports the above argument for needing more than a single session in order to support change long term and highlights the importance of capturing follow up data not only to ensure longevity of significant outcomes, but also to capture reversion effects. The lack of standardised measures to capture shifts in norms is acknowledged empirically [ 11 , 13 ]. However, the outcomes of this review, including the lack of follow up data collection reported, are supportive of the need for increased investment in longitudinal follow-up, particularly in relation to measuring behaviour change and ensuring maintenance of observed changes to attitudes and behaviour over time (see also [ 124 ]).

4.1.4. Behaviour change

When it comes to behaviour change, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn due to the paucity of studies. The studies that did look at behaviour focused on the reduction of relational violence including the perpetration and experience of physical, psychological and sexual violence [ 50 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 59 , 60 , 105 , 115 ], as well as more equitable division of domestic labour [ 82 , 86 , 98 ] and responsibility for sexual and reproductive health [ 58 , 116 ], intention to take bystander action [ 65 , 102 , 117 ] and female political participation [ 81 ]. Lack of follow up data and use of measurement tools other than self-report, however, make it difficult to determine the permanency of the behaviour change and whether behavioural intentions transition to action. Models would suggest that interventions aimed at changing attitudes/norms would flow on to behaviour change but need to address multiple levels of the ecological framework not just the individual to support this change, and engage peer leadership and involvement in order to do so. This supports findings from the literature discussed at the start of this paper, alerting practitioners to the danger of making incorrect assumptions about ‘pathways to change’ [ 7 ] and the need to be mindful of the intention-behaviour gap which has been shown to disrupt this flow from attitude and intention to actual behaviour change [ 6 , 13 , 35 , 36 , 37 ].

If studies are to evaluate the impact of an intervention on behaviour, this objective must be made clear in the intervention design and evaluation strategy, and there must be an avoidance of relying on self-report data only, which is subject to numerous types of bias such as social desirability. Use of participant observation as well as key informant feedback would strengthen evaluation. The quality of studies that measured behaviour change was varied, ranging from poor (n = 1 at <.5 looking at behavioural intentions) to high (n = 3 at >.85 looking at bystander action and gender equality). The majority of studies however, were moderate in quality measuring either lower (n = 4 at .57, looking at gender-based violence, domestic labour division and bystander intention, and n = 2 at .64 looking at gender-based violence) to higher (n = 11 at .71-.79, looking at gender-based violence, gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and behavioural intentions), further supporting the finding that consideration in study design and evaluation is crucial. It is worth noting that measuring behaviour change is difficult, it requires greater resources should more than just self-report measurements be used, as well as longitudinal follow up to account for sustained change and to capture deterioration of behaviour post intervention should it occur.

4.2. Theory of change

Across all included studies, the implicit theory of change was knowledge/awareness raising for the purposes of shifting attitudes towards gender norms and/or stereotypes. This did not vary substantially across intervention type or study focus, whether it was norms, stereotypes or both being addressed, and for all participant cohorts. The conceptual framework developed (see Figure 2 ) shows that by increasing knowledge and raising awareness, the studies that reported statistically significant outcomes were able to address factors enforcing gender inequality in the form of knowledge, attitudes, environmental factors, and in a small number of cases behaviour.

Further to this common theory of change, several strategies were identified which appear to have enhanced the delivery and impact of these interventions. These included the use of participant peers to lead, support and heighten learning [ 49 , 77 , 79 , 81 , 86 , 90 , 92 , 93 , 103 , 109 , 110 , 111 , 113 , 115 , 116 , 117 ], involvement of multiple levels of the ecological framework (not just addressing the individual) [ 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 58 , 59 , 60 , 70 , 72 , 74 , 81 , 86 , 91 , 97 , 98 , 102 , 117 , 118 ], developing participants into agents of change [ 49 , 52 , 58 , 60 , 72 , 81 , 98 , 117 , 118 ], using modelling and role models [ 49 , 51 , 52 , 58 , 60 , 65 , 82 , 98 , 110 , 117 , 118 ], and the involvement of participants in co-designing the intervention [ 51 , 70 , 81 , 90 , 91 , 97 , 111 ]. As mentioned earlier, these strategies all contain principles designed to increase participant buy-in, creating a more personal and/or relatable experience.

One theory that can be used to consider this pattern is Petty and Cacioppo's [ 125 ] Elaboration Likelihood Model. The authors posit that attitudes changed through a central (deliberative processing) route, are more likely to show longevity, are greater predictors of behaviour change and are more resistant to a return to pre-intervention attitudes, than those that are the result of peripheral, or short cut, mental processing. Whether information is processed deliberately is dependent on a person's motivation and ability, both of which need to be present and both of which are influenced by external factors including context, message delivery and individual differences. In other words, the more accessible the message is and the more engaged a person is with the messaging they are exposed to, the stronger the attitude that is formed.

In the context of the studies in this review, the strategies found to enhance intervention impact all focus on creating a relationship and environment for the participant to engage in greater depth with the content of the intervention. This included not only the use of the five strategies discussed here, but also the use of multi-session delivery as well as use of delivery types aligned with participant responsiveness (community mobilisation and co-design elements when engaging men and boys, and education-focused interventions for engaging women and girls). With just under two thirds of studies reporting positive outcomes employing one or more of these strategies, practitioners should consider incorporating these into intervention design and delivery for existing interventions or initiatives as well as new ones.

4.3. Engaging men and boys

Represented by only a quarter of studies overall (n = 18 out of 71) this review further highlights the current dearth of research and formal evaluation of interventions working specifically with men and boys [ 124 ].

Across the 18 studies, four reported significant outcomes [ 59 , 79 , 97 , 111 ], nine reported mixed results with some but not all significant outcomes [ 49 , 63 , 68 , 77 , 91 , 92 , 99 , 105 , 115 ] and the remaining five reported non-significant but positive results [ 75 , 87 , 96 , 107 ], including one qualitative study [ 53 ]. Quality was reasonably high (n = 12 rated .71 - .86), and there were some interesting observations to be made about specific elements for this population.

The majority of the studies reporting positive significant or mixed results utilised one or more of the five additional strategies identified through this review (n = 10 out of 14) including the one qualitative study. Three studies used co-design principles to develop their intervention, which included formative research and evolution through group discussions across the duration of the intervention [ 91 , 97 , 111 ]. Four studies targeted more than just the individual participants including focusing on relational and community aspects [ 53 , 59 , 91 , 97 ]. Another six leveraged peer interaction in terms of group discussions and support, and leadership which included self-nominated peer leaders delivering sessions [ 49 , 77 , 79 , 92 , 111 , 115 ]. Finally, two studies incorporated role models [ 79 ] or role models and agents of change [ 49 ]. Similar to the overall profile of studies in this review, the majority in this group utilised direct participant education (n = 12 out of 14) either solely [ 77 , 79 , 91 , 92 , 97 , 99 , 105 , 111 , 115 ], or in conjunction with community mobilisation [ 53 , 59 ] or a research/experimental focus [ 63 ].

The use of the additional strategies in conjunction with direct participant education aligning with the earlier observation about male participants responding better in studies that incorporated a community or interpersonal element. A sentiment that was similarly observed by Burke and colleagues [ 79 ] in their study of men in relation to mental health and wellbeing, in which they surmised that a ‘peer-based group format’ appears to better support the psychosocial needs of men to allow them the space to ‘develop alternatives to traditional male gender role expectations and norms’ (p195).

When taken together, these findings suggest that feeling part of the process, being equipped with the information and skills, and having peer engagement, support and leadership/modelling, are all components that support the engagement of men and boys not only as allies but as participants, partners and agents of change when it comes to addressing gender inequality and the associated negative outcomes. This is reflective of the theory of change discussion outlining design principles that encourage and increase participant buy-in and the strength in creating a more personal and/or relatable learning experience.

Working with male only cohorts is another strategy used to create an environment that fosters participant buy-in [ 126 ]. Debate exists however around the efficacy of this approach, highlighted by the International Centre for Research on Women as an unsubstantiated assumption that the ‘best people to work with men are other men’ ([ 7 ] p26), which they identify as one of the key challenges to engaging men and boys in gender equality work [ 7 , 13 ]. Although acknowledging the success that has been observed in male-only education and preference across cultures for male educators, they caution of the potential for this assumption to extend to one that men cannot change by working with women [ 7 , 13 ]. The findings from this review support the need for further exploration and evaluation into the efficacy of male only participant interventions given the relatively small number of studies examined in this review and the variance in outcomes observed.

4.3.1. One size does not fit all

In addition to intervention and engagement strategies, the outcomes of several studies indicate a need to consider the specifics of content when it comes to engaging men and boys in discussions of gendered stereotypes and norms. This was evident in Pulerwitz and colleagues [ 59 ] study looking at male participants, which found an increase in egalitarian attitudes towards gendered stereotypes in relation to women, but a lack of corresponding acceptance and change when consideration was turned towards themselves and/or other males. Additionally, Brooks-Harris and colleagues [ 68 ] found significant shifts in male role attitudes broadly, but not in relation to personal gender roles or gender role conflict. Their findings suggest that targeted attention needs to be paid to addressing different types of stereotypes and norms, with attitudes towards one's own gender roles, and in the case of this study one's ‘fear of femininity’ being more resistant to change than attitudes towards more generalised stereotypes and norms. This is an important consideration for those working to engage men and boys, particularly around discussions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Rigid gendered stereotypes and norms can cause harmful and restrictive outcomes for everyone [ 2 ] and it is crucial that interventions aimed at addressing them dismantle and avoid supporting these stereotypes; not just between sexes, but amongst them also [ 127 ]. Given the scarcity of evidence at present, further insight is required into how supportive spaces for exploration and growth are balanced with the avoidance of inadvertently reinforcing the very stereotypes and norms being addressed in relation to masculinity, particularly in the case of male only participant groups.

There is currently a gap in the research in relation to these findings, particularly outside of the U.S. and countries in Africa. Further research into how programs engaging men and boys in this space utilise these elements of intervention design and engagement strategies, content and the efficacy of single sex compared to mixed sex participant cohorts is needed.

4.4. Limitations and future directions

The broad approach taken in this review resulted in a large number of included studies (n = 71) and a resulting heterogeneity of study characteristics that restricted analysis options and assessment of publication bias. That said, the possibility of publication bias appears less apparent given that less than half of the 71 included studies reported statistically significant effects, with the remainder reporting mixed or non-significant outcomes. This may be in part due to the significant variance in evaluation approaches and selection of measurement tools used.

Heterogeneity of studies and intervention types limited the ability to draw statistical comparisons for specific outcomes, settings, and designs. Equally, minimal exclusion criteria in the study selection strategy also meant there was noteworthy variance in quality of studies observed across the entire sample of 71 papers. The authors acknowledge the limitations of using p-values as the primary measurement of significance and success. The lack of studies reporting on effect sizes (n = 13) in addition to the variance in study quality is a limitation of the review. However, the approach taken in this review, to include those studies with mixed outcomes and those reporting intended outcomes regardless of the p-value obtained, has allowed for an all-encompassing snapshot of the work happening and the extrapolation of strategies that have previously not been identified across such a broad spectrum of studies targeting gender norms and stereotypes.

An additional constraint was the inclusion of studies reported in English only. Despite being outside the scope of this review it is acknowledged that inclusion of non-English articles is necessary to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the literature.

The broad aim of the review and search strategy will have also inevitably resulted in some studies being missed. It was noted at the beginning of the paper that the framing of the research question was expected to impact the types of interventions captured. This was the case when considering the final list of included studies, in particular the relative absence of tertiary prevention interventions featured, such as those looking at men's behaviour change programs. This could in part account for the scarcity of interventions focused on behaviour change as opposed to the pre-cursors of attitudes and norms.

This review found that interventions using direct participant education interventions were the most common approach to raising awareness, dismantling harmful gender stereotypes and norms and shifting attitudes and beliefs towards more equitable gender norms. However due to the lack of follow-up data collected and reported, these changes can only be attributable to the short-term, with a need for further research into the longevity of these outcomes. Future research in this area needs to ensure the use of sound and consistent measurement tools, including avoiding a reliance solely on self-report measures for behaviour change (e.g. use of observations, key informant interviews, etc.), and more longitudinal data collection and follow-up.

When it comes to content design, as noted at the start of the paper, there is growing focus on the use and evaluation of gender-transformative interventions when engaging in gender equality efforts [ 1 , 2 , 6 , 128 ]. This review however found a distinct lack of engagement with this targeted approach, providing an opportunity for practitioners to explore this to strengthen engagement and impact of interventions (see 1 for a review of gender-transformative interventions working with young people). The scope of this review did not allow for further investigation to be undertaken to explore the gender approaches taken in the 61 studies which did not state their gender approach. There is scope for future investigation of this nature however in consultation with study authors.

An all-encompassing review, such as this one, allows for comparisons across intervention types and focus, such as those targeted at reducing violence or improving sexual and reproductive health behaviours. This broad approach allowed for the key finding that design, delivery and engagement strategies that feature in studies reporting successful outcomes, are successful regardless of the intervention focus thus widening the evidence based from which those researching and implementing interventions can draw. However, the establishment of this broad overview of interventions aimed at gendered stereotypes and norms highlights the current gap and opportunity for more targeted reviews in relation to these concepts.

5. Conclusion

Several characteristics supporting intervention success have been found based on the evidence examined in this review. The findings suggest that when planning, designing and developing interventions aimed at addressing rigid gender stereotypes and norms participant sex should help inform the intervention type chosen. Multi-session interventions are more effective than single or one-off sessions, and the use of additional strengthening strategies such as peer engagement and leadership, addressing multiple levels of the ecological framework, skilling up agents of change, modelling/role models, co-design with participants can support the achievement of intended outcomes. Longitudinal data collection is currently lacking but needed, and when seeking to extend the impact of an intervention to include behaviour change there is currently too much reliance on self-report data, which is subject to bias (e.g. social desirability).

When it comes to engaging men and boys, this review indicates that interventions have a greater chance of success when using peer-based learning in education programs, involving participants in the design and development, and the use of peer delivery and leadership. Ensuring clear learning objectives and outcomes in relation to specific types of norms, stereotypes and behaviours being addressed is crucial in making sure evaluation accurately captures these things. Practitioners need to be cognisant of breaking down stereotypes amongst men (not just between genders), as well as the need for extra attention to be paid in shifting some of the more deeply and culturally entrenched stereotypes and norms. More research is needed into the efficacy of working with male only cohorts, and care taken that rigid stereotypes and norms are not inadvertently reinforced when doing so.


Author contribution statement.

Rebecca Stewart: Conceived and designed the experiments; Performed the experiments; Analyzed and interpreted the data; Wrote the paper.

Breanna Wright: Conceived and designed the experiments; Performed the experiments; Analyzed and interpreted the data.

Liam Smith, Steven Roberts, Natalie Russell: Conceived and designed the experiments.

Funding statement

This work was supported by Australian Government Research Training Program and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth).

Data availability statement

Declaration of interests statement.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Additional information

No additional information is available for this paper.


This research was completed as part of a PhD undertaken at Monash University.

Gender Studies: Foundations and Key Concepts

Gender studies developed alongside and emerged out of Women’s Studies. This non-exhaustive list introduces readers to scholarship in the field.

Jack Halberstam, Afsaneh Najmabadi-Evaz and bell hooks

Gender studies asks what it means to make gender salient, bringing a critical eye to everything from labor conditions to healthcare access to popular culture. Gender is never isolated from other factors that determine someone’s position in the world, such as sexuality, race, class, ability, religion, region of origin, citizenship status, life experiences, and access to resources. Beyond studying gender as an identity category, the field is invested in illuminating the structures that naturalize, normalize, and discipline gender across historical and cultural contexts.

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At a college or university, you’d be hard pressed to find a department that brands itself as simply Gender Studies. You’d be more likely to find different arrangements of the letters G, W, S, and perhaps Q and F, signifying gender, women, sexuality, queer, and feminist studies. These various letter configurations aren’t just semantic idiosyncrasies. They illustrate the ways the field has grown and expanded since its institutionalization in the 1970s.

This non-exhaustive list aims to introduce readers to gender studies in a broad sense. It shows how the field has developed over the last several decades, as well as how its interdisciplinary nature offers a range of tools for understanding and critiquing our world.

Catharine R. Stimpson, Joan N. Burstyn, Domna C. Stanton, and Sandra M. Whisler, “Editorial.” Signs , 1975; “Editorial,” off our backs , 1970

The editorial from the inaugural issue of Signs , founded in 1975 by Catharine Stimpson, explains that the founders hoped that the journal’s title captured what women’s studies is capable of doing: to “represent or point to something.” Women’s studies was conceptualized as an interdisciplinary field that could represent issues of gender and sexuality in new ways, with the possibility of shaping “scholarship, thought, and policy.”

The editorial in the first issue of off our backs , a feminist periodical founded in 1970, explains how their collective wanted to explore the “dual nature of the women’s movement:” that “women need to be free of men’s domination” and “must strive to get off our backs.” The content that follows includes reports on the Equal Rights Amendment, protests, birth control, and International Women’s Day.

Robyn Wiegman, “Academic Feminism against Itself.” NWSA Journal , 2002

Gender studies developed alongside and emerged out of Women’s Studies, which consolidated as an academic field of inquiry in the 1970s. Wiegman tracks some of the anxieties that emerged with the shift from women’s to gender studies, such as concerns it would decenter women and erase the feminist activism that gave rise to the field. She considers these anxieties as part of a larger concern over the future of the field, as well as fear that academic work on gender and sexuality has become too divorced from its activist roots.

Jack Halberstam, “Gender.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition (2014)

Halberstam’s entry in this volume provides a useful overview for debates and concepts that have dominated the field of gender studies: Is gender purely a social construct? What is the relationship between sex and gender? How does the gendering of bodies shift across disciplinary and cultural contexts? How did the theorizing of gender performativity in the 1990s by Judith Butler open up intellectual trajectories for queer and transgender studies? What is the future of gender as an organizing rubric for social life and as a mode of intellectual inquiry? Halberstam’s synthesis of the field makes a compelling case for why the study of gender persists and remains relevant for humanists, social scientists, and scientists alike.

Miqqi Alicia Gilbert, “Defeating Bigenderism: Changing Gender Assumptions in the Twenty-First Century.” Hypatia , 2009

Scholar and transgender activist Miqqi Alicia Gilbert considers the production and maintenance of the gender binary—that is, the idea that there are only two genders and that gender is a natural fact that remains stable across the course of one’s life. Gilbert’s view extends across institutional, legal, and cultural contexts, imagining what a frameworks that gets one out of the gender binary and gender valuation would have to look like to eliminate sexism, transphobia, and discrimination.

Judith Lorber, “Shifting Paradigms and Challenging Categories.” Social Problems , 2006

Judith Lorber identifies the key paradigm shifts in sociology around the question of gender: 1) acknowledging gender as an “organizing principle of the overall social order in modern societies;” 2) stipulating that gender is socially constructed, meaning that while gender is assigned at birth based on visible genitalia, it isn’t a natural, immutable category but one that is socially determined; 3) analyzing power in modern western societies reveals the dominance of men and promotion of a limited version of heterosexual masculinity; 4) emerging methods in sociology are helping disrupt the production of ostensibly universal knowledge from a narrow perspective of privileged subjects. Lorber concludes that feminist sociologists’ work on gender has provided the tools for sociology to reconsider how it analyzes structures of power and produces knowledge.

bell hooks, “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women.” Feminist Review , 1986

bell hooks argues that the feminist movement has privileged the voices, experiences, and concerns of white women at the expense of women of color. Instead of acknowledging who the movement has centered, white women have continually invoked the “common oppression” of all women, a move they think demonstrates solidarity but actually erases and marginalizes women who fall outside of the categories of white, straight, educated, and middle-class. Instead of appealing to “common oppression,” meaningful solidarity requires that women acknowledge their differences, committing to a feminism that “aims to end sexist oppression.” For hooks, this necessitates a feminism that is anti-racist. Solidarity doesn’t have to mean sameness; collective action can emerge from difference.

Jennifer C. Nash, “re-thinking intersectionality.” Feminist Review , 2008

Chances are you’ve come across the phrase “intersectional feminism.” For many, this term is redundant: If feminism isn’t attentive to issues impacting a range of women, then it’s not actually feminism. While the term “intersectional” now circulates colloquially to signify a feminism that is inclusive, its usage has become divorced from its academic origins. The legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw created the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s based on Black women’s experiences with the law in cases of discrimination and violence. Intersectionality is not an adjective or a way to describe identity, but a tool for analyzing structures of power. It aims to disrupt universal categories of and claims about identity. Jennifer Nash provides an overview of intersectionality’s power, including guidance on how to deploy it in the service of coalition-building and collective action.

Treva B. Lindsey, “Post-Ferguson: A ‘Herstorical’ Approach to Black Violability.” Feminist Studies , 2015

Treva Lindsey considers the erasure of Black women’s labor in anti-racist activism , as well as the erasure of their experiences with violence and harm. From the Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter, Black women’s contributions and leadership have not been acknowledged to the same extent as their male counterparts. Furthermore, their experiences with state-sanctioned racial violence don’t garner as much attention. Lindsey argues that we must make visible the experiences and labor of Black women and queer persons of color in activist settings in order to strengthen activist struggles for racial justice.

Renya Ramirez, “Race, Tribal Nation, and Gender: A Native Feminist Approach to Belonging.” Meridians , 2007

Renya Ramirez (Winnebago) argues that indigenous activist struggles for sovereignty, liberation, and survival must account for gender. A range of issues impact Native American women, such as domestic abuse, forced sterilization , and sexual violence. Furthermore, the settler state has been invested in disciplining indigenous concepts and practices of gender, sexuality, and kinship, reorienting them to fit into white settler understandings of property and inheritance. A Native American feminist consciousness centers gender and envisions decolonization without sexism.

Hester Eisenstein, “A Dangerous Liaison? Feminism and Corporate Globalization.” Science & Society , 2005

Hester Eisenstein argues that some of contemporary U.S. feminism’s work in a global context has been informed by and strengthened capitalism in a way that ultimately increases harms against marginalized women. For example, some have suggested offering poor rural women in non-U.S. contexts microcredit as a path to economic liberation. In reality, these debt transactions hinder economic development and “continue the policies that have created the poverty in the first place.” Eisenstein acknowledges that feminism has the power to challenge capitalist interests in a global context, but she cautions us to consider how aspects of the feminist movement have been coopted by corporations.

Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran.” Women’s Studies Quarterly , 2008

Afsaneh Najmabadi remarks on the existence of sex-reassignment surgeries in Iran since the 1970s and the increase in these surgeries in the twenty-first century. She explains that these surgeries are a response to perceived sexual deviance; they’re offered to cure persons who express same-sex desire. Sex-reassignment surgeries ostensibly “heteronormaliz[e]” people who are pressured to pursue this medical intervention for legal and religious reasons. While a repressive practice, Najmabadi also argues that this practice has paradoxically provided “ relatively safer semipublic gay and lesbian social space” in Iran. Najmabadi’s scholarship illustrates how gender and sexual categories, practices, and understandings are influenced by geographical and cultural contexts.

Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore’s “Introduction: Trans-, Trans, or Transgender?” Women’s Studies Quarterly , 2008

Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore map the ways that transgender studies can expand feminist and gender studies. “Transgender” does not need to exclusively signify individuals and communities, but can provide a lens for interrogating all bodies’ relationships to gendered spaces, disrupting the bounds of seemingly strict identity categories, and redefining gender. The “trans-” in transgender is a conceptual tool for interrogating the relationship between bodies and the institutions that discipline them.

David A. Rubin, “‘An Unnamed Blank That Craved a Name’: A Genealogy of Intersex as Gender.” Signs , 2012

David Rubin considers the fact that intersex persons have been subject to medicalization, pathologization, and “regulation of embodied difference through biopolitical discourses, practices, and technologies” that rely on normative cultural understandings of gender and sexuality. Rubin considers the impact intersexuality had on conceptualizations of gender in mid-twentieth century sexology studies, and how the very concept of gender that emerged in that moment has been used to regulate the lives of intersex individuals.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Feminist Disability Studies.” Signs , 2005

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson provides a thorough overview of the field of feminist disability studies. Both feminist and disability studies contend that those things which seem most natural to bodies are actually produced by a range of political, legal, medical, and social institutions. Gendered and disabled bodies are marked by these institutions. Feminist disability studies asks: How are meaning and value assigned to disabled bodies? How is this meaning and value determined by other social markers, such as gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, national origin, and citizenship status?

The field asks under what conditions disabled bodies are denied or granted sexual, reproductive, and bodily autonomy and how disability impacts the exploration of gender and sexual expression in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood historical and contemporary pathologization of genders and sexualities. It explores how disabled activists, artists, and writers respond to social, cultural, medical, and political forces that deny them access, equity, and representation

Karin A. Martin, “William Wants a Doll. Can He Have One? Feminists, Child Care Advisors, and Gender-Neutral Child Rearing.” Gender and Society , 2005

Karin Martin examines the gender socialization of children through an analysis of a range of parenting materials. Materials that claim to be (or have been claimed as) gender-neutral actually have a deep investment in training children in gender and sexual norms. Martin invites us to think about how adult reactions to children’s gender nonconformity pivots on a fear that gender expression in childhood is indicative of present or future non-normative sexuality. In other words, U.S. culture is unable to separate gender from sexuality. We imagine gender identity and expression maps predictably onto sexual desire. When children’s gender identity and expression exceeds culturally-determined permissible bounds in a family or community, adults project onto the child and discipline accordingly.

Sarah Pemberton, “Enforcing Gender: The Constitution of Sex and Gender in Prison Regimes.” Signs , 2013

Sarah Pemberton’s considers how sex-segregated prisons in the U.S. and England discipline their populations differently according to gender and sexual norms. This contributes to the policing, punishment, and vulnerability of incarcerated gender-nonconforming, transgender, and intersex persons. Issues ranging from healthcare access to increased rates of violence and harassment suggest that policies impacting incarcerated persons should center gender.

Dean Spade, “Some Very Basic Tips for Making High Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies.” The Radical Teacher , 2011

Lawyer and trans activist Dean Spade offers a pedagogical perspective on how to make classrooms accessible and inclusive for students. Spade also offers guidance on how to have classroom conversations about gender and bodies that don’t reassert a biological understanding of gender or equate certain body parts and functions with particular genders. While the discourse around these issues is constantly shifting, Spade provides useful ways to think about small changes in language that can have a powerful impact on students.

Sarah S. Richardson, “Feminist Philosophy of Science: History, Contributions, and Challenges.” Synthese , 2010

Feminist philosophy of science is a field comprised of scholars studying gender and science that has its origins in the work of feminist scientists in the 1960s. Richardson considers the contributions made by these scholars, such as increased opportunities for and representation of women in STEM fields , pointing out biases in seemingly neutral fields of scientific inquiry. Richardson also considers the role of gender in knowledge production, looking at the difficulties women have faced in institutional and professional contexts. The field of feminist philosophy of science and its practitioners are marginalized and delegitimized because of the ways they challenge dominant modes of knowledge production and disciplinary inquiry.

Bryce Traister’s “Academic Viagra: The Rise of American Masculinity Studies.” American Quarterly , 2000

Bryce Traister considers the emergence of masculinity studies out of gender studies and its development in American cultural studies. He argues that the field has remained largely invested in centering heterosexuality, asserting the centrality and dominance of men in critical thought. He offers ways for thinking about how to study masculinity without reinstituting gendered hierarchies or erasing the contributions of feminist and queer scholarship.

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Gender & Society is a top-ranked, peer-reviewed, sociological journal with a global audience. Articles in Gender & Society analyze gender and gendered processes in interactions, organizations, societies, and global and transnational spaces. The journal primarily publishes empirical articles, which are both theoretically engaged and methodologically rigorous, including both qualitative and quantitative methods. The journal also publishes theoretical articles that meaningfully advance sociological theories about gender. 

Gender & Society receives about 700 manuscripts a year and publishes fewer than five percent of all submissions. Before submitting, it’s important to determine whether Gender & Society is a good fit for your paper. Reading a current issue of the journal may help identify whether G&S is an appropriate outlet for your work. Keeping in mind the journal’s sociological focus and its worldwide reach, do you think the readers who would be most interested in your paper are already reading the journal? Does your paper follow the basic format for most Gender & Society articles? Does your paper focus on gender as a social structure or stratification system, and not only an individual attribute? For example, do you simply document differences between men and women, or do you analyze how and why gender operates as it does? Is an analysis of gender central to your paper’s argument? In addition, does your paper recognize that gendered processes may vary across intersections of race, class, and other global signifiers of identity and social location? Not all papers will analyze across these intersections, but they should recognize that these intersections exist.

Most articles published in Gender & Society fall into one of two categories: empirical articles and theoretical articles, although theoretical articles are relatively rare.

Empirical articles are based on original research using qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods. This might include data collected through interviews, ethnographies, experiments, surveys, content/narrative analyses, archives, other comparative-historical sources, secondary data, social network analyses, case studies, and participatory action research, including emerging digital methodologies. Submissions should be approximately 9,000 words long. Most published articles are around that length, though a higher word count is sometimes acceptable. While all papers need not follow a specific template, reviewers and readers may be accustomed to seeing research presented in a particular format. For example, an empirical paper might be organized as follows:

  • A 150-200 word abstract providing an overview of the paper’s main questions, methods, and contributions.
  • A short introduction posing a research question focused on gender and noting the question’s importance. 
  • A review of the literature placing the question in its appropriate theoretical and empirical context and making clear how the question has the potential to contribute to existing sociological theory. In some cases, this section might include hypotheses or theoretical expectations, or a section on “background,” which gives necessary information about the context of the study.
  • A methods section systematically describing the methods used in collecting the data for the paper. This section should also explain the sampling approach and provide details about the sample. Finally, it should describe how the data was analyzed, providing a summary of how the results section will unfold.
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  • A conclusion reiterating the research question and findings and considering alternative explanations and limitations of the study. This section should identify the paper’s main contributions to gender knowledge and feminist theory, by identifying how the findings have extended, filled a gap, or contradicted previous research and theory.

While not all papers follow this format, it is important that all empirical papers include discussions of both theory and method. You might look at the following recently published articles in Gender & Society as potential models for empirical articles:

Sarah Patterson, Sarah Damaske, and Christen Sheroff

Gender and the MBA: Differences in Career Trajectories, Institutional Support, and Outcomes https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0891243217703630

Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone

The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0891243217704631

William J. Scarborough, Ray Sin, and Barbara Risman

Attitudes and the Stalled Gender Revolution: Egalitarianism, Traditionalism, and Ambivalence from 1977  through 2016 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0891243218809604

Empirical comparative historical articles do not always follow the same format, but the following article in Gender & Society provides another model, one that is rich with evidence for the arguments that the author makes, but argued in a slightly different style:

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

Yearning for Lightness : Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners http://gas.sagepub.com/content/22/3/281

Theoretical articles are focused arguments, highlighting key tensions in the literature, and making an argument regarding new theoretical directions. A review of existing literature does not qualify as a theoretical article.  Theoretical pieces should be timely, engaging to a wide audience, and logically presented. Some papers may rely on empirical data but take a “big picture” approach to the topic. Theoretical pieces do not always follow a particular format and may be shorter in length than an empirical article.

All papers published in Gender & Society must carry significant theoretical and empirical weight.

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Manuscripts should be submitted electronically to  http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/gendsoc . Submitting authors are required to set up an online account on the SageTrack system powered by ScholarOne. Manuscripts that are accepted for review will be sent out anonymously for editorial evaluation. Obtaining permission for any quoted or reprinted material that requires permission is the responsibility of the author. Submission of a manuscript implies commitment to publish in the journal. Authors submitting manuscripts to the journal should not simultaneously submit them to another journal, nor should manuscripts have been published elsewhere in substantially similar form or with substantially similar content. Authors in doubt about what constitutes prior publication should consult the Editor. The online process permits submission of a separate title page, a main manuscript document, and supplementary files. Prior to submission, we recommend consulting the  Gender & Society  Guide to First Submissions, available  here  as well as previous issues of the journal to get a sense of the kind of papers we publish.

Papers should be approximately 9,000 words, including an abstract (150-200 words), notes, and references. All tables, figures, and appendices must be submitted separately from the paper, and should be submitted together in one supplemental file. Authors should consult the  Chicago Manual of Style , Style B, for citations and references, or refer to the  Gender & Society  style manual, available  here . Authors should not number the pages; the online system will number the pages.

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The PLS publishes directly below the scientific abstract and are open access making it available online for anyone to read. Peer review of the PLS will be conducted following our PLS reviewer guidelines . When submitting, authors should enter their plain language title and plain language summary into the box provided in the submission system when prompted. The PLS does not need to be provided in the manuscript text or as a separate file. If you are not submitting a PLS with your submission, please enter “N/A” in each box.

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Gender & Society is a top-ranked, peer-reviewed, sociological journal with a global audience. Articles in Gender & Society analyze gender and gendered processes in interactions, organizations, societies, and global and transnational spaces. The journal primarily publishes empirical articles, which are both theoretically engaged and methodologically rigorous, including both qualitative and quantitative methods. The journal also publishes theoretical articles that meaningfully advance sociological theories about gender.

Gender & Society receives nearly 700 manuscripts a year and publishes fewer than 5% of all submissions. Before submitting, it’s important to determine whether Gender & Society is a good fit for your paper. Reading a current issue of the journal may help identify whether G&S is an appropriate outlet for your work. You can access a sample issue here . Keeping in mind the journal’s sociological focus and its worldwide reach, do you think the readers who would be most interested in your paper are already reading the journal? Does your paper follow the basic format for most Gender & Society articles? Does your paper focus on gender as a social structure or stratification system, and not only an individual attribute? For example, do you simply document differences between men and women or across the gender spectrum, or do you analyze how and why gender operates as it does? Is an analysis of gender central to your paper’s argument? In addition, does your paper recognize that gendered processes may vary across intersections of race, class, and other global signifiers of identity and social location? Not all papers will analyze across these intersections, but they should recognize that these intersections exist. 

Most articles published in Gender & Society fall into one of two categories: empirical articles and theoretical articles , although theoretical articles are relatively rare.

All papers published in  Gender & Society must carry significant theoretical and empirical weight.

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Manuscripts should be submitted electronically at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/gendsoc . Submitting authors are required to set up an online account on the Sage Track system powered by ScholarOne. The online process permits submission of a separate title page, a main manuscript document, and supplementary files. Please do not submit any part of your manuscript in .pdf or .xls format; use only MS Word. Your submission should include:

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  • Published: 28 April 2020

The impact a-gender: gendered orientations towards research Impact and its evaluation

  • J. Chubb   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9716-820X 1 &
  • G. E. Derrick   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5386-8653 2  

Palgrave Communications volume  6 , Article number:  72 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

21k Accesses

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  • Science, technology and society

A Correction to this article was published on 19 May 2020

This article has been updated

Using an analysis of two independent, qualitative interview data sets: the first containing semi-structured interviews with mid-senior academics from across a range of disciplines at two research-intensive universities in Australia and the UK, collected between 2011 and 2013 ( n  = 51); and the second including pre- ( n  = 62), and post-evaluation ( n  = 57) interviews with UK REF2014 Main Panel A evaluators, this paper provides some of the first empirical work and the grounded uncovering of implicit (and in some cases explicit) gendered associations around impact generation and, by extension, its evaluation. In this paper, we explore the nature of gendered associations towards non-academic impact (Impact) generation and evaluation. The results suggest an underlying yet emergent gendered perception of Impact and its activities that is worthy of further research and exploration as the importance of valuing the ways in which research has an influence ‘beyond academia’ increases globally. In particular, it identifies how researchers perceive that there are some personality traits that are better orientated towards achieving Impact; how these may in fact be gendered. It also identifies how gender may play a role in the prioritisation of ‘hard’ Impacts (and research) that can be counted, in contrast to ‘soft’ Impacts (and research) that are far less quantifiable, reminiscent of deeper entrenched views about the value of different ‘modes’ of research. These orientations also translate to the evaluation of Impact, where panellists exhibit these tendencies prior to its evaluation and describe the organisation of panel work with respect to gender diversity.

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The management and measurement of the non-academic impact Footnote 1 (Impact) of research is a consistent theme within the higher education (HE) research environment in the UK, reflective of a drive from government for greater visibility of the benefits of research for the public, policy and commercial sectors (Chubb, 2017 ). This is this mirrored on a global scale, particularly in Australia, where, at the ‘vanguard’ (Upton et al., 2014 , p. 352) of these developments, methods were first devised (but were subsequently abandoned) to measure research impact (Chubb, 2017 ; Hazelkorn and Gibson, 2019 ). What is broadly known in both contexts as an ‘Impact Agenda’—the move to forecast and assess the ways in which investment in academic research delivers measurable socio-economic benefit—initially sparked broad debate and in some instances controversy, among the academic community (and beyond) upon its inception (Chubb, 2017 ). Since then, the debate has continued to evolve and the ways in which impact can be better conceptualised and implemented in the UK, including its role in evaluation (Stern, 2016 ), and more recently in grant applications (UKRI, 2020 ) is robustly debated. Notwithstanding attempts to better the culture of equality and diversity in research, (Stern, 2016 ; Nature, 2019 ) in the broader sense, and despite the implementation of the Impact agenda being studied extensively, there has been very little critical engagement with theories of gender and how this translates specifically to more downstream gendered inequities in HE such as through an impact agenda.

The emergence of Impact brought with it many connotations, many of which were largely negative; freedom was questioned, and autonomy was seen to be at threat because of an audit surveillance culture in HE (Lorenz, 2012 ). Resistance was largely characterised by problematising the agenda as symptomatic of the marketisation of knowledge threatening traditional academic norms and ideals (Merton, 1942 ; Williams, 2002 ) and has led to concern about how the Impact agenda is conceived, implemented and evaluated. This concern extends to perceptions of gendered assumptions about certain kinds of knowledge and related activities of which there is already a corpus of work, i.e., in the case of gender and forms of public engagement (Johnson et al., 2014 ; Crettaz Von Roten, 2011 ). This paper explores what it terms as ‘the Impact a-gender’ (Chubb, 2017 ) where gendered notions of non-academic, societal impact and how it is generated feed into its evaluation. It does not wed itself to any feminist tradition specifically, however, draws on Carey et al. ( 2018 ) to examine, acknowledge and therefore amend how the range of policies within HE and how implicit power dynamics in policymaking produce gender inequalities. Instead, an impact fluidity is encouraged and supported. For this paper, this means examining how the impact a-gender feeds into expectations and the reward of non-academic impact. If left unchecked, the propagation of the impact a-gender, it is argued, has the potential to guard against a greater proportion of women generating and influencing the use of research evidence in public policy decision-making.

Scholars continue to reflect on ‘science as a gendered endeavour’ (Amâncio, 2005 ). The extensive corpus of historical literature on gender in science and its originators (Merton, 1942 ; Keller et al., 1978 ; Kuhn, 1962 ), note the ‘pervasiveness’ of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘objective and the scientific’. Indeed, Amancio affirmed in more recent times that ‘modern science was born as an exclusively masculine activity’ ( 2005 ). The Impact agenda raises yet more obstacles indicative of this pervasiveness, which is documented by the ‘Matthew’/‘Matilda’ effect in Science (Merton, 1942 ; Rossiter, 1993 ). Perceptions of gender bias (which Kretschmer and Kretschmer, 2013 hypothesise as myths in evaluative cultures) persist with respect to how gender effects publishing, pay and reward and other evaluative issues in HE (Ward and Grant, 1996 ). Some have argued that scientists and institutions perpetuate such issues (Amâncio, 2005 ). Irrespective of their origin, perceptions of gendered Impact impede evaluative cultures within HE and, more broadly, the quest for equality in excellence in research impact beyond academia.

To borrow from Van Den Brink and Benschop ( 2012 ), gender is conceptualised as an integral part of organisational practices, situated within a social construction of feminism (Lorber, 2005 ; Poggio, 2006 ). This article uses the notion of gender differences and inequality to refer to the ‘ hierarchical distinction in which either women and femininity and men and masculinity are valued over the other ’ (p. 73), though this is not precluding of individual preferences. Indeed, there is an emerging body of work focused on gendered associations not only about ‘types’ of research and/or ‘areas and topics’ (Thelwall et al., 2019 ), but also about what is referred to as non-academic impact. This is with particular reference to audit cultures in HE such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the UK’s system of assessing the quality of research (Morley, 2003 ; Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ; Weinstein et al., 2019 ). While scholars have long attended to researching gender differences in relation to the marketisation of HE (Ahmed, 2006 ; Bank, 2011 ; Clegg, 2008 ; Gromkowska-Melosik, 2014 ; Leathwood et al., 2008 ), and the gendering of Impact activities such as outreach and public engagement (Ward and Grant, 1996 ), there is less understanding of how far academic perceptions of Impact are gendered. Further, how these gendered tensions influence panel culture in the evaluation of impact beyond academia is also not well understood. As a recent discussion in the Lancet read ‘ the causes of gender disparities are complex and include both distal and proximal factors ’. (Lundine et al., 2019 , p. 742).

This paper examines the ways in which researchers and research evaluators implicitly perceive gender as related to excellence in Impact both in its generation and in its evaluation. Using an analysis of two existing data sets; the pre-evaluation interviews of evaluators in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework and interviews with mid-senior career academics from across the range of disciplines with experience of building impact into funding applications and/ or its evaluation in two research-intensive universities in the UK and Australia between 2011 and 2013, this paper explores the implicitly gendered references expressed by our participants relating to the generation of non-academic, impact which emerged inductively through analysis. Both data sets comprise researcher perceptions of impact prior to being subjected to any formalised assessment of research Impact, thus allowing for the identification of unconscious gendered orientations that emerged from participant’s emotional and more abstract views about Impact. It notes how researchers use loaded terminology around ‘hard’, and ‘soft’ when conceptualising Impact that is reminiscent of long-standing associations between epistemological domains of research and notions of masculinity/femininity. It refers to ‘hard’ impact as those that are associated with meaning economic/ tangible and efficiently/ quantifiably evaluated, and ‘soft’ as denoting social, abstract, potentially qualitative or less easily and inefficiently evaluated. By extending this analysis to the gendered notions expressed by REF2014 panellists (expert reviewers whose responsibility it is to review the quality of the retrospective impact articulated in case studies for the purposes of research evaluation) towards the evaluation of Impact, this paper highlights how instead of challenging these tendencies, shared constructions of Impact and gendered productivity in academia act to amplify and embed these gendered notions within the evaluation outcomes and practice. It explores how vulnerable seemingly independent assessments of Impact are to these widespread gendered- associations between Impact, engagement and success. Specifically, perceptions of the excellence and judgements of feasibility relating to attribution, and causality within the narrative of the Impact case study become gendered.

The article is structured as follows. First, it reviews the gender-orientations towards notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ excellence in forms of scholarly distinction and explores how this relates to the REF Impact evaluation criteria, and the under-representation of women in the academic workforce. Specifically, it hypothesises the role of how gendered notions of excellence that construct academic identities contribute to a system that side-lines women in academia. This is despite associating the generation of Impact as a feminised skill. We label this as the ‘Impact a-gender’. The article then outlines the methodology and how the two, independent databases were combined and convergent themes developed. The results are then presented from academics in the UK and Australia and then from REF2014 panellists. This describes how the Impact a-gender currently operates through academic cultural orientations around Impact generation, and in its evaluation through peer-review panels by members of this same academic culture. The article concludes with a recommendation that the Impact a-gender be explored more thoroughly as a necessary step towards guiding against gender- bias in the academic evaluation, and reward system.

Literature review

Notions of impact excellence as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’.

Scholars have long attempted to consider the commonalities and differences across certain kinds of knowledge (Becher, 1989 , 1994 ; Biglan, 1973a ) and attempts to categorise, divide and harmonise the disciplines have been made (Biglan, 1973a , 1973b ; Becher, 1994 ; Caplan, 1979 ; Schommer–Aikins et al., 2003 ). Much of this was advanced with a typology of the disciplines from (Trowler, 2001 ), which categorised the disciplines as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Both anecdotally and in the literature, ‘soft’ science is associated with working more with people and less with ‘things’ (Cassell, 2002 ; Thelwall et al., 2019 ). These dichotomies often lead to a hierarchy of types of Impact and oppose valuation of activities based on their gendered connotations.

Biglan’s system of classifying disciplines into groups based on similarities and differences denotes particular behaviours or characteristics, which then form part of clusters or groups—‘pure’, ‘applied’, ‘soft’, ‘hard’ etc. Simpson ( 2017 ) argues that Biglan’s classification persists as one of the most commonly referred to models of the disciplines despite the prominence of some others (Pantin, 1968 ; Kuhn, 1962 ; Smart et al., 2000 ). Biglan ( 1973b ) classified the disciplines across three dimensions; hard and soft, pure and applied, life and non-life (whether the research is concerned with living things/organisms) . This ‘taxonomy of the disciplines’ states that ‘pure-hard’ domains tend toward the life and earth sciences,’pure-soft’ the social sciences and humanities, and ‘applied hard’ focus on engineering and physical science with ‘soft-applied’ tending toward professional practice such as nursing, medicine and education. Biglan’s classification looked at levels of social connectedness and specifically found that applied scholars Footnote 2 were more socially connected, more interested and involved in service activities, and more likely to publish in the form of technical reports than their counterparts in the pure (hard) areas of study. This resonates with how Impact brings renewed currency and academic prominence to applied researchers (Chubb, 2017 ). Historically, scholars inhabiting the ‘hard’ disciplines had a greater preference for research; whereas, scholars representing soft disciplines had a greater preference for teaching (Biglan, 1973b ). Further, Biglan ( 1973b ) also found that hard science scholars sought out greater collaborative efforts among colleagues when teaching as opposed to their soft science counterparts.

There are also long-standing gendered associations and connotations with notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ (Storer, 1967 ). Typically used to refer to skills, but also used heavily with respect to the disciplines and knowledge domains, gendered assumptions and the mere use of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ to describe knowledge production carries with it assumptions, which are often noted in the literature; ‘ we think of physics as hard and of political science as soft ’, Storer explains, adding how ‘hard seems to imply tough, brittle, impenetrable and strong, while soft on the other hand calls to mind the qualities of weakness, gentleness and malleability’ (p. 76). As described, hard science is typically associated with the natural sciences and quantitative paradigms whereas normative perceptions of feminine ‘soft’ skills or ‘soft’ science are often equated with qualitative social science. Scholars continue to debate dichotomised paradigms or ‘types’ of research or knowledge (Gibbons, 1999 ), which is emblematic of an undercurrent of epistemological hierarchy of the value of different kinds of knowledge. Such debates date back to the heated back and forth between scholars Snow (Snow, 2012 ) and literary critic Leavis who argued for their own ‘cultures’ of knowledge. Notwithstanding, these binary distinctions do few favours when gender is then ascribed to either knowledge domain or related activity (Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ). This is particularly pertinent in light of the current drive for more interdisciplinary research in the science system where there is also a focus on fairness, equality and diversity in the science system.

Academic performance and the Impact a-gender

Audit culture in academia impacts unfairly on women (Morley, 2003 ), and is seen as contributory to the wide gender disparities in academia, including the under-representation of women as professors (Ellemers et al., 2004 ), in leadership positions (Carnes et al., 2015 ), in receiving research acknowledgements (Larivière et al., 2013 ; Sugimoto et al., 2015 ), or being disproportionately concentrated in non-research-intensive universities (Santos and Dang Van Phu, 2019 ). Whereas gender discrimination also manifests in other ways such as during peer review (Lee and Noh, 2013 ), promotion (Paulus et al., 2016 ), and teaching evaluations (Kogan et al., 2010 ), the proliferation of an audit culture links gender disparities in HE to processes that emphasise ‘quantitative’ analysis methods, statistics, measurement, the creation of ‘experts’, and the production of ‘hard evidence’. The assumption here is that academic performance and the metrics used to value, and evaluate it, are heavily gendered in a way that benefits men over women, reflecting current disparities within the HE workforce. Indeed, Morely (2003) suggests that the way in which teaching quality is female dominated and research quality is male dominated, leads to a morality of quality resulting in the larger proportion of women being responsible for student-focused services within HE. In addition, the notion of ‘excellence’ within these audit cultures implicitly reflect images of masculinity such as rationality, measurement, objectivity, control and competitiveness (Burkinshaw, 2015 ).

The association of feminine and masculine traits in academia (Holt and Ellis, 1998 ), and ‘gendering its forms of knowledge production’ (Clegg, 2008 ), is not new. In these typologies, women are largely expected to be soft-spoken, nurturing and understanding (Bellas, 1999 ) yet often invisible and supportive in their ‘institutional housekeeping’ roles (Bird et al., 2004 ). Men, on the other hand are often associated with being competitive, ambitious and independent (Baker, 2008 ). When an individual’s behaviour is perceived to transcend these gendered norms, then this has detrimental effects on how others evaluate their competence, although some traits displayed outside of these typologies go somewhat ‘under the radar’. Nonetheless, studies show that women who display leadership qualities (competitiveness, ambition and decisiveness) are characterised more negatively than men (Rausch, 1989 ; Heilman et al., 1995 ; Rossiter, 1993 ). Incongruity between perceptions of ‘likeability’ and ‘competence’ and its relationship to gender bias is present in evaluations in academia, where success is dependent on the perceptions of others and compounded within an audit culture (Yarrow and Davis, 2018). This has been seen in peer review, reports for men and women applicants, where women were disadvantaged by the same characteristics that were seen as a strength on proposals by men (Severin et al., 2019 ); as well as in teaching evaluations where women receive higher evaluations if they are perceived as ‘nurturing’ and ‘supportive’ (Kogan et al., 2010 ). This results in various potential forms of prejudice in academia: Where traits normally associated with masculinity are more highly valued than those associated with femininity (direct) or when behaviour that is generally perceived to be ‘masculine’ is enacted by a woman and then perceived less favourably (indirect/ unconscious). That is not to mention direct sexism, rather than ‘through’ traits; a direct prejudice.

Gendered associations of Impact are not only oversimplified but also incredibly problematic for an inclusive, meaningful Impact agenda and research culture. Currently, in the UK, the main funding body for research in the UK, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) uses a broad Impact definition: ‘ the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy ’ (UKRI website, 2019 ). The most recent REF, REF2014, Impact was defined as ‘ …an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia ’. In Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) proposed that researchers should ‘embed’ Impact into the research process from the outset. Both Australia and the UK have been engaged in policy borrowing around the evaluation of societal impact and share many similarities in approaches to generating and evaluating it. Indeed, Impact has been deliberately conceptualised by decision-makers, funders and governments as broad in order to increase the appearance of being inclusivity, to represent a broad range of disciplines, as well as to reflect the ‘diverse ways’ that potential beneficiaries of academic research can be reached ‘beyond academia’. The adoption of societal impact as a formalised criterion in the evaluation of research excellence was initially perceived to be potentially beneficial for women, due to its emphasis on concepts such as ‘public engagement’; ‘duty’ and non-academic ‘cooperation/collaboration’ (Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ). In addition, the adoption of narrative case studies to demonstrate Impact, rather than adopting a complete metrics-focused exercise, can also be seen as an opportunity for women to demonstrate excellence in the areas where they are over-represented, such as teaching, cultural enrichment, public engagement (Andrews et al., 2005 ), informing public policy and improving public services (Schatteman, 2014 ; Wheatle and BrckaLorenz, 2015). However, despite this, studies highlight how for the REF2014, only 25% of Impact Case Studies for business and management studies were from women (Davies et al., 2020 ).

With respect to Impact evaluation, previous research shows that there is a direct link between notions of academic culture, and how research (as a product of that culture) is valued and evaluated (Leathwood and Reid, 2008 ; p. 120). Geertz ( 1983 ) argues that academic membership is a ‘cultural frame that defines a great part of one’s life’ influences belief systems around how academic work is orientated. This also includes gendered associations implicit in the academic reward system, which in turn influences how academics believe success is to be evaluated, and in what form that success emerges. This has implications in how academic associations of the organisation of research work and the ongoing constructions of professional identity relative to gender, feeds into how these same academics operate as evaluators within a peer review system evaluation. In this case, instead of operating to challenge these tendencies, shared constructions of gendered academic work are amplified to the extent that they unconsciously influence perceptions of excellence and the judgements of feasibility as pertaining to the attribution and causality of the narrative argument. As such, in an evaluation of Impact with its ambiguous definition (Derrick, 2018 ), and the lack of external indicators to signal success independent of cultural constructions inherent in the panel membership, effects are assumed to be more acute. In this way, this paper argues that the Impact a-gender can act to further disadvantage women.

The research combines two existing research data sets in order to explore implicit notions of gender associated with the generation and evaluation of research Impact beyond academia. Below the two data sets and the steps involved in analysing and integrating findings are described along with our theoretical positioning within the feminist literature Where verbatim quotation is used, we have labelled the participants according to each study highlighting their role and gender. Further, the evaluator interviews specify the disciplinary panel and subpanel to which they belonged, as well as their evaluation responsibilities such as: ‘Outputs only’; ‘Outputs and Impact’; and ‘Impacts only’.

Analysis of qualitative data sets

This research involved the analysis and combination of two independently collected, qualitative interview databases. The characteristics and specifics of both databases are outlined below.

Interviews with mid-senior academics in the UK and Australia

Fifty-one semi-structured interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2013 with mid-senior academics at two research-intensive universities in Australia and the UK. The interviews were 30–60 min long and participants were sourced via the research offices at both sites. Participants were contacted via email and invited to participate in a study concerning resistance towards the Impact agenda in the UK and Australia and were specifically asked for their perceptions of its relationship with freedom, value and epistemic responsibility and variations across discipline, career stage and national context. Mostly focused on ex ante impact, some interviewees also described their experiences of Impact in the UK and Australia, in relation to its formal assessment as part of the Excellence Innovation Australia (EIA) for Australia and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK.

Participants comprised mid to senior career academics with experience of winning funding from across the range of disciplines broadly representative of the arts and humanities, social sciences, physical science, maths and engineering and the life and earth sciences. For the purposes of this paper, although participant demographic information was collected, the relationship between the gender of the participants, their roles, disciplines/career stage was not explicitly explored instead, such conditions were emergent in the subsequent inductive coding during thematic analysis. A reflexive log was collected in order to challenge and draw attention to assumptions and underlying biases, which may affect the author, inclusive of their own gender identity. Further information on this is provided in Chubb ( 2017 ).

Pre- and post-evaluation interviews with REF2014 evaluators

REF2014 in the UK represented the world’s first formalised evaluation of ex-post impact, comprising of 20% of the overall evaluation. This framework served as a unique experimental environment with which to explore baseline tendencies towards impact as a concept and evaluative object (Derrick, 2018 ).

Two sets of semi-structured interviews were conducted with willing participants: sixty-two panellists were interviewed from the UK’s REF2014 Main Panel A prior to the evaluation taking place; and a fifty-seven of these were re-interviewed post-evaluation. Main Panel A covers six Sub-panels: (1) Clinical Medicine; (2) Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care; (3) Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy; (4) Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience; (5) Biological Sciences; and (6) Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Sciences. Again, the relationship between the gender of the participants and their discipline is not the focus for the purposes of this paper.

Database combination and identification of common emergent themes

The inclusion of data sets using both Australian and UK researchers was pertinent to this study as both sites were at the cusp of implementing the evaluation of Impact formally. These researcher interviews, as well as the evaluator interviews were conducted prior to any formalised Impact evaluation took place, but when both contexts required ex ante impact in terms of certain funding allocation, meaning an analysis of these baseline perceptions between databases was possible. Further, the inclusion of the post-evaluation interviews with panellists in the UK allowed an exploration of how these gendered perceptions identified in the interviews with researchers and panellists prior to the evaluation, influenced panel behaviour during the evaluation of Impact.

Initially, both data sets were analysed using similar, inductive, grounded-theory-informed approaches inclusive of a discourse and thematic analysis of the language used by participants when describing impact, which allowed for the drawing out of metaphor (Zinken et al., 2008 ). This allowed data combination and analysis of the two databases to be conducted in line with the recommendations for data-synthesis as outlined in Weed ( 2005 ) as a form of interpretation. This approach guarded against the quantification of qualitative findings for the purposes of synthesis, and instead focused on an initial dialogic approach between the two authors (Chubb and Derrick), followed by a re-analysis of qualitative data sets (Heaton, 1998 ) in line with the outcomes of the initial author-dialogue as a method of circumventing many of the drawbacks associated with qualitative data-synthesis. Convergent themes from each, independently analysed data set were discussed between authors, before the construction of new themes that were an iterative analysis of the combined data set. Drawing on the feminist tradition the authors did not apply feminist standpoint theory, instead a fully inductive approach was used to unearth rich empirical data. An interpretative and inductive approach to coding the data using NVIVO software in both instances was used and a reflexive log maintained. The availability of both full, coded, qualitative data sets, as well as the large sample size of each, allowed this data-synthesis to happen.

Researcher’s perceptions of Impact as either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’

Both UK and Australian academic researchers (researchers) perceive a guideline of gendered productivity (Davies et al., 2017 ; Sax et al., 2002 ; Astin, 1978 ; Ward and Grant, 1996 ). This is where men or women are being dissuaded (by their inner narratives, their institutions or by colleagues) from engaging in Impact either in preference to other (more masculine) notions of academic productivity, or towards softer (for women) because they consider themselves and are considered by others to be ‘good at it’. Participants often gendered the language of Impact and introduced notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. On the one hand, this rehearses and resurfaces long-standing views about the ‘Matthew Effect’ because often softer Impacts were seen as being of less value by participants, but also indicates that the word impact itself carries its own connotations, which are then weighed down further by more entrenched gender associations.

Our research shows that when describing Impact, it was not necessarily the masculinity or femininity of the researcher that was emphasised by participants, rather researchers made gendered presumptions around the type of Impact, or the activity used to generate it as either masculine or feminine. Some participants referred to their own research or others’ research as either ‘hard’ or as ‘soft and woolly’. Those who self-professed that their research was ‘soft’ or woolly’ felt that their research was less likely to qualify as having ‘hard’ impact in REF terms Footnote 3 ; instead, they claimed their research would impact socially, as opposed to economically; ‘ stuff that’s on a flaky edge — it’s very much about social engagement ’ (Languages, Australia, Professor, Male) . One researcher described Impact as ‘a nasty Treasury idea,’ comparing it to: a tsunami, crashing over everything which will knock out stuff that is precious ’ . (Theatre, Film and TV, UK, Professor, Male) . This imagery associates the concept of impact with force and weight (or hardness as mentioned earlier) particularly in disciplines where the effect of their research may be far more nuanced and subtle. One Australian research used force to depict the impact of teaching and claimed Impact was like a footprint, and teaching was ‘ a pretty heavy imprint ’ (Environment, UK, Professor, Male) . Participants characterised ‘force and weight’ as masculine, suggesting that some connotations of Impact and the associated activities may be gendered. The word ‘Impact’ was inherently perceived by many researchers as problematic, bound with linguistic connotations and those imposed by the official definitions, which in many cases are perceived as negative or maybe even gendered (Chubb, 2017 ): ‘ The etymology of a word like impact is interesting. I’ve always seen what I do as being a more subtle incremental engagement, relevance, a contribution ’. (Theatre, Film and TV, UK, Professor, Male) .

Researchers associated the word ‘impact’ with hard-ness, weight and force; ‘ anything that sorts of hits you ’ (Languages, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) . One researcher suggested that Impact ‘ sounds kind of aggressive — the poor consumer! ’ (History, Australia, Professor, Female) . Talking about her own research in the performing arts, one Australian researcher commented: ‘ It’s such a pain in the arse because the Arts don’t fit the model. But in a way they do if you look at the impact as being something quite soft ’ (Music, Australia, Professor, Female) . Likewise, a similar comparison was seen by a female researcher from the mechanical engineering discipline: ‘ My impact case study wasn’t submitted mainly because I’m dealing with that slightly on the woolly side of things ’ (Mechanical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . Largely, gender related comments hailed from the ‘hard’ science and from arts and humanities researchers. Social scientists commented less, and indeed, one levelled that Impact was perhaps less a matter of gender, and more a matter of ability (Chubb, 2017 ): ‘ It’s about being articulate! Both guys and women who are very articulate and communicate well are outward looking on all of these things ’ ( Engineering Education, Australia, Professor, Female).

Gendered notions of performativity were also very pronounced by evaluators who were assessing the outputs only, suggesting how these panel cultures are orientated around notions of gender and scientific outputs as ‘hard’ if represented by numbers. The focus on numbers was perceived by the following panellist as ‘ a real strong tendency particularly amongst the Alpha male types ’ within the panel that relate to findings about the association of certain traits—risk aversion, competitiveness, for example, with a masculinised market logic in HE;

And I like that a lot because I think that there is a real strong tendency particularly amongst the Alpha male types of always looking at the numbers, like the numbers and everything. And I just did feel that steer that we got from the panel chairs, both of them were men by the way, but they were very clear, the impact factors and citations and the rank order of a journal is this is information that can be useful, but it’s not your immediate first stop. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Female)

However, a metric-dominant approach was not the result of a male-dominated panel environment and instead, to the panels credit, evaluators were encouraged not to use one-metric as the only deciding factor between star-rating of quality. However, this is not to suggest that metrics did not play a dominant role. In fact, in order to resolve arguments, evaluators were encouraged to ‘ reflect on these other metrics ’ (Panel 3, Outputs only, Male) in order to rectify arguments where the assessment of quality was in conflict. This use of ‘other metrics’ was preferential to a resolution of differences that are based on more ‘soft’ arguments that are based on understanding where differences in opinion might lie in the interpretation of the manuscript’s quality. Instead, the deciding factor in resolving arguments would be the responsibility, primarily, of a ‘hard’ concept of quality as dictated by a numerical value;

Read the paper, judge the quality, judge the originality, the rigour, the impact — if you have to because you’re in dispute with another assessor, then reflect on these other metrics. So I don’t think metrics are that helpful actually if and until you’ve got a real issue to be able to make a decision. But I worry very much that metrics are just such a simple way of making the process much easier, and I’m worried about that because I think there’s a bit of game playing going on with impact factors and that kind of thing. (Panel 3, Outputs Only, Male)

Table 1 outlines the emergent themes, which, through inductive coding participants broadly categorised domains of research, their qualities and associations, types of activities and the gendered assumption generally made by participants when describing that activity. The table is intended only to provide an indicative overview of the overall tendencies of participants toward certain narratives as is not exhaustive, as well as a guide to interpret the perceptions of Impact illustrated in the below results.

Table one describes the dichotomous views that seemed to emerge from the research but it’s important to note that researchers associated Impact as related to gender in subtle, and in some cases overt ways. The data suggests that some male participants felt that female academics might be better at Impact, suggesting that female academics might find it liberating, linked it to a sense of duty or public service, implying that it was second nature. In addition, some male participants associated types of Impact domains as female-orientated activity and the reverse was the case with female and male-orientated ‘types’ of Impact. For example, at one extreme, a few male researchers seemed to perceive public engagement as something, which females would be particularly good at, generalising that they are not competitive ‘ women are better at this! They are less competitive! ’ (Environment, UK, Professor, Male) . Indeed, one male researcher suggested that competitiveness actually helps academics have an impact and does not impede it:

I get a huge buzz from trying to communicate those to a wider audience and winning arguments and seeing them used. It’s not the use that motivates me it’s the process of winning, I’m competitive! (Economics, UK, Professor, Male)

Analysis also revealed evidence that some researchers has gendered perceptions of Impact activities just as evaluators did. Here, women were more likely to promote the importance of engaging in Impact activities, whereas men were focused on producing indicators with hard, quantitative indicators of success. Some researchers implied that public engagement was not something entirely associated with the kinds of Impact needed to advance one’s career and for a few male researchers, this was accordingly associated with female academics. Certain female researchers in the sciences and the arts suggested similarly that there was a strong commitment among women to carry out public engagement, but that this was not necessarily shared by their male counterparts who, they perceived, undervalued this kind of work:

I think the few of us women in the faculty will grapple with that a lot about the relevance of what we’re doing and the usefulness, but for the vast majority of people it’s not there… [She implies that]…I think there is a huge gender thing there that every woman that you talk to on campus would consider that the role of the university is along the latter statement (*to communicate to the public). The vast majority of men would not consider that’s a role of the university. There’s a strong gender thing. (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female)

Notwithstanding, it is important to distinguish between engagement and Impact. This research shows that participants perceive Impact activities to be gendered. There was a sense from one arts female researcher that women might be more interested in getting out there and communicating their work but that crucially, it is not the be-all and end- all of doing research: ‘ Women feel that there’s something more liberating, I can empathise with that, but that couldn’t be the whole job ’. Music, Australia, Professor, Female Footnote 4 . When this researcher, who was very much orientated towards Impact, asked if there were enough interviewees, she added ‘ mind you, you’ve probably spoken to enough men in lab coats ’. This could imply that inward-facing roles are associated with male-orientated activity and outward facing roles as perceived as more female orientated. Such sentiments perhaps relate to a binary delineation of women as more caring, subjective, applied and of men as harder, scientific and theoretical/ rational. This links to a broader characterisation of HE as marketised and potentially, more ‘male’ or at least masculinised—where increasing competitiveness, marketisation and performativity can be seen as linked to an increasingly macho way of doing business (Blackmore, 2002 ; Deem, 1998 ; Grummell et al., 2009 ; Reay, n.d. ). The data is also suggestive of the attitude that communication is a ‘soft’ skill and the interpersonal is seen as a less masculine trait. ‘ This is a huge generalisation but I still say that the profession is so dominated by men, undergraduates are so dominated by men and most of those boys will come into engineering because they’re much more comfortable dealing with a computer than with people ’ (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . Again, this suggests women are more likely to pursue those scientific subjects, which will make a difference or contribute to society (such as nursing or environmental research, certainly those subjects that would be perceived as less ‘hard’ science domains).

There was also a sense that Impact activity, namely in this case public engagement and community work, was associated with women more than men by some participants (Amâncio, 2005 ). However, public engagement and certain social impact domains appeared to have a lower status and intellectual worth in the eyes of some participants. Some inferred that social and ‘soft’ impacts are seen as associated. With discipline. For instance, research concerning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects with females. They in turn may be held in low esteem. Some of the accounts suggest that soft impacts are perceived by women as not ‘counting’ as Impact:

‘ At least two out of the four of us who are female are doing community service and that doesn’t count, we get zero credit, actually I would say it gets negative credit because it takes time away from everything else ’. (Education Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female)

This was intimated again by another female UK computer scientist who claimed that since her work was on the ‘woolly side’ of things, and her impacts were predominantly in the social and public domain, she would not be taken seriously enough to qualify as a REF Impact case study, despite having won an award for her work:

‘ I don’t think it helps that if I were a male professor doing the same work I might be taken more seriously. It’s interesting, why recently? Because I’ve never felt that I’ve not been taken seriously because I’m a woman, but something happened recently and I thought, oh, you’re not taking me seriously because I’m a woman. So I think it’s a part ’. (Computer Science, UK, Professor, Female)

Researchers also connect the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ associations with Impact described earlier to male and female traits. The relationship between Impact and gender is not well understood and it is not clear how much these issues are directly relatable to Impact or more symptomatic of the broader picture in HE. In order to get a broader picture, it is important to examine how these gendered notions of Impact translate into its evaluation. Some participants suggested that gender is a factor in the securing of grant money—certainly this comment reveals a local speculation that ‘the big boys’ get the grants, in Australia, at least: ‘ ARC grants? I’ve had a few but nothing like the big boys that get one after the other ,’ (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . This is not dissimilar to the ‘alpha male’ comments from the evaluators described below who note a tendency for male evaluators to rely on ‘hard’ numbers whose views are further examined in the following section.

Gendered excellence in Impact evaluation

In the pre-evaluation interviews, panellists were asked about what they perceived to be ‘excellent’ research and ‘excellent’ Impact. Within this context, are mirrored conceptualisations of impacts as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ as was seen with the interviews with researchers described above. These conceptualisations were captured prior to the evaluation began. They can therefore be interpreted as the raw, baseline assumptions of Impact that are free from the effects of the panel group, showed that there were differences in how evaluators perceived Impact, and that these perceptions were gendered.

Although all researchers conceptualised Impact as a linear process for the purposes of the REF2014 exercise (Derrick, 2018 ), there was a tendency for female evaluators to be open to considering the complexity of Impact, even in a best-case scenario. This included a consideration that Impact as dictated within the narrative might have different indicators of value to different evaluators; ‘ I just think that that whole framing means that there is a form of normative standard of perfect impact ’ (Main Panel, Outputs and Impacts, Female) . This evaluator, in particular, went further to state how that their impression of Impact would be constructed from the comparators available during the evaluation;

‘ Given that I’m presenting impact as a good story, it would be like you saying to me; ‘Can you describe to me a perfect Shakespearean play?’…. well now of course, I can’t. You can give me lots of plays but they all have different kinds of interesting features. Different people would say that their favourite play was different. To me, if you’re taking interpretivist view, constructivist view, there is no perfect normative standard. It’s just not possible ’. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impacts, Female)

Female evaluators were also more sensitive to other complex factors influencing the evaluation of Impact, including time lag; ‘ …So it takes a long time for things like that to be accepted…it took hundreds of studies before it was generally accepted as real ’ (Panel 1, Outputs and Impacts, Female ); as well as the indirect way that research influences policy as a form of Impact;

‘ I don’t think that anything would get four stars without even blinking. I think that is impossible to answer because you have to look at the whole evidence in this has gone on, and how that does link to the impact that is being claimed, and then you would then have to look at how that impact, exactly how that research has impacted on the ways of the world, in terms of change or in terms of society or whatever. I don’t think you can see this would easily get four stars because of the overall process is being looked at, as well as the actual outcome ’ . (Panel 3, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Although these typologies were not absolute, there was a lack of complexity in the nuances around Impact. There was also heavily gendered language around Impacts as measurable, or not, that mirrored the association of Impact as being either ‘hard’, and therefore measurable, or ‘soft, and therefore more nuanced in value. In this way, male evaluators expressed Impact as a causal, linear event that occurred ‘ in a very short time ’ (P2, Outputs and Impact, Male) and involved a single ‘ star ’ (P3, Impacts only, Male) or ‘ impact champion ’ (Main Panel, Outputs and Impacts, Male) that drove it from start (research), to finish (Impact). These associations about Impact being ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ made by evaluators, mirror the responses from researchers in the above sections. In the example below, the evaluator used words such as ‘ strong ’ and ‘ big way ’ to describe Impact success, as well as emphasises causality in the argument;

‘ …if it has affected a lot of people or affected policy in a strong way or created change in a big way, and it can be clearly linked back to the research, and it’s made a difference ’. (Panel 2, Outputs and Impact, Male)

These perhaps show disciplinary differences as much as gendered differences. Further, there was a stronger tendency for male evaluators to strive towards conceptualisations of excellence in Impact as measurable or ‘ it’s something that is decisive and actionable ’ (Panel 6, Impacts, Male) . One male evaluator explained his conceptualised version of Impact excellence as ‘ straightforward ’ and therefore ‘ obviously four-star ’ due to the presence of metrics with which to measure Impact. This was a perception more commonly associated with male evaluators;

‘ …if somebody has been able to devise a — let’s say pancreatic cancer — which is a molecular cancer, which hasn’t made any progress in the last 40 years, and where the mortality is close to 100% after diagnosis, if someone devised a treatment where now suddenly, after diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, 90 percent of the people are now still alive 5 years later, where the mortality rate is almost 0%, who are alive after 5 years. That, of course, would be a dramatic, transformative impact ’. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Male)

In addition, his tendency to seek various numeric indicators for measuring, and therefore assessing Impact (predominantly economic impact), as well as compressing its realisation to a small period of time ( ‘ suddenly ’ ) in a causal fashion, was more commonly expressed in male evaluators. This tendency automatically indicates the association of impacts as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ and divided along gendered norms, but also expresses Impact in monetary terms;

‘ Something that went into a patient or the company has pronounced with…has spun out and been taken up by a commercial entity or a clinical entity ’ (Panel 3, Outputs and Impacts, Male) , as well as impacts that are marketised; ‘ A new antimicrobial drug to market ’. (Panel 6, Outputs and Impact, Male) .

There was also the perception that female academics would be better at engagement (Johnson et al., 2014 ; Crettaz Von Roten, 2011 ) due to its link with notions of ‘ duty ’ (as a mother), ‘ engagement ’ and ‘ public service ’ are reflected in how female evaluators were also more open to the idea that excellent Impact is achieved through productive, ongoing partnerships with non-academic stakeholders. Here, the reflections of ‘duty’ from the evaluators was also mirrored by in interviews with researchers. Indeed, the researchers merged perceptions of parenthood, an academic career and societal impact generation. One female researcher drew on her role as a mother as supportive of her ability to participate in Impact generation, ‘ I have kids that age so… ’ (Biology, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) . Indeed, parenthood emerged from researchers of both genders in relation to the Impact agenda. Two male participants spoke positively about the need to transfer knowledge of all kinds to society referencing their role as parents: ‘ I’m all for that. I want my kids to have a rich culture when they go to school ’ (Engineering, Australia, Professor, Male, E2) , and ‘ My children are the extension of my biological life and my students are an extension of my thoughts ’ (Engineering, Australia, Professor, Male, E1) . One UK female biologist commented that she indeed enjoys delivering public engagement and outreach and implies a reference to having a family as enabling her ability to do so: ‘ It’s partly being involved with the really well-established outreach work ,’ (Biology, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) .

For the evaluators, the idea that ‘public service’ as second nature for female academics, was reflected in how female evaluators perceived the long, arduous and serendipitous nature of Impact generation, as well as their commitment to assessing the value of Impact as a ‘pathway’ rather than in line with impact as a ‘product’. Indeed, this was highlighted by one male evaluator who suggested that the measurement and assessment of Impact ‘ …needs to be done by economists ’ and that

‘ you [need] to put in some quantification one everything…[that] puts a negative value on being sick and a positive large value on living longer. So, yeah, the greatest impact would be something that saves us money and generates income for the country but something broad and improves quality of life ’. (Panel 2, Impacts, Male)

Since evaluators tend to exercise cognitive bias in evaluative situations (Langfeldt, 2006 ), these preconceived ideas about Impact, its generation and the types of people responsible for its success are also likely to permeate the evaluative deliberations around Impact during the peer review process. What is uncertain is the extent that these messages are dominant within the panel discourse, and therefore the extent that they influence the formation of a consensus within the group, and the ‘dominant definition’ of Impact (Derrick, 2018 ) that emerges as a result.

Notions of gender from the evaluators post-evaluation

Similar notions of gender-roles in academia pertaining to notions of scientific productivity were echoed by academics who were charged with its evaluation as part of the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Interviews with evaluators revealed not only that the panel working-methods and characteristics about what constituted a ‘good’ evaluator were implicitly along gendered norms, but also that the assumed credit assumptions of performativity were also based on gender.

In assessments of the Impact criterion, an assessment that is not as amenable to quantitative representation requiring panels to conceptualise a very complex process, with unstandardised measures of significance and reach, there was still a gendered perception of Impact being ‘women’s work’ in academia. This perception was based on the tendency towards conceptualising Impact as ‘slightly grubby’ and ‘not very pure’, which echoes previously reported pre-REF2014 tensions that Impact is a task that an academic does when they cannot do real research (de Jong et al., 2015 );

But I would say that something like research impact is — it seems something slightly grubby. It’s not seen as not — by the academics, as not very pure. To some of them, it seems women’s work. Talking to the public, do you see what I mean? (Main Panel, Outputs and Impact, Female)

In addition, gendered roles also relate to how the panel worked with the assessment of Impact. Previous research has outlined how the equality and diversity assessment of panels for REF2014 were not conducted until after panellists were appointed (Derrick, 2018 ), leading to a lack of equal-representation of women on most panels. Some of the female panellists reflected that this resulted not only in a hyper-awareness of one’s own identity and value as a woman on the panel, but also implicitly associating the role that a female panellist would play in generating the evaluation. One panellist below, reflected that she was the only female in a male-dominated panel, and that the only other females in the room were the panel secretariat. The panellist goes further to explain how this resulted in a gendered-division of labour surrounding the assessment of Impact;

I mean, there’s a gender thing as well which isn’t directing what you’re talking about what you’re researching, but I was the only woman on the original appointed panel. The only other women were the secretariat. In some ways I do — there was initially a very gendered division of perspective where the women were all the ones aggregate the quantitative research, or typing it all up or talking about impact whereas the men were the ones who represented the big agenda, big trials. (Main Panel, Outputs and Impact, Female)

In addition, evaluators expressed opinions about what constituted a good and a bad panel member. From this, the evaluation showed that traits such as the ability to work as a ‘team’ and to build on definitions and methods of assessment for Impact through deliberation and ‘feedback’ were perceived along gendered lines. In this regard, women perceived themselves as valuable if they were ‘happy to listen to discussions’, and not ‘too dogmatic about their opinion’. Here, women were valued if they played a supportive, supplementary role in line with Bellas ( 1999 ), which was in clear distinction to men who contributed as creative thinkers and forgers of new ideas. As one panellist described;

A good panel member is an Irish female. A good panel member was someone who was happy to — someone who is happy to listen to discussions; to not be too dogmatic about their opinion, but can listen and learn, because impact is something we are all learning from scratch. Somebody who wasn’t too outspoken, was a team player. (Panel 3, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Likewise, another female evaluator reflected on the reasons for her inclusion as a panel member was due to her ‘generalist perspective’ as opposed to a perspective that is over prescribed. This was suggestive of how an overly specialist perspective would run counter to the reasons that she was included as a panellist which was, in her opinion, due to her value as an ethnic and gender ‘token’ to the panel;

‘ I think it’s also being able to provide some perspective, some general perspective. I’m quite a generalist actually, I’m not a specialist……So I’m very generalist. And I think they’re also well aware of the ethnic and gender composition of that and lots of reasons why I’m asked on panels. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Women perceived their value on the panel as supportive, as someone who is prepared to work on the team, and listen to other views towards as a generalist, and constructionist, rather than as an enforced of dogmatic views and raw, hard notions of Impact that were represented through quantitative indicators only. As such, how the panel operated reflects general studies of how work can be organised along gender lines, as well as specific to workload and power in the academy. The similarity between the gendered associations towards conceptualising Impact from the researchers and evaluators, combined with how the panel organises its work along gendered lines, suggests how panel culture echoes the implicit tendencies within the wider research community. The implications of this tendency in relation to the evaluation of non-academic Impact is discussed below.

Discussion: an Impact a-gender?

This study shows how researchers and evaluators in two, independent data sets echoed a gendered orientation towards Impact, and how this implies an Impact a-gender. That gendered notions of Impact emerged as a significant theme from two independent data sets speaks to the importance of the issue. It also illustrates the need for policymakers and funding organisations to acknowledge its potential effects as part of their efforts towards embedding a more inclusive research culture around the generation and evaluation of research impact beyond academia.

Specifically, this paper has identified gendered language around the generation of, and evaluation of Impact by researchers in Australia and the UK, as well as by evaluators by the UK’s most recent Research Excellence Framework in 2014. For the UK and Australia, the prominence of Impact, as well as the policy borrowing between each country (Chubb, 2017 ) means that a reliable comparison of pre-evaluation perceptions of researchers and evaluators can be made. In both data sets presumptions of Impact as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ by both researchers and evaluators were found to be gendered. Whereas it is not surprising that panel culture reflects the dominant trends within the wider academic culture, this paper raises the question of how the implicit operation of gender bias surrounding notions of scientific productivity and its measurement, invade and therefore unduly influence the evaluation of those notions during peer-review processes. This negates the motivation behind a broad Impact definition and evaluation as inclusive since unconscious bias towards women can still operate if left unchecked and unmanaged.

Gendered notions of excellence were also related to the ability to be ‘competitive’, and that once Impact became a formalised, countable and therefore competitive criterion, it also become masculine where previously it existed as a feminised concept related to female academic-ness. As a feminised concept, Impact once referred to notions of excellence requiring communication such as public engagement, or stakeholder coordination—the ‘softer’ impacts. However, this association only remains ‘soft’ insofar as Impact remains unmeasurable, or more nuanced in definition. This is especially pertinent for the evaluation of societal impact where already conceived ideas of engagement and ‘ women’s work ’ influence how evaluators assess the feasibility of impact narratives for the purposes of its assessment. This paper also raises the question that notions of gender in relation to Impact persist irrespective of the identities assumed for the purposes of its evaluation (i.e., as a peer reviewer). This is not to say that academic culture in the UK and Australia, where Impact is increasingly being formalised into rewards systems, is not changing. More that there is a tendency in some evaluations for the burden of evidence to be applied differently to genders due to tensions surrounding what women are ‘good’ at doing: engagement, versus what ‘men’ are good at doing regarding Impact. In this scenario, quantitative indicators of big, high-level impacts are to be attributable to male traits, rather than female. This has already been noted in student evaluations of teaching (Kogan et al., 2010 ) and of academic leadership performance where the focus on the evaluation is on how others interpret performance based on already held gendered views about competence based on behaviours (Williams et al., 2014 ; Holt and Ellis, 1998 ). As such, when researchers transcend these gendered identities that are specific to societal impact, there is a danger of an Impact-a-gender bias arising in the assessment and forecasting of Impact. This paper extends this understanding and outlines how this may also be the case for assessments of societal impact.

By examining perceptions, as well as using an inductive analysis, this study was able to unearth unconsciously employed gendered notions that would not have been prominent or possible to pick up if we asked the interviewees about gender directly. This was particularly the case for the re-analysis of the post-evaluation interviews. However, future studies might consider incorporating a disciplinary-specific perspective as although the evaluators were from the medical/biomedical disciplines, researchers were from a range of disciplines. This would identify any discipline-specific risk towards an Impact a-gender. Nonetheless, further work that characterises the impact a-gender, as well as explores its wider implications for gender inequities within HE is currently underway.

How research evidence is labelled as excellent and therefore trustworthy, is heavily dictated by an evaluation process that is perceived as impartial and fair. However, if evaluations are compounded by gender bias, this confounds assessments of excellence with gendered expectation of non-academic impact. Consequently, gendered expectations of excellence for non-academic impact has the potential to: unconsciously dissuade women from pursuing more masculinised types of impact; act as a barrier to how female researchers mobilise their research evidence; as well as limit the recognition female researchers gain as excellent and therefore trustworthy sources of evidence.

The aim of this paper was not to criticise the panellists and researchers for expressing gendered perspectives, nor to present evidence about how researchers are unduly influenced by gender bias. The results shown do not support either of these views. However, the aim of this paper was to acknowledge how gender bias in research Impact generation can lead to a panel culture dominated by academics that translate the implicit and explicit biases within academia that influence its evaluation. This paper raises an important question regarding what we term the ‘Impact a-gender’, which outlines a mechanism in which gender bias feeds into the generation and evaluation of a research criterion, which is not traditionally associated with a hard, metrics-masculinised output from research. Along with other techniques used to combat unconscious bias in research evaluation, simply by identifying, and naming the issue, this paper intends to combat its ill effects through a community-wide discussions as a mechanism for developing tools to mitigate its wider effect if left unchecked or merely accepted as ‘acceptable’. In addition, it is suggested that government and funding organisations explicitly refer to the impact a-gender as part of their wider EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) agendas towards minimising the influence of unconscious bias in research impact and evaluation.

Data availability

Data is available upon request subject to ethical considerations such as consent so as not to compromise the individual privacy of our participants.

Change history

19 may 2020.

An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.

For the purposes of this paper, when the text refers to non-academic, societal impact, or the term ‘Impact’ we are referring to the change and effect as defined by REF2014/2021 and the larger conceptualisation of impact that is generated through knowledge exchange and engagement. In this way, the paper refers to a broad conceptualisation of research impact that occurs beyond academia. This allows a distinction between Impact as central to this article’s contribution, as opposed to academic impact, and general word ‘impact’.

Impact scholars or those who are ‘good at impact’ are often equated with applied researchers.

One might interpret this as meaning ‘economic impact’.

This is described in the next section as ‘women’s work’ by one evaluator.

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This research was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Future Research Leaders Programme (ES/K008897/2). We would also like to acknowledge their peers for offering their views on the paper in advance of publication and in doing so thank Dr. Richard Watermeyer, University of Bath, Professor Paul Wakeling, University of York and Dr. Gabrielle Samuel, Kings College London.

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Chubb, J., Derrick, G.E. The impact a-gender: gendered orientations towards research Impact and its evaluation. Palgrave Commun 6 , 72 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0438-z

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Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

Sometimes things just happen. In reviewing the manuscripts we had in the queue for the September issue, we realized that beyond any conscious intention half of them had to do with gender and/or sexualities. That is actually not surprising since about a third of the submissions we receive focus on gender and/or sexualities. In fact, we have always had to make sure that at least one of our editorial assistants was a GSS scholar, able to identify and locate viable reviewers.

Qualitative Sociology does not focus on publishing in specific research areas or sociological subfields. So why do we receive so many GSS submissions? We believe it is because qualitative methods lend themselves to studying the building blocks of gender expression and sexual identities—the interactional, the discursive, and the performative—and how these buttress systems of inequalities. Quantitative methods do a great job of detecting and measuring the effects of gender bias and discrimination in employment, education, and other domains of social life. But qualitative methods are particularly suited to unpacking the “how” of gender and sexualities—the layers of practices, discourses, histories, and identities that constitute and are constituted by them.

Gender and sexuality encompass (often binary) sets of categories related to the meanings assigned to assumed reproductive capacities made explicit in the everyday and inscribed into the unconscious, as well as the malleable and fluctuating content of those categories. Focused but open-ended participant observation, qualitative interviewing, and ethnographic readings of documents and archives can show us how people resist, remake or reify these categories, challenging or reproducing the inequalities that structure them. Qualitative methods can reveal the complicated and reciprocal processes through which assumptions about gender and sexuality guide interactions, become embedded in institutions, and differentially affect life chances.

In this issue, Rania Salem shows how the Egyptian middle class reproduces inequality through active constructions and reconstructions of gendered expectations around marriage. Salem shows how “waithood”—the process whereby young people wait to marry because they do not have the education, employment or material well being to form a new household—results not simply from a scarcity of resources, but depends on gendered constructions of the division of labor and consumption practices that provide assurance to a bride’s family that a man will provide for his dependent wife after the wedding. Matrimonial transactions, then, adhere to norms and ritualized situations that signal actors’ dedication to dominant ideals of masculinity and femininity and the unequal roles they will come to occupy within marriage.

In a world in which there have been undeniable formal gains in gender equality, qualitative research can unpack and explain persistent inequalities. Examining the role of women in Italian mafias, Felia Alum and Irene Marchi push back against analyses that suggest that taking on high level positions in an organization—here, the mafia—signals that women have become empowered. They show this only happens at moments of crisis and that, while women gain status in the organization, they effectively do so by default. Wives, mothers and daughters serve as a sort of “reserve army” when men are killed, imprisoned, incapacitated or threatened. They suggest the term exploitation is closer to the mark than emancipation. By decoupling “rising in the ranks” from empowerment, the authors show that increased gender parity does not necessarily signal egalitarian gender relations. Chelsea Wahl and Stephen Ellingson provide a classic portrait of gender discrimination, looking at the contradictory way that the jazz world is simultaneously built upon a culture of meritocracy and gender essentialism. Women musicians may be initially accepted, but they are tested and evaluated in ways that men are not and may require the support of a well-established man in the scene; more often than not, assumptions about what women are physically capable of limits how far they can make it in the industry. When they seek more established roles in the jazz world they are often marginalized or pushed into feminized roles (as singers, for example). They push back by working with the discourse of meritocracy, fighting for established positions in the jazz world.

Alin Frantsman-Spector and Avihu Shoshana show that resistance is not the only response to discrimination and marginalization. They look at the obligatory therapy to which prisoners’ wives are subject in Israel in order to obtain benefits for their children and imprisoned husbands. At first they resist the discourse of “vulnerable femininity” social workers foist upon them. But eventually they adopt an attitude of “strategic passing” in order to get what they need from state representatives. Over time the women learn to navigate social workers’ discourse in order to obtain medical and financial benefits, suggesting that even in submission there is room for agency. However, as the authors show, in acquiescing to a discourse that is not their own to protect and provide for their families, prisoners’ wives are made to engage in the reproduction of symbolic violence and gender (as well as ethnic) inequalities.

Both the Kelly and Gouchanour article as well as the piece by Frantsman-Spector and Shoshana demonstrate other “interactions” well captured by qualitative methods: the interactions between distinct yet interconnected systems of discrimination (class, race, ethnicity, and so on) that produce inequalities within gender categories as well as between them. Kimberly Kelly and Amanda Gochanour reveal how largely white evangelical anti-abortion activists “blackwash” abortion decisions. In trying to convince Black women not to have abortions, they do not seek to address the structural discrimination that puts Black women in the position of having an unwanted pregnancy. Rather, they appeal to racial stereotypes portraying them as abandoned by their communities and duped by abortion providers. Gowri Vijayakumar’s article is instructive in considering how gender expression and sexual identities intersect to produce and impede activism in India. Vijayakumar shows that, while the formation of collective identity plays a crucial role in social movements, constructing a collective identity among sex workers is contingent on various factors, all of which revolve around the ways cis and trans women experience sex as work, including the different constraints they face in openly identifying as sex workers.

These articles vividly demonstrate how qualitative sociology can reveal the stubborn inequalities that still define our world in the 21st century. These inequalities cannot be fully understood without studying in context, the practices, discourses, histories, and identities they are made of.

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Smilde, D., Hanson, R. Studying Gender and Sexualities with Qualitative Methods. Qual Sociol 41 , 333–335 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-018-9395-x

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  • Published: 01 November 2022

A qualitative study on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Nepal

  • Pranab Dahal 1 ,
  • Sunil Kumar Joshi 2 &
  • Katarina Swahnberg 1  

BMC Public Health volume  22 , Article number:  2005 ( 2022 ) Cite this article

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Gender inequality and violence are not mutually exclusive phenomena but complex loops affecting each other. Women in Nepal face several inequalities and violence. The causes are diverse, but most of these results are due to socially assigned lower positioning of women. The hierarchies based on power make women face subordination and violence in Nepal. The study aims to explore participants' understanding and experience to identify the status of inequality for women and how violence emerges as one of its consequences. Furthermore, it explores the causes of sex trafficking as an example of an outcome of inequality and violence.

The study formulated separate male and female groups using a purposive sampling method. The study used a multistage focus group discussion, where the same groups met at different intervals. Six focus group discussions, three times each with male and female groups, were conducted in a year. Thirty-six individuals, including sixteen males and twenty females, were involved in the discussions. The study used constructivist grounded theory for the data analysis.

The study participants identify that a power play between men and women reinforce inequality and increases the likelihood of violence for women. The findings suggest that the subjugation of women occurs due to practices based on gender differences, constricted life opportunities, and internalization of constructed differences among women. The study identifies that interpersonal and socio-cultural violence can result due to established differences between men and women. Sex trafficking, as an example of the outcome of inequality and violence, occurs due to the disadvantageous position of women compounded by poverty and illiteracy. The study has developed a concept of power-play which is identified as a cause and consequence of women's subordination and violence. This power play is found operative at various levels with social approval for men to use violence and maintain/produce inequality.

The theoretical concept of power play shows that there are inequitable power relations between men and women. The male-centric socio-cultural norms and practices have endowed men with privilege, power, and an opportunity to exploit women. This lowers the status of women and the power-play help to produce and sustain inequality. The power-play exposes women to violence and manifests itself as one of the worst expressions used by men.

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Violence against women is identified as an attempt by men to maintain power and control over women [ 1 ] and is manifested as a form of structural inequality. This structural inequality is apparent with greater agency among men [ 2 ]. The differences between sexes are exhibited in the attainment of education and professional jobs, ownership of assets, the feminization of poverty, etc., and these differences increase the risk of violence towards women [ 3 ]. The global estimate identifies that thirty percent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime, illustrating the enormity of this problem [ 4 ]. From a feminist perspective, lending ideas of patriarchy [ 5 ] and gender performativity [ 6 ], the understanding of gender roles prescribed by male-dominated social structures and processes helps further explore the violence and abuse faced by women [ 7 ]. According to Heise [ 8 ], men who adhere to traditional, rigid, and misogynistic views on gender norms, attitudes, and behaviors are more likely to use violence towards women. The individual and collective attitudes of men toward different established gender norms, and their reproduction explain men’s use of violence toward women [ 9 ]. It is known that gender norms influence violence, but at the same time violence also directs and dictates gender performance with fear, sanction, and corrective measures for enacting respective prescribed gender functions [ 10 ].

It is difficult for women subjected to violence to enjoy legitimate rights, as most of the infringement of their rights and violence takes place inside a private sphere of the home [ 11 , 12 ]. Violence against women is the major cause of death and disability for women [ 13 ] and globally a major public health concern [ 14 ]. Establishing gender equality is fundamental for fostering justice and attaining sustainable development [ 15 ]; moreover, violence against women has to be acknowledged as a fundamental abuse of human rights [ 16 ]. A report on global violence has identified that violence against women exists at all levels of the family, community, and state. The report recommended the development of frameworks for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling women’s rights [ 17 ]. Fifteen years later, a review of the same identifies that violence continues with impunity, reaffirming violence as a major obstacle to the attainment of justice [ 18 ].

The inclusion of the gender lens to violence against women has provided more contextual evidence to explore these processes of violence. This requires the identification of unequal power relationships and an inquiry into the differences-producing various gender stereotypes [ 19 ]. This analysis of violence requires an understanding of behaviors that promote women’s subordination and factors that favor men to sustain these malpractices [ 8 ]. A closer look at the male-centric structural arrangements embedded in the social, political, and economic organization of life reveals that these structures provide lesser access and lower accountability toward women, promote systemic subordination, and create hierarchies, resulting in the increase of violence against women [ 20 ]. This unequal gender power relationship reinforced and manifested by social approval of men’s authority over women is found operative at multiple levels and helps to produce diversities of inequalities and violence [ 21 , 22 ].

The inequalities faced by women in Nepal majorly stem from socio-cultural, economic, and religious factors and influencers that define traditional roles and responsibilities between men and women [ 23 ]. The inequalities are more evident and pronounced in settings exhibiting prominent patriarchal norms restricting advantages and opportunities for the majority of women [ 24 ]. Women in Nepal are restricted inside their homes, have lesser access to life opportunities, and have limited or no involvement in decision-making on important issues directly affecting their lives [ 25 , 26 ]. Figures indicative of women’s inequalities in Nepal suggest that one-third of women have no education, fifty-two percent of women are involved in non-paid jobs, and women are less likely than men to own a home or land [ 27 ]. The men in Nepalese society are positioned higher and are expected to be the breadwinner and protectors of their families. Most of these men intend to earn respect and obedience from women and are socially expected to discipline women to achieve it [ 28 ]. Many societies across the world including Nepal, recognizes violence as a private affair requiring discussion only within a family. This has led to a serious underreporting of violence committed toward women in Nepal [ 29 ]. The national gender data in Nepal is scarce, the available Nepal Demographic Health Survey 2016 identifies that since the age of fifteen, twenty-two percent of women and seven percent of women experience physical and sexual violence, respectively in the past twelve months [ 27 ].

The contributing factors for violence against women in Nepal include the lower social status of women, illiteracy, economic dependency, patriarchal society, sex trafficking, alcohol-related abuse, dowry-related violence, infidelity, extramarital affairs of husband, unemployment, and denial of sex with husband [ 30 , 31 , 32 ]. Nepalese women have been repressing violence with silence due to the fear of breaking relationships, receiving less love and affection from family, fear of social norms by going against men, lack of faith in the justice system, and the threat of increased violence [ 33 ]. Women and girls in Nepal are sex trafficked to various countries. Sex trafficking in Nepal is prevalent due to persistent gender inequality, violence, stigma, and discriminatory socio-cultural structures; however, the actual extent of sex trafficking is still undetermined [ 17 , 34 , 35 ].

The recent trends in Nepal with the increasing number of out-migration of men for employment have provided women with temporary autonomy, and a shift in the gender roles. Earlier research has identified that migration of male spouses has provided a resistance to the power dynamics for women on the other hand it has limited their mobility, required them to share decision-making with household structures, face continued social vigilance on the money received from remittance, and get central attention with their personal sexual lives [ 36 , 37 ].

Morang district lies in the eastern region of Nepal. A district profile report based on a census survey [ 38 ] identifies that the place is inhabited by a close to a million population, out of which ethnic groups ( close to forty percent) live in the district with a majority (seventy-eight percent) of its population living in the rural areas. Tharu an ethnic group is one of the dominant population in the study area and all study participants for this study were from same Tharu population. A close to thirty-six percent of women in the district are illiterate and the average age of marriage is eighteen years. The report identifies that only twenty-three percent of women engage in economic activities apart from agricultural work and less than fourteen percent of women head the household. Almost eighty percent of the population in the district practice Hinduism.

This study is a part of a large intervention project and it was focused to establish a qualitative baseline of the gender status in the study area. This study aimed to explore participants’ experiences and understanding of gender inequality, violence against women, and information on sex trafficking in the Morang district of eastern Nepal. The selection of sex trafficking topic was motivated to assess the respondents’ general understanding of one of the consequences of inequality and violence faced by women. The study focused to explore factors that help to produce and sustain the practice of gender inequality and violence against women in the local community.


This study was part of a larger control-comparison project that used Forum Theatre interventions to promote gender equality, reduce violence against women, and increase awareness of sex trafficking [ 39 , 40 ]. The participants for the focus group discussion included the intervention population from one of the randomly sampled intervention sites. A multistage focus group discussion [ 41 ] was used involving the same participants discussing various emerging topics at different periods. The participants were recruited voluntarily during an earlier quantitative data collection for the project. The study used a purposive sampling method for the selection of participants. The local field staff at the study site facilitated the recruitment of the participants. The study formulated separate male and female groups. A total of six focus groups, three each with male and female groups were conducted over twelve months. Two inclusion criteria were set for participation. First, the participants had to be part of the population of the larger study. Secondly, they had to witness and/or participate in the Forum Theatre interventions conducted in between the study. The set inclusion criteria served a dual purpose of understanding the causes of inequality and violence and further helped to develop and determine the efficacy of participatory Forum Theater intervention for awareness-raising among the study intervention groups [ 39 ].

A total of thirty-six participants consisting of sixteen males and twenty females joined the discussions. The first discussion consisted of eight participants each from groups while the second and the third discussion missed two female and four male participants respectively. The majority of the participants were 20–29 years old. Tharu, an ethnic community of Nepal, is a dominant population in the study area, and all the participants belonged to the same Tharu community. Only one female participant was unmarried, and a single married male participated in the discussions. All participants were literate, with four males completing a bachelor's level of education. Seven female participants had education below the high school level. The nuclear family with parents and their children was the major family type identified in both male and female groups. Table 1 provides the detail of the participants.

The focus group discussions were conducted in January 2017, April–May 2017, and January 2018. The discussions were conducted in a place recommended by the participants. An isolated place in an open setting at the premise of a local temple was used for conducting all discussions. The participants were briefed about the objectives of the discussion and written consent was obtained for their participation. Verbal consent was taken for the audio recording of the discussions. Each participant was assigned a unique numerical code before the discussions to ensure anonymity during recording, note-taking, and analysis. The discussions averaged ninety minutes during each session. The discussions were conducted with the same participants and no new participants were added during the follow-ups. A single male and female participant were missing in the second follow up and two male participants missed the final follow-up. The reason for missing participants was due to their unavailability as they were out of the village due to personal reasons.

The discussions were conducted in the Nepali language. The first author moderated all six discussions, a support field staff member took the notes, and the last author observed the discussions. The audio recordings were translated into English, and the transcriptions were checked with the recordings to verify accuracy. The field and the discussion notes were used during various stages of data analysis. The notes provided information on the discussion setting, as well as the verbal and nonverbal expressions of the participants. The notes helped to assess the impressions, emphasis, and feelings of the participants during the discussions.

The discussions used pre-formulated discussion guides with open-ended questions on inequalities, gender practices, violence, and sex trafficking. The guiding questions were based on the theoretical premise of discrimination, patriarchy, oppression, hegemony, and participation of women. Three separate discussion guides were developed for each of discussions. The guides were developed by the first and last authors. Probing was done on several occasions during the discussion to gain more clarity on the issue. Cross-checking among the participants and between the groups was done to triangulate received information. Any topic deemed appropriate for discussions and/or any unclear issues identified during the initial data analysis came up subsequently in the discussion guide during the follow-ups.

Data analysis

This study used the constructivist grounded theory method. This method adheres to a constructivist philosophical approach wherein both researchers and participants mutually co-construct the meaning of a phenomenon [ 42 ]. This interaction is important since it helps to impart the meaning of shared experiences [ 42 ]. The constructivist grounded theory made it possible to (re) discover gender issues, important for both the researcher and the study participants. This method allowed the study to progress with responsiveness to emerging issues with an in-depth exploration of the identified issues. This clarity was achieved through repeated interactive discussions, analysis of explanations, and sharing of emergent findings with the study participants.

The audio recordings were translated and transcribed into English. Six transcripts from discussions were initially analyzed using a line-by-line coding process. The coding process helped with the fragmentation of data through interactive comparisons. Fifty-two initial codes such as gender differences, restricting women, alcohol-related violence, underreporting of sexual violence, coping, etc. were identified. The later stage of focused coding helped to achieve categorized data, providing logical sense to the developed initial codes. Three focused codes, namely, the subjugation of women, violence, and chasing dreams were formulated during the analysis. The abductive reasoning from the codes, memos, and discussion notes helped to develop the theoretical concept. The development of conceptual abstraction involved an iterative comparison of the data, codes, categories, memos, and discussion notes.

The constant communication between the authors during the stages of data analysis such as the formulation of codes, explanations of concepts, and categories helped to refine the analysis. The shared experiences of the participants and the description of the data collection and analysis included substantial details, enabling comparisons for future research and application to other similar contexts. The reliability of the study is warranted by the theoretical saturation [ 42 ] achieved by this study. This is supported by prolonged engagement with the study participants with communication on the emerging findings, and triangulation.

Reflexivity has a greater significance for the constructivist approach. The first and the second author of Nepalese origin were aware of the socio-cultural norms, stereotypes, values, and stigmas associated with gender in the local context. This helped the study to ascertain the depth of inquiry within the acceptable local normative limits. The non-Nepalese author, familiar with the study participants and Nepalese contexts, witnessed the discussions as an observer. The prior knowledge of the authors helped to critically assess different schemas, perspectives, and explanations shared by the participants. The universality of gender inequality and violence against women and its re-examination in the local context helped the authors to build upon existing knowledge by providing contextual explanations. The diversities among the authors and research participants established a basis for co-creating the perceived and observed realities.

The section below describes the participants’ perceptions and understanding of inequality and violence. The section contains subheadings that were derived as themes in the data analysis. The first theme subjugation of women; discusses how norms, beliefs, and practices produce inferior status and positions for women. The second theme domestic and gender violence; provides a narrative of interpersonal and socio-cultural violence present in the study area. The theme of chasing dreams; discusses the process of sex trafficking as an outcome of violence. The theoretically abstracted concept of power-play identifies the cause for the generation of power imbalance producing inequality and the use of violence by men.

Subjugation of women

The subjugation of women reflected practices and beliefs imparting positional differences for women and their social situation compared to men. The participants shared a common understanding that belief systems adhering to male supremacy have positioned women in a lower status. They provided examples of social practices of male supremacy such as males being considered as the carrier of a family name, legacy, and heritage, while women were referred to as someone else’s property. The socialization of the idea that girls will be married off to a husband and relocate themselves to their homes was identified as the major reason for instilling and perpetuating early gender differences. The participants mentioned that discriminatory practices and seclusion have situated women at the bottom rung of the gender hierarchy, establishing them as socially incompetent individuals or groups. Moreover, they inferred that selective preferences provided preparatory grounds for inequalities, and they remain attached to women throughout their lives. The participants provided examples of unequal access to education and life opportunities as a practice of selective preferences occurring in the community. They mentioned that socialization with these discriminatory beliefs and their practice helped to develop specialized gender roles from an early age. The participants provided an example of how gender intersected with mobility and resource generation in the community, it was clear from the discussions that this has restricted women inside homes but provided freedom and opportunities for men. A female participant expressed,

A woman from a poor family is more than willing to work and support her family. But she is not allowed by the men in the family to work outside of the home.

The participants informed that differences between the sexes were visible for women from a young age. Sharing practical examples from the community, the participants from both groups stated that girls received education mostly in low-cost government and community schools, while boys were enrolled in expensive private schools. They raised concerns that this selective investment for education, cited as the ‘building block of life’ by the participants, installed lesser capacity, and negotiating abilities in girls. A female participant stated,

There are differences in educational opportunities for boys and girls in our community. Family provides more support for a boy’s education by enrolling him in private schools, while a girl mostly gets her education in a community school together with engagement in household work.

The discussions revealed that women required several male anchors for their survival during their various stages of life. The participants provided examples of the shift of anchors for women which traversed from a father to a husband during marriage and later to the male child during her old age. They believed that this tradition of transferring women’s identity established men as a higher social category and stripped women of their individuality and identity. A male participant added,

Women have to remain dependent on men throughout their lives, first with their fathers and later with their husbands. They remain completely dependent as they are not economically active. This makes men believe that they have higher authority.

The female participants provided an example of marriage to illustrate how someone else’s decision-making had been affecting women’s lives. A participant explained that women were held responsible for household activities after marriage and any support for career progression or education was restricted despite her desire for its continuation. It was inferred that women had to drop their hopes and aspirations as the husband and his family made decisions for them. The female participants agreed that this continuous exposure to the ideas of male supremacy makes them start to believe and internalize the idea that women have lesser cognitive abilities and intelligence compared to men. A female participant stated,

Men and women certainly have different mental abilities. Men think and act differently often in a smart way compared to women.

The participants from both groups expressed that youth in the community were developing flexible attitudes and beliefs towards gender roles and responsibilities. They agreed that both young men and women were observed altering their roles and responsibilities shifting from traditional gender ideologies. The participants expressed that instilling these fluidity and flexible approaches in the older generation was impossible as they strictly followed traditional beliefs and practices. Few of the female participants admitted that at times young women also fail to accommodate the situation and reap benefits from available opportunities. The discussions revealed that a few of the women in the community received opportunities for independence and economic empowerment. These women had received entrepreneurial training and various skill development activities for sustaining livelihoods with practical skill-based training in tailoring, beautician, and doll-making. The female participants expressed that opportunities for independence and growth slipped away from them due to a lack of family support, financial constraints, and self-passivity. They explained that starting a business required approval from a family which was difficult to obtain. Moreover, if women made a self-decision to start up on their own, they lacked the initial capital and had to rely on men for obtaining resources. The participants further explained that the denial of men to support women were majorly due to the fear that norms of staying indoors for women will be breached and economic independence may enable women to have a similar financial footing as men. The participants stated that self-passivity in women emerged due to their engagement in household multiple roles, dependency upon males, and lack of decision-making power and abilities. A female participant summed it up by stating,

Some of us women in the community have received entrepreneurial skills training, but we have not been able to use our skills for our growth and development. Once the training finishes, we get back to our household chores and taking care of the children.

The female participants admitted that acceptance of belief systems requiring women to be docile, unseen, and unheard were the reasons for this self-passivity. The female participants resonated that the external controlling and unfavorable environment influenced by practices of discriminatory norms and beliefs developed self-passivity for women. A female participant expressed the cause and consequence of self-passivity as,

Women have inhibitions to speaking their minds; something stops us from making our position clear, making us lose all the time.

The discussions identified that gender norms were deeply engraved in various social interactions and daily life, and any deviance received strict criticism. The participants shared common examples of sanctions for women based on rigid norms like restrictive movements for women, social gossiping when women communicated with outsider men, prohibition for opinion giving in public, and lesser involvement during key decision-making at home. The participants shared that norms dictating gender roles were in place for both men and women with social sanctions and approval for their performance. A male discussion participant who occasionally got involved with cooking which was a so-called “women’s job” faced outright disapproval from his female relatives and neighbors. The male participant stated,

If I cook or get engaged in any household jobs, it is mostly females from the home and neighborhood who make fun of me and remind me that I am a man and that I should not be doing a woman’s job.

The foreign migration of youth looking for job opportunities has affected the Tharu community. It was known that a large number of men were absent from the community. The participants stated that women in such households with absent men had gained authority and control over resources, moreover, these women have been taking some of the men’s roles. The participants disclosed that these women had greater access and control over resources and were involved in the key decision-making positioning them in a relatively higher position compared to other women. It was known that this higher position for women came with a price, they were under higher social vigilance and at higher risk of abuse and violence due to the absence of ‘protective men’. It was known that women's foreign employment was associated with myths and sexist remarks. The participants shared that women had to face strict social criticisms and that their plans for livelihood and independence were related to an issue of sexual immorality and chastity. The participants from both groups strictly opposed the norms that associated women with sexual immorality but lamented that it continues. A male participant provided an insight into the social remarks received by women if she dares to go for foreign employment,

If a woman wants to go for a foreign job, she is considered to be of loose character. The idea that she is corrupt and will get involved in bad work will be her first impression of anyone.

Although the participant did not explicitly describe what bad work referred to as but it was inferred that he was relating it to sex work.

Domestic and gender violence

The participants identified violence as control, coercion, and use of force against someone will occurring due to unequal status. They primarily identified men as the perpetrators and women as the victims of violence. They explained that two types of violence were observed in the community. The first type occurred in an interpersonal relationship identified as physical, emotional, and sexual violence. The second type, as explained by the participants had its roots in socio-cultural belief systems. They provided examples of dowry exchange and witchcraft accusations for the latter type. The participants identified women as primary victims and listed both men and women as the perpetrators of both types of violence. They reported that physical violence against women by men under the influence of alcohol was the most commonly occurring violence in the community. The participants from both groups confirmed that wife-beating, verbal abuse, and quarrel frequently occurred in the community. It was known from discussions that alcohol consumption among men was widespread, and its cultural acceptance was also increasing episodes of violence. One of the female participants clarified further,

The most common violence occurring in our society is wife-beating by a husband under the influence of alcohol. We see it every day.

The participants reported the occurrence of sexual violence in the community but also pointed out that people refrained from discussing it considering it a taboo and private affair. The participants had hesitation to discuss freely on sexual violence. During the discussions, participants from both groups informed only of rape and attempted rape of women by men as sexual violence present in the community. Despite repeated probing, on several occasions, none of the participants from either group brought up issues and discussions about any other forms of sexual violence. Participants from both groups confirmed that stories about incidents of rape or attempted rape emerged only after cases were registered with the local police. The participants presumed that incidents of rape and attempted rape were not known to the wider community. A female participant stated,

Sexual violence does occur in our community, but people mostly do not report or disclose it, but they tend to keep it amongst themselves and their families.

The participants explained the identity of the rape perpetrator and victim. They identified the perpetrator as a rich, influential, and relatively powerful man from the community. The victim was portrayed as a poor and isolated woman which lesser social ties. It was known from the discussions that most of the rape cases in the community were settled with financial negotiations and monetary compensations for the victim rather than finding legal remedies. It can be inferred that the victimization of women intersects with gender, wealth, social stature, and affluence. The participants feared that this practice of settlement of rape with money could make rape a commodity available for the powerful, rich, and affluent men to exploit and victimize women. A male participant clarifies,

Recently, a man in his sixties raped a young girl near our village. The victim's family was ready to settle with monetary compensation offered by the rapist, but the involvement of the community stopped it and the rapist was handed over to the police.

The participants shared available coping mechanisms against violence practiced in the community by women. It was learned that the victim of household violence mostly used community consultation and police reporting to evade further violence. They divulged that community consultation and police reporting resulted in decisions in favor of victim women, directing abusive husbands to show decency and stop committing violence. The fear of legal repercussions such as spending time in police custody and getting charged under domestic violence cases was understood as the reasons for husbands to stop abuse and violence. The discussions revealed that women who file a formal complaint about their husband’s violent behavior could face an increased risk of violence. The participants disclosed that sharing such incidents publicly brought shame to some of the men and increased their anger, and often backlashed with increased violence. The participants in both groups stated that not all women in the community reported violence. They identified that women tend to be quiet despite facing continuous violence due to the fear of encountering more violence and to keeping their families together. A female participant clarifies,

Lodging public complaints against the abusive husband can sometimes escalate the violence. The husband’s anger for being humiliated in public must be faced by the woman inside the closed doors of the house with more violence and the men’s threat of abandoning the relationship.

The participants stated that socio-cultural violence against women in dowry-related cases was widespread and increasing. The dowry exchange was explained as a traditional practice with the family of the bride paying cash and kind to the groom's family. The participants clarified that the practice of dowry in the earlier days must have been an emergency fund for the newly wedded bride in a newer setting. According to the participants, the system of dowry has now developed and evolved as a practice of forced involuntary transfer of goods and cash demanded by the groom’s family. The discussions disclosed that the demands for dowry were increasing with time and failing to provide as promised immediately resulted in violence for the newly wedded bride. The participants described that dowry-related violence starts with taunts and progresses to withholding of food, verbal abuse, and finally, physical violence. They added that perpetrators of such violence were both men and women from the groom’s family. They stated that due to poverty not all bride families in the community were able to supply all demanded dowry which has exposed a large number of women to face dowry-related abuse and violence. The discussions also informed of a newer trend among girls by demanding goods during their wedding. It was shared that this new emerging trend had increased a two-fold financial burden on the bride’s family with heavy marriage debts. The male participants when questioned about the dowry demands cunningly shifted the responsibilities towards family and stated that it was not the groom but their families who were making such dowry demands. The discussions verified that dowry practice was so engraved in the community that it was impossible to even imagine a marriage without any dowry. A male participant reflected,

If I marry without any dowry, my family, neighbors, and all whom I know would consider that I am insane.

The participants also discussed and identified harmful traditional practices present in the community. The participants informed a common practice of accusing women of as witches existed in the community. It was mentioned that women faced witchcraft allegations in different situations. They provided examples of witchcraft allegations in common situations such as when someone’s cow stops producing milk when a child has a sore eye, when someone is bedridden due to sickness for days, or when a woman undergoes a miscarriage, etc. The participants stated that women accused of witch were always elderly/single women living in seclusion, poverty, and with fewer social ties. They also shared that the witch doctors, who ascertain whether a woman is a witch or not, were surprisingly mostly always men and hold higher status, respect, and social recognition. The consequences of being labeled as a witch, as explained by the participants, haunted victim women with torture, name-calling, social boycott, and extremes of physical violence. The participants informed that inhumane practices such as forceful feeding of human excreta prevailed during the witch cleansing sessions. A female participant explaining the witchcraft situation stated,

Witchcraft accusation is very real in our community; I know someone who has tortured his mother, citing reasons for his wife being childless. The old woman was called names, beaten, and later thrown out of the home.

The participants felt that men’s use of violence and its legitimization primarily existed due to gender hierarchy and internalization of the belief that violence was the best method to resolve any conflict. They inferred that men’s use of violence was further reinforced by women's acceptance and belief that violence had occurred due to their faults and carelessness. The female participants shared examples of common household situations that could result in an episode of violence such as women cooking distasteful food, failing to provide timely care to children and the elderly due to workload, and forgetting to clean rooms. These incidents make women believe that violence majorly occurred due to their mistakes. Furthermore, the participants believed that this self-blaming of the victim resulted due to constant exposure to violence and a non-negotiable social positioning of women for raising questions. The participants stated that beliefs instilled by religion increased the likelihood of victimization for women. They explained that religious practices and ideologies required women to refer to their husbands as godly figures, and a religious belief that anything said or done against husbands was a disgrace bringing sin upon her and family positioned women in an inferior position. A male participant added,

We belong to a culture where females worship their husbands as a god, and this might be an important reason for men to feel powerful as a god to exploit and abuse women.

The discussions put forward the idea that the existence of discriminatory beliefs, reinforcement of such beliefs, and a blind following of such practices produced differences and violence. The male participants acknowledged that the idea of male supremacy not only produced violence but also established a belief system that considered violence as an indispensable way to treat deviated women. One male participant stated this idea of male supremacy and privilege as,

The language of the feet is essential when words fail.

The participants also discussed violence committed toward men by women. The male participants burst into laughter when they stated that some men were beaten by their wives when they were drunk. The male participants admitted that intoxication reduced their strength and they got beaten. The female participants, on the other hand, assumed that women hit intoxicated men due to frustration and helplessness. They further clarified that the act of husband beating was a situational reaction towards men who had spent all of their daily earnings on alcohol. They stated that women with the responsibility to cook and feed family find themselves in an utterly helpless situation by the irresponsible drinking behavior of men. The male participants shared incidences of violence against men due to foreign migration. It was revealed in the discussions that some of the migrating men’s wives had run away with remitted money, abandoning marriage, and breaking up the family. The male participants identified this as a form of victimization of men, furthermore, the spreading of rumors and gossip caused emotional instability in those men. The female participants confirmed that some returning men failed to find their homes, property, money, and/or their wives. The discussion participants in both groups identified that this practice was on the rise in the community. It became apparent from the discussions that this increasing trend of women running away with the money and breaking away from family was a personal issue requiring social remedies.

Chasing dreams

The participants referred to sex trafficking as the exploitation of women, arising from poverty, illiteracy, and deceit. Explaining the causes of trafficking, the participants stated that women living in poverty, having dreams of prosperity and abundance were tricked by the traffickers making them victims of sex trafficking. The participants mentioned that women who had dreams larger than life and yearned for a comfortable and luxurious life in a short time were at a greater risk for sex trafficking. The participants from both groups resonated that the traffickers had been manipulating the dreams of poor women and deceiving them into trafficking. A female participant elaborated,

Women in poverty can be fooled easily with dreams. She can be tricked by a trafficker by saying I will find you employment with good pay abroad, and she gets into the trap easily.

A male participant further clarified,

Women readily fall into fraud and trickery shown by the traffickers who assure of luxurious life with foreign employment and this bait often leads to sex trafficking.

They identified that false hopes for foreign jobs were primarily used as an entry point by the traffickers to trap potential victims. Besides, they stated that some traffickers tricked women with false romantic relationships and marriages to win over their trust enabling traffickers to maneuver women as they wished.

It was identified that traffickers were not always strangers but known and familiar faces from the community, allowing the traffickers to gain the victim’s trust. The discussions divulged that traffickers strategically chose women who were less educated and poor. The participants explained that sex trafficking mostly occurred among women from a lower caste (the caste system is hierarchy-based in Hindu society which is determined by birth and unchangeable). They further explained that if one of these lower caste women went missing, it seldom raised any serious concerns in society, making these women easy targets for the traffickers. The discussions revealed that life for the survivors of sex trafficking was difficult. They identified that the survivor had to face strong stigmas and stereotypes which further increased their risk for re-victimization. The participants explained that the social acceptance of the trafficking survivors was minimal and finding a job for survival was very difficult. It was reported that social beliefs, norms, and practices were rigid for sex trafficking survivors and provided lesser opportunities for complete social integration. A female participant stated,

The story of a sex-trafficked woman does not end after her rescue. It is difficult for her to live in society, and this increases her chances of being a further victim.

The discussions in both groups highlighted that education and awareness were important for reducing sex trafficking. The participants felt that securing a livelihood for women was essential, but they identified it as a major challenge. The female participants recommended the use of education and awareness for reducing sex trafficking. They demanded effective legal actions and stringent enforcement of the law with maximum punishment for offending sex traffickers. They mentioned that the fear of law with maximum punishment for culprits could help decrease cases of trafficking.

The theoretical concept of power play

The discussions identified that gender inequality and violence against women occurred as men possessed and exercised greater authority. The participants explained that the authority emerging from male-centric beliefs was reinforced through established socio-cultural institutions. It was known that oppressive practices toward women in both public and private life have led to the domination and devaluation of women. The differences between men and women were known to be instilled by evoking discriminatory beliefs and due to internalization of them as fundamental truths by women which further helps to sustain these created differences.

The concept of power-play developed from the study has its roots in the belief systems and was found constantly used by men to maintain created differences. The power-play rise due to patriarchy, guiding discriminatory norms and unequal gender practices. These norms and practices in the canopy of patriarchy positions women inferior to men and impose control and restrictions. The power play possessed multi-dimensional effects on women such as creating further barriers, restricted life opportunities, the need for men-centered anchoring systems, and exclusion from the public arena. The power play gains its strength from the strict enforcement of stereotypical practices and committed adherence to gender performances. This leads to internalization of subordination as a natural occurrence by women. These further isolate women putting them into several non-negotiating positions. The power play at an individual level provides restrictive movement for women, barring them from quality education and other life opportunities, and is exhibited in alcohol-related assault and sexual violence. At the structural level, this power play limits women from economic opportunities, access to resources, and decision-making, and induces socio-cultural inequality exhibited in dowry and cases of witchcraft. The socio-cultural acceptance of power-play allows men to use violence as a misuse of power and use it as an effort to maintain authority. The use of power-play for committing violence was identified as the worst display of exercised power play.

Figure  1 describes the concept of power-play developed from the study. The power-play model is based on discussions and inferences made from data analysis. The model provides a description and explanation of how women are subjected to inequality and face violence. The concept of power play derives its strength from the subjugated status of women which are based on selective treatment, self-embodiment of inferiority, imposed restrictions and due to lesser life opportunities. The power play gain legitimacy through social approval of the status differences between men and women and through social systems and institutions majorly developed and favoring men. The status difference between men and women and its approval by developed social institutions and processes give rise to the concept of powerplay. It identifies that status differences allow men to gain and (mis)use power play not only to maintain differences but also enable men to use violence. The use of power-play exists at both interpersonal and cultural levels. Further, the model elaborates on influencers causing subjugation of women, display of power-play, and violence. The model identified that lodging public complaints and seeking legal remedies are the influencers that suppress violence against women. The influence of Forum Theater was perceived to have greater influence for victim, perpetrator, and bystanders. The influencers that aggravate violence are fear of further violence, the nature of the interpersonal relationship, alcohol-related abuse, and remaining silent especially on sexual violence. The cultural violence mentioned in the model refers to dowry and witchcraft-related violence and stands as systemic subordination. In the model, sex trafficking is depicted as one of the outcomes of inequality and violence faced by women majorly occurring due to deceit and fraud.

figure 1

The theoretical concept of power-play developed in this study identifies that inequality produces violence and violence further reinforces inequality, creating a vicious circle. The power play situates hierarchy based on gender as the primary cause and identifies violence as an outcome of this power asymmetry. The authority to use power by men is received by social approval from embedded structures and institutions. The functioning of associated structures and norms is designed and run by men helping to perpetuate the dominance and subjugation of women. The study identifies that both interpersonal and socio-cultural violence emerges due to the positional differences and use of power. The study found that an element of control exists in interpersonal violence. The findings show that few victim women in the community took advantage of consultations and rely on the law to evade and /or cope during the occurrence of interpersonal violence. A large number of victims women however suffer silently as they are unable and unwilling to take a stand on violence due to their perceived positional differences and strict norms following. The study finds that violence originating from socio-cultural systems is widely accepted and no established means of control exists. The practice of heinous acts against a fellow human during witchcraft allegations and dowry exchanges is prohibited by the law of Nepal but is widespread. This situates that practices which are based on belief systems are more effective than prevailing national laws which try to stop them. Sex trafficking as a form of sexual violence use deceit and fraud against women. Poverty and illiteracy compel women to search for alternatives, and they become easy victims of sex trafficking when their dreams of a better life are manipulated by the traffickers. The false promise of a better life and highly paid job put women in a non-negotiating position with traffickers. The cherished dream of escaping the prevailing status-quo of oppression, subordination, violence, and poverty mesmerizes women to take risky decisions, falling into the risk and trap of sex trafficking.

The socio-cultural norms are the unwritten script of social operatives and functioning. These social norms function as codes of operation and are a major determinant for behavior and interactions between people [ 43 ]. The study has found that these norms were skewed, and most favored men, giving rise to status differences and producing inequalities for women. This is observed with lesser life opportunities, lower participation in decision-making, and a constant need to anchor women. This further helps men to maintain their hierarchical positional status and use violence. The subjugation of women does not occur in a linear process, it is influenced by the internalization of discrimination resulting in lower self-esteem, suppression, and domination of women based on norms and unequal practices. Earlier research has identified that norms and beliefs encourage men to control women, and direct them to use force to discipline women which increases the risk of violence occurrence [ 44 , 45 ]. An earlier study shows that traits of masculinity require men to become controlling, aggressive, and dominant over women to maintain status differences [ 46 ]. The study confirms that men upon receiving both normative and social approval for using violence against women can do so without hesitation.

Violence against women in Nepal mostly occurs inside the home and is only reported when it reaches higher levels of severity. The acceptance of violence as a private affair has restricted women from seeking support and discourages them from communicating their problems with outsiders [ 47 ] this increases more likelihood for men to use violence. The study finds issues related to sex and sexual violence is a taboo and are seldom reported. The study could only identify cases of sexual assault registered with the police and other cases known to the wider community as sexual violence. A community with known incidents of rape may have other cases of abuse, harassment, incest, forceful sexual contact, etc. Failure to report incidents of sexual violence infer that a large number of women could be suffering in silence. Earlier research identifies that increased stigmatization associated with sexual violence, and fear of seclusion cause reluctance in victims to report or seek support [ 48 ]. This silencing of victims provides men with greater sexual control over women [ 49 ] increasing more likelihood of use of violence. Gender-based inequality and violence intersect structures, institutions, and socio-cultural processes, making inequality and violence visible at all levels. The dowry-related violence and witchcraft allegation intersect interpersonal and structural violence. This cultural violence forces women to be a victim of lifelong abuse and trauma. The intersecting relationship between gender norms, social structures, and individual is so closely knitted that it produces varieties of inequality and violence at all levels [ 50 ]. Emotional violence in this study only emerged as a type of violence, during discussions in both groups. It did not emerge as a major concern for the participants except for dowry-related violence and violence against men. The intertwined nature of emotional violence and its occurrence with each abusive, exploitative, and violent situation may have influenced the participants understand it as a result, rather than as a specific type of violence.

The power play between sexes was found in synchronicity with the established norms and prevailing stereotypes, helping to perpetuate gender power imbalance. The gender system is influenced and governed by norms and the social arena becomes the site of its reproduction through the interaction and engagement of people. This interaction provides approval to the institutions and processes that are based on constructed differences between men and women [ 51 ]. The power, as identified by Fricker [ 52 ], controls a social group and operates and operates through the agent or established social structures. A man can actively use the vested power to either patronize and/or abuse women while passively women’s internalization of social settings and embedded norms can put them docile. The social controls as reported by Foucault [ 53 ] work with the embedded systems of internalization, discipline, and social monitoring and uses coercion rather than inflicting pain. The internalization of status differences among women as indicated by the study confirms this schema of social control. The dominance of men over women with patriarchal beliefs establishes the significance of male-centered kinship. This requires women to constantly anchor with men providing grounds for inequalities to perpetuate further. This idealizes men and reinforces the belief that women are non-existent without their presence. The requirement for male anchorage has an attachment to prevailing structural inequality. The family property and resources are mostly controlled by men and it usually transfers from father to son limiting inheritance to women [ 51 ]. These glorified idealizations of men's competence as described by Ridgeway [ 54 ] idealize men as individuals with abilities, status, power, and influences. The need for women to rely on men as anchors, fear of going against the norms and social sanctions explains the positional difference and show that men possess greater competencies. The internalization of men-centric superior beliefs by women occurs due to self-passivity and devalues women creating false impressions of their abilities. The gender roles and responsibilities were strict for both sexes but provided greater flexibility, privilege, and opportunity for men. Earlier studies in congruence with this study find that socio-cultural expectations limit women from deviation, and strictly adhere to their prescribed role and expectations [ 55 , 56 ] providing an upper hand to the men. The unequal social positioning of women, as defined by a few of the participants, can help define men's use of violence. As inferred by Kaufman [ 57 ], the disadvantageous position of women and support from the established structures enable men to use aggression and violence with considerable ease. The concept of power-play derived from this study also reflects that inequalities not only create hierarchies, putting women into a subordinating position but also legitimize norms of harmful masculinity and violence [ 57 , 58 , 59 , 60 ] creating a vicious cycle of inequality and violence. The concept of power-play developed by this study requires further exploration of gender relations, injustice, and patriarchy to identify multiple operatives of power with an outcome of inequality and violence.

Strengths and limitations of the study

The study followed the same participants over a period, which helped the study to achieve clarity on the topics through constant engagement. The data collection and the initial data analysis of the study were conducted by the same person, which reduced the risk of misrepresented findings. The study used follow-up discussions, which provided an opportunity to meet the participants again to resolve any ambiguities. The constant engagement with the participants helped to develop rapport and trust, which is essential to enable meaningful discussions. The study gathered rich data for developing the theory of power play in the Nepalese context. The study has attempted to explain the interplay of men’s use of power play, gender inequality, and violence against women, which, in itself, is a complex, but important issue. The study helped to develop a platform by identifying a level of awareness and needs for a Forum Theatre intervention study, a first of its kind in Nepal.

The major limitation of the study is that it was conducted with only one of the ethnic populations of Nepal; thus, the findings from this study cannot be generalized to a completely different setting. However, the transferability of the study is possible in a similar setting. The incidences of inequality and violence shared by the participants were self-reported, and no other means of verification were available to crosscheck those claims. The differences among the participants both in and between groups based on education and marital status might have influenced the study participants to understand, observe, and experience the phenomenon. The possibility of social desirability bias remains with the study, as a constant engagement with the study participants might have influenced them to answer differently. Furthermore, the discussions were conducted in groups, and participants might have had hesitation to bring up any opposing views. The study relied on collecting information on social norms and individual experiences and the perceptions of the study participants. It cannot be claimed that the study is devoid of any data rigidity as participants were free to choose what they wanted to share and express.

Study implications

The study explains gender practices, norms, violence against women, and sex trafficking in Nepal. The study helps to increase the understanding of how gender systems are operative in the daily lives of the Tharu community in the Morang district of Nepal. Future studies can explore the established linkages of interpersonal and socio-cultural violence. Like the complex link existing between gender inequality and violence against women, interpersonal violence and socio-cultural violence cannot be studied in isolation. The study provides an opportunity for future research on exploring how changing norms have been altering the position and victimization of women. The study finds that changing gender norms and responsibilities have, on the one hand, provided agency and empowerment for women, but on the other hand, they have also increased their risk of being a victim, an area that requires further exploration. The study has identified that constant engagement with the study participants through follow-up studies ensures the richness of data, which can be useful information for a future research study design. The study can be helpful for policy development, social activists, leaders, and researchers as it discusses prevalent gender oppressions and victimization, which need to be addressed. The findings from the study can be helpful for dialogue imitation and for designing intervention projects aimed at providing justice and equality to women.

The study identifies the presence of gender inequalities and violence against women in the study area. The positional differences based on norms, institutions, and practices have assigned greater privileges to men. The concept of power-play devised by the study ascertains the maintenance of gender hierarchy to produce inequality further and victimization of women. The subjugation of women based on the social-cultural process, embedded belief systems, and norms prevent women from life opportunities and dignified life. It situates men at the highest rung of the gender and social ladder providing a comparative advantage for men to use power. Violence emerges as men’s use of power play and as a strategy for the continued subjugation of women. Sex trafficking as a consequence of inequality and violence has its origins in illiteracy and poverty with women falling prey to the deceit of traffickers. It is important that dreams for progression provide motivation for women to develop further but at the same time, dreams should not be exchanged with trickery and fraud offered by the traffickers. Awareness and attitudinal changes are imperative to challenge unequal norms, and practices, and reduce the risks of sex trafficking. This can help to develop negotiations for power-sharing which helps to reduce inequality, violence, and preparedness in chasing dreams. Changes at both individual and societal levels are necessary to develop a collective action for establishing belief systems and practices providing women with an equal position and reducing the risk of violence.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to privacy but are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors are grateful to all the focus group discussion participants. The authors are indebted to Bhojraj Sharma, Deekshya Chaudhary, Subham Chaudhary, and Dev Kala Dhungana for their coordination and facilitation in reaching the discussion participants.

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PD, SKJ, and KS were involved in the study design. PD and KS developed the discussion guides. PD was responsible for the data collection and the data analysis. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Dahal, P., Joshi, S.K. & Swahnberg, K. A qualitative study on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Nepal. BMC Public Health 22 , 2005 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-14389-x

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Sex and Gender Equity in Research: rationale for the SAGER guidelines and recommended use

  • Shirin Heidari 1 ,
  • Thomas F. Babor 2 ,
  • Paola De Castro 3 ,
  • Sera Tort 4 &
  • Mirjam Curno 5  

Research Integrity and Peer Review volume  1 , Article number:  2 ( 2016 ) Cite this article

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An Erratum to this article was published on 24 June 2016

Sex and gender differences are often overlooked in research design, study implementation and scientific reporting, as well as in general science communication. This oversight limits the generalizability of research findings and their applicability to clinical practice, in particular for women but also for men. This article describes the rationale for an international set of guidelines to encourage a more systematic approach to the reporting of sex and gender in research across disciplines.

A panel of 13 experts representing nine countries developed the guidelines through a series of teleconferences, conference presentations and a 2-day workshop. An internet survey of 716 journal editors, scientists and other members of the international publishing community was conducted as well as a literature search on sex and gender policies in scientific publishing.

The Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelines are a comprehensive procedure for reporting of sex and gender information in study design, data analyses, results and interpretation of findings.


The SAGER guidelines are designed primarily to guide authors in preparing their manuscripts, but they are also useful for editors, as gatekeepers of science, to integrate assessment of sex and gender into all manuscripts as an integral part of the editorial process.

Sex and gender are important determinants of health and well-being. Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals that are associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone function and reproductive/sexual anatomy [ 1 ]. Sex is usually categorized as female or male, although there is variation in the biological attributes that constitute sex and how those attributes are expressed.

Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours and identities of female, male and gender-diverse people [ 1 ]. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they behave and interact and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender is usually incorrectly conceptualized as a binary (female/male) factor. In reality, there is a spectrum of gender identities and expressions defining how individuals identify themselves and express their gender. A glossary of terms is provided in Appendix 1 to define the meaning of sex, gender and related terms.

Sex and gender interactions influence health and well-being in a variety of ways. They both impact environmental and occupational risks, risk-taking behaviours, access to health care, health-seeking behaviour, health care utilization, and perceived experience with health care, and thus disease prevalence and treatment outcome. In addition, it is well-known that pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of pharmaceutical agents differ between sexes, resulting in differential adverse event profiles and further impacting treatment outcomes. Thus, sex and gender are critical determinants of health [ 2 ].

Sex and gender bias in the conduct of research

Despite recognition of the importance of sex and gender in most areas of research, important knowledge gaps persist owing to the general orientation of scientific attention to one sex or gender category and because of a misconception that disaggregation of sex does not apply to other living organisms that can be classified by sex [ 3 – 6 ].

The gap in the representation of women in studies on human subjects has been well-documented [ 1 ]. A review of cardiovascular treatment trials included in Cochrane Reviews reveals that only 27 % of the total trial participants in the 258 clinical trials were women [ 7 ]. More importantly, among trials recruiting both men and women, only one third reported a gender-based analysis [ 8 ]. More than 79 % of animal studies published in Pain over a 10-year period included male subjects only, and only 4 % studied sex differences [ 9 ].

The underrepresentation of women in research can result in adverse consequences. Among the ten prescription pharmaceuticals withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2001, eight caused greater harm to women than men [ 10 ]. More recently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety communication, recommending half a dose of zolpidem for women, due to greater susceptibility to the risks of the drug [ 11 ]. Sex- and gender-based analysis, in all of these cases, would have provided sufficient information to guide dosing and applicability of drugs in men and women prior to approval.

Failure to conduct sex and gender-based analysis occurs in a range of disciplines. In the field of engineering, lack of consideration of differences in the physiology and anatomy of males and females in developing car seats has resulted in higher risk for whiplash injuries among female car occupants compared with men [ 12 , 13 ].

Although the term “gender gap” has most often been applied to women, the benefit that sex- and gender-based analysis has for our understanding of men’s health should also be noted. Despite the increasing representation of male and female subjects in research and reporting of sex-specific and gender-specific data, these examples indicate that existing policies have not been enforced [ 3 ]. Lack of interest in sex and gender differences may not only be harmful but also present missed opportunities for innovation. Understanding the underlying differences and similarities, exploring applicability, uptake and impact of technological innovations and getting deeper insight into cognitive variability will undoubtedly lead to more innovative approaches and better solutions to meet the needs of society.

The role of journal editors and editorial policies

Editors play an important role as gatekeepers of science, including the articulation of an ethical framework that influences the conduct of research. With an ever-increasing volume of information being published, concerns over the quality of publications have lead journal editors, publishers and professional associations to implement detailed guidelines. Ethical review procedures are now universally applied in human and animal research, in part because of journal requirements. The impact of journal policies on compliance to mandates has been clearly demonstrated in such diverse areas as clinical trial registration [ 14 ] and the reporting of systematic reviews after introduction of PRISMA guidelines [ 15 ]. Another illustration is the gradual adoption of the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) statement, which has led to improved reporting of randomized controlled trials [ 16 , 17 ]. Following CONSORT and PRISMA, many other reporting guidelines have been developed, including the ARRIVE guidelines for animal research [ 18 ].

Although policy implementation and enforcement continue to be a critical challenge, journals could play an important role in advancing the quality and transparency of reported data by promoting sex- and gender-specific analysis of research data as a matter of routine. In a 2011 workshop on “Sex-specific reporting of scientific research,” convened by the US Institute of Medicine, a number of key issues were identified that journals and journal editors should address in order to improve gender-sensitive reporting of research [ 3 ], including the appropriateness of sex-specific data analyses and the absence of journal policies recommending sex and gender considerations in research design and reporting.

On the basis of the available evidence, a committee of the US Institute of Medicine in 2010 recommended that the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and other editors adopt a guideline that all papers reporting the results of clinical trials analyse data separately for men and women. The ICMJE has since published more robust guidance on sex and gender reporting, recommending that researchers include representative populations in all study types, provide descriptive data for sex and other relevant demographic variables and stratify reporting by sex [ 19 ].

Adequate inclusion of sufficient numbers of men and women (and other sub-populations) in research, along with appropriate analysis and transparent and complete reporting of research data, require a concerted effort among funders, researchers, reviewers and editors [ 20 ]. Although editors typically enter the research process late, after the research has already been concluded and the data analysed, they can still play an important role in ensuring effective, transparent and complete sex and gender reporting.

In recent years, several reviewers of sex and gender issues in scientific research have made recommendations regarding the best ways to address the problems that have been identified. Doull et al. [ 21 , 22 ] proposed that the methodology of systematic reviews and of sex- and gender-based analyses be refined and synchronized to enhance the collection, synthesis and analysis of evidence for decision-making, and they developed an appraisal tool for systematic reviews and adapted it to evaluate primary studies and protocols for new research [ 22 ]. Nowatski and Grant [ 23 ] provided a rationale for gender-based analysis, which is designed to identify the sources and consequences of inequalities between women and men and to develop strategies to address them. The Clinical Orthopedics and Research journal published an editorial on gender and sex in scientific reporting in 2014, including a set of recommendations [ 5 ].

Editorial associations, publishing houses, funding agencies and public interest organizations have also taken an interest in sex and gender issues. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research implemented a requirement in 2010 that all grant applicants respond to mandatory questions about whether their research designs include gender and sex [ 24 ]. Advances made in the inclusion of women as research participants in the USA can be attributed in large part to the actions taken at the NIH in 1993 that stipulated women and minorities should be included in phase 3 clinical trials so that valid analyses of differences in intervention effects could be performed [ 25 ]. More recently, the NIH announced plans to require grant applicants to describe how they will balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies, unless sex-specific inclusion is unwarranted [ 6 ].

Despite a greater recognition of the importance of sex and gender considerations in research and scientific publishing, progress has been slow in some areas of science and further work is needed to build on preceding efforts by journals, journal editors and learned societies. As noted by Nieuwenhoven [ 26 ], vigorous approaches are needed to stimulate scientists to integrate sex and gender aspects into their research. For example, there is no overarching set of recommendations that provides guidelines for better reporting of sex and gender in scientific publications across disciplines. To address this need, the present article describes the development of a set of international guidelines to encourage a more systematic approach to the reporting of sex and gender in research across disciplines.

The European Association of Science Editors (EASE) established a Gender Policy Committee in 2012 and tasked it to develop a set of guidelines for reporting of Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER). A panel of 13 experts (eight females, five males) representing nine countries were selected by the Chairperson of the GPC (Dr. Heidari). Eight members were senior editors for a variety of biomedical journals, and the remaining individuals had expertise on gender research and scientific publishing.

An internet survey of 716 journal editors, scientists and other members of the international publishing community was first conducted to gather information about existing sex and gender policies and opinions about the need for such policies. The survey focused on four policy areas: (1) instructions for authors that require or encourage disaggregation of data by sex or gender when feasible; (2) gender policies concerning the composition of editorial staff and boards; (3) policies that strive for gender balance among peer reviewers and (4) guidelines that ask reviewers to assess manuscripts for inclusion of sex-disaggregated data and gender analysis. The survey targeted four groups: EASE members; members of the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors (ISAJE); a random sample of 100 journals selected from the 8607 names in the Thomson Reuters SCI Expanded database of journals and an open sample in which any concerned individual could complete the survey. In total, 716 respondents took part in the survey, representing 338 unique journals and 114 unique publishing houses.

In addition to the survey, several other methods were used to identify policy options and expert recommendations. First, keyword searches were conducted (e.g. “sex” + “instructions for authors”) to identify journals that had specific policies on sex and gender. In addition, we scanned the websites of surveyed journals that explicitly expressed concerns about sex and gender knowledge gaps in science and the sex and gender reporting policies of peer-reviewed journals already known to the Gender Policy Committee.

Over a 3-year period, the Committee worked through a series of teleconferences, conference presentations and a 2-day workshop to develop its recommendations. Once the draft guidelines were developed, dissenting views were considered at editors’ meetings in Blankenberge, Belgium, and Split, Croatia. In addition, the draft guidelines were circulated to 36 experts in sex and gender research; any comments received were incorporated into the document where relevant.

Survey findings

The average proportion of respondents in each of the four samples who reported having sex and/or gender policies at their journals was 7 %. Respondents from countries where men and women are more equal (lower GII) were more likely to report that these policies are in place.

In the random sample of 100 journals and the EASE and ISAJE groups, a majority (75 %) were unsure or unwilling to introduce sex and gender considerations as requirements in Instructions for Authors. Female respondents were more likely to support sex and gender reporting policies than male respondents. While caution must be exercised in relation to the conclusions drawn, the survey results point to the paucity of sex- and gender-related policies concerning instructions for authors, guidelines for peer-reviewers and gender balance of both editorial boards and peer-reviewers.

Literature review

Our review identified policies developed and used by 62 journals, as well as 25 other sources of published materials in the form of journal articles, editorials, expert committee reports and conference proceedings.

The majority of sex and gender policies and guidelines fell into the Instructions for Authors category, covering a variety of scientific areas (e.g. “animal science,” “health – psychiatry”) and types of research (e.g. animal, human, cell or a combination of the three). In most cases, the instructions merely advise authors to report results for males and females separately, if appropriate.

Several journals [ 20 , 27 , 5 ] have used their editorial pages to announce the adoption of new policies or to promote the need for greater awareness of sex and gender issues. For example, the editors of Clinical Orthopaedic and Related Research published an editorial [ 5 ] recommending that researchers seeking publication in the journal use the following guidelines: (1) design studies that are sufficiently powered to answer research questions both for males and females if the health condition being studied occurs in all sexes and genders; (2) provide sex- and/or gender-specific data where relevant in all clinical, basic science and epidemiological studies; (3) analyse the influence (or association) of sex or gender on the results of the study, or indicate in the “ Methods ” section why such analyses were not performed, and consider this topic as a limitation to cover in the “ Discussion ” section and (4) if sex or gender analyses were performed post hoc, indicate that these analyses should be interpreted cautiously.

In a 2011 workshop “Sex-specific reporting of scientific research,” a broad cross section of stakeholders convened by the US Institute of Medicine identified key issues that journals and journal editors should address, such as requiring authors to report on the sex of study subjects, not only in studies with human participants but also in animal research and in studies with cells, tissues and other material from humans or animals.

Doull et al. [ 21 ] proposed that the methodologies of systematic reviews and of sex- and gender-based analysis be refined and synchronized to enhance the collection, synthesis and analysis of evidence for decision-making. Nowatski and Grant [ 23 ] provided a rationale for gender-based analysis (GBA), which is designed to identify the sources and consequences of inequalities between women and men and to develop strategies to address them. GBA focuses on gender differences in health and health care and appropriate policies.

SAGER guidelines

The policies, procedures and recommendations reviewed above were used as a basis for the SAGER guidelines, which are designed to promote systematic reporting of sex and gender in research. The guidelines provide researchers and authors with a tool to standardize sex and gender reporting in scientific publications, whenever appropriate. They are also aimed at editors to use as a practical instrument to evaluate a research manuscript and as a vehicle to raise awareness among authors and reviewers. Although reporting guidelines typically focus on how to report what was actually done in a study, we recognize that not all of the items included in the SAGER guidelines are feasible or applicable to a particular study. For this reason, SAGER encourages authors, editors and referees to consider if sex and gender are relevant to the topic of the study, and accordingly to follow the guidelines, whenever applicable. As a general principle, the SAGER guidelines recommend careful use of the words sex and gender in order to avoid confusing both terms. The use of common definitions will improve the ability to conduct meta-analyses of published and archived data. The term sex should be used as a classification of male or female based on biological distinction to the extent that this is possible to confirm. Authors should underline in the methods section whether sex of participants was defined based on self-report, or assigned following external or internal examination of body characteristics, or through genetic testing or other means. In studies of animals, the term sex should be used. In cell biological, molecular biological or biochemical experiments, the origin and sex chromosome constitutions of cells or tissue cultures should be stated. If unknown, the reasons should be stated. In other disciplines, such as the testing of devices or technology, authors should explain whether it will be applied or used by all genders and if it has been tested with a user’s gender in mind.

It is acknowledged that many studies will not have been “designed” to analyse sex and/or gender differences, but the panel felt these analyses are necessary to advance knowledge about sex and gender, especially in medical research.

Table  1 presents the SAGER guidelines. They apply to all research with humans, animals or any material originating from humans and animals (e.g. organs, cells, tissues), as well as other disciplines whose results will be applied to humans such as mechanics and engineering.

Title and abstract

If only one sex or gender is included in the study, the title and the abstract should specify the sex of animals or any cells, tissues and other material derived from these and the sex and gender of human participants. In applied sciences (technology, engineering, etc.), authors should indicate if the study model was based on one sex or the application was considered for the use of one specific sex. For studies (of a non-sex-specific issue) in which only one sex has been used, the article’s title should specify this fact by including “in males” or “in females” in the title and abstract. If cultures of primary cells, tissue, etc., were obtained from one sex, the sex should be indicated in the title [ 3 ].


Authors should report, where relevant, previous studies that show presence or lack of sex or gender differences or similarities. If such studies are lacking, the authors should explain whether sex and/or gender may be an important variant and if differences may be expected.

Authors should report how sex and gender were taken into account in the design of the study, ensure adequate representation of males and females and justify reasons for the exclusion of males or females. Methodological choices about sex and gender in relation to study population and analytical approach should be reported and justified in the same way as other methodological choices.

In vivo and in vitro studies using primary cultures of cells, or cell lines from humans or animals, or ex vivo studies with tissues from humans or animals must state the sex of the subjects or source donors, except for immortalized cell lines, which are highly transformed [ 3 ]. In other cases, e.g. embryonic or early postnatal cultures, cell lines immortalized from a mixed culture or previously completed experiments for which sex was not documented, it is recommended that researchers determine the sex of cells or cell lines by chromosomal analysis and that the designations “mixed” or “unknown” should be used only when the sex cannot be determined through any methods.

Data should be reported disaggregated by sex, and an analysis of sex and gender differences and similarities should be described, where appropriate. Anatomical and physiological differences between men and women (height, weight, body mass, cell counts, hormonal cycles, etc.) as well as social and cultural variables (socio-economic status, education, etc.) should be taken into consideration in the presentation of data and/or analysis of the results. We recommend the use of the gendered innovations’ checklist for animals, tissues, cells and cultures [ 28 ]. If sex- and gender-based analyses have been performed, results should be reported regardless of the positive or negative outcome. In human studies, data on enrolment, participation, dropout, discontinuation and loss-to-follow up should be reported disaggregated by sex and gender (where appropriate), and the influence of sex and gender factors should be assessed a priori on the basis of their hypothesized role in the causation, course, treatment effectiveness, impact and outcome of health problems. Authors should refrain from conducting a post hoc gender-based analysis if the study design is insufficient to enable meaningful conclusions. In all cases, raw data should be published disaggregated by sex and gender for future pooling and meta-analysis.

In epidemiological studies, the impact of other exposures, such as socioeconomic variables, on health problems should be examined for all genders and should be analysed critically from a gender perspective.

We recognize that reporting guidelines focus on how to report what was actually done. However, not all of the items in the SAGER guidelines need to be done, as indicated by the words, “if appropriate.” The SAGER guidelines are intended to promote sex and gender equity in research; therefore, it encourages authors, editors and referees to consider if sex and gender are relevant to the topic of the study, and accordingly to follow the guidelines, whenever applicable.

The implications of sex and gender for the interpretation of study results should be elaborated, including the extent to which the findings can be generalized to all sexes and genders in a population. If no sex and gender-based analyses have been performed, authors should indicate the reasons for lack of such analyses when discussing the limitations of the study and discuss whether such analyses could have affected the results.

When interpreting research findings, past research should be examined for both methodological rigour and sex bias in procedure and interpretation. Authors should avoid confusing sex with gender and reducing complex or interactionist explanations to overly simple ones. Authors should consider all possible explanations for sex- and gender-related phenomena including social, cultural, biological and situational factors, recognizing that many sex-related behaviours might result from either cultural factors or biological factors. Covariation between biology and behaviour does not constitute evidence for physiological causation.

Appendix 2 provides a set of questions intended to raise awareness among authors. For many disciplines engaged in original scientific research, this list could serve as a basis for the preparation of a manuscript for submission.

The SAGER guidelines were developed over a 3-year period by a multidisciplinary group of academics, scientists and journal editors by means of literature reviews, expert feedback and public consultations at conferences. Authors, journal editors, publishers, reviewers and other members of the scientific community all have a role to play in addressing the neglect of the sex and gender dimension in scientific publishing.

The SAGER guidelines provide researchers and authors with a tool to standardize sex and gender reporting in scientific publications. They were designed to improve sex and gender reporting of scientific research, serve as a guide for authors and peer-reviewers, be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of research areas and disciplines and improve the communication of research findings. Nevertheless, the guidelines do not make explicit recommendations regarding gender-diverse populations. We recognize that most studies will not be powered to detect differences in effects for gender-diverse populations such as transgender, especially in countries where such diversity is unknown. Yet authors need to consider the relevance of their research for gender-diverse populations.

Editors should make it clear that integration of sex and gender issues makes for more rigorous and ethical science. To the extent that mandates are difficult to implement, we recommend that journal editors endorse the SAGER guidelines and adapt them to the needs of their journals and their fields of science by including examples of good practice for each of the reporting items. At a minimum, journals publishing original research should request in their instructions to authors that all papers present data disaggregated by sex and gender and, where applicable, explain sex and gender differences or similarities adequately. Figure  1 provides a list of questions that could be used to guide the initial screening of submitted manuscripts. Editors should introduce specific questions in the checklist used to screen initial submissions, as an effort to systematize gender-conscious assessment of manuscripts among editorial staff. The following is an example of questions that can be introduced in peer-reviewers’ assessment forms:

SAGER flowchart guiding editors’ initial screening of submitted manuscripts

1. Are sex and gender relevant to the research in question?

2. Have authors adequately addressed sex and gender dimensions or justified absence of such analysis?

To be effective, the guidelines need to be endorsed by a broad cross section of the scientific community, including journal editors, publishers, editors’ societies, professional organizations, scientific advocacy groups, science journalists and other science communicators.

Editors should distribute the SAGER guidelines to their reviewers and encourage them to use them in the evaluation of manuscripts. They should ensure the manuscript assessment forms completed by peer-reviewers include specific questions regarding the importance and relevance of sex and gender.

Training the editorial staff on the importance of sex and gender-sensitive reporting should be conducted as part of regular training on ethical conduct and editorial practices.

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The SAGER guidelines are the result of collective effort by the EASE Gender Policy Committee (GPC) (please see EASE website for the list of committee members). The authors would particularly like to thank Joan Marsh, Ines Steffens and Paul Osborn for critically reading the manuscript and providing valuable comments on the various drafts of this paper. The authors would like to extend their gratitude to former EASE GPC members; Carina Sorensen, Joy Johnson, Meridith Sones, who made substantial contribution to the work of the committee and the process leading to the development of the SAGER guidelines. The EASE GPC would also like to thank the following individuals who offered expert advice during the consultation process: Enrico Alleva, Gustav Amberg, Magda Luz Atrián-Salazar, Vivienne Bachelet, Virginia Barbour, Janine Clayton, Sharon Bloom, Gillian Einstein, Helen Herman, Roderick Hunt, Astrid James, Ineke Klinge, Cameron Neylon, Elizabeth Pollitzer, Marta Rondon, and Londa Schiebinger.

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EASE Gender Policy Committee/Reproductive Health Matters, London, UK

Shirin Heidari

Department of Community Medicine, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, CT, 06030-6325, USA

Thomas F. Babor

Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy

Paola De Castro

Cochrane Editorial Unit, London, UK

Journal of the International AIDS Society, Geneva, Switzerland

Mirjam Curno

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas F. Babor .

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Competing interests.

None of the authors have any financial competing interests. All authors are unpaid, voluntary members of the Gender Policy Committee of the European Association of Science Editors, a registered charity in the UK.

Authors’ contributions

SH had the idea for the SAGER guidelines and the article, wrote the sections of the article and organized the planning, conducting and reporting of the work described in the article. TFB drafted the article and served as the corresponding author. PDC and MC participated in the discussions leading to the production of the SAGER guidelines and continued to write and revise the sections of the article. ST participated in the discussions leading to the production of the SAGER guidelines and contributed to the written and revised sections of the article, including the table and references. All authors read and approved the final manuscript. SH and TFB are responsible for the overall content as guarantors.

Glossary of terms

Gender . Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours and identities of female, male and gender-diverse people [ 1 ]. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they behave and interact and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender is usually incorrectly conceptualized as a binary factor (female/male). In reality, there is a spectrum of gender identities and expressions defining how individuals identify themselves and express their gender.

Gender identity . A person’s concept of self as being male and masculine or female and feminine, or ambivalent, based in part on physical characteristics, parental responses and psychological and social pressures. It is the internal experience of gender role. (Mesh term, introduced in 1991, revised in 1975).

Gender-based analysis . An analytical tool that systematically integrates a gender perspective into the development of policies, programmes and legislation, as well as planning and decision-making processes. It helps to identify and clarify the differences between women and men and boys and girls and demonstrates how these differences affect health status, access to, and interaction with, the health care system.

( http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/pubs/women-femmes/gender-sexes-eng.php )

Gender-sensitive analysis . Analysis of statistics that goes beyond simply disaggregating data according to sex (e.g. a mere “sex-counting” is not sufficient). Gender-sensitive analysis should question the underlying gender relations which are reflected in the data.

( http://www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development/44896238.pdf )

Gender perspective . The gender perspective looks at the impact of gender on people’s opportunities, social roles and interactions. Successful implementation of the policy, programme and project goals of international and national organizations is directly affected by the impact of gender and, in turn, influences the process of social development. Gender is an integral component of every aspect of the economic, social, daily and private lives of individuals and societies and of the different roles ascribed by society to men and women.

( http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x2919e/x2919e04.htm )

Sex. Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals that are associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone function and reproductive/sexual anatomy [ 1 ]. Sex is usually categorized as female or male, although there is variation in the biological attributes that constitute sex and how those attributes are expressed.

Sex- and Gender-Based Analysis . An analytical approach that integrates a sex and gender perspective into the development of health research, policies and programmes, as well as health planning and decision-making processes. It helps to identify and clarify the differences between women and men and boys and girls and demonstrates how these differences affect health status, access to, and interaction with, the health care system.

( http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/gender-genre/analys/index-eng.php )

Sex-disaggregated data . Data that are collected and presented separately on men and women. Gender Mainstreaming Implementation Framework—UNESCO, 2003.

Sexism . Prejudice or discrimination based on gender or behaviour or attitudes that foster stereotyped social roles based on gender. (MESH term, introduced in 2013).

Transgender Persons, Transexual persons, Transgenders . Persons having a sense of persistent identification with, and expression of, gender-coded behaviours not typically associated with one’s anatomical sex at birth and with or without a desire to undergo sex reassignment procedures (MeSH term 2016 (2013).

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Heidari, S., Babor, T.F., De Castro, P. et al. Sex and Gender Equity in Research: rationale for the SAGER guidelines and recommended use. Res Integr Peer Rev 1 , 2 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-016-0007-6

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Research: How Women Can Build High-Status Networks

  • Carla Rua-Gomez,
  • Gianluca Carnabuci,
  • Martin Goossen

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Companies can help women overcome common obstacles they face when trying to forge powerful professional ties.

Despite the potential career benefits of building high-status networks, research has long shown that women face greater obstacles in establishing these networks compared to men. The authors’ research , published in the Academy of Management Journal, not only underscores what we know about the unique challenges women face in building high-status networks; it also offers a strategic roadmap for overcoming these challenges. By understanding and leveraging the power of shared social connections, women as individuals can navigate around systemic biases and forge valuable professional ties that propel their careers forward. For organizations committed to gender equality, their study provides a clear directive: Invest in building network sponsor programs that recognize and use the distinct pathways through which women can achieve high-status connections.

In the context of career advancement, the notion that “It’s not what you know, but who you know” holds some truth. However, for many women, this concept presents unique challenges. Despite the potential career benefits of building high-status connections within an organization, research has long shown that women face greater obstacles in establishing such connections compared to men. Our research , published in the Academy of Management Journal, offers new insights into this persistent challenge, and we share some of those insights in this article.

research study about gender and society

  • CR Carla Rua-Gomez  is an assistant professor of management and organization at SKEMA Business School, Université Côte d’Azur (GREDEG). She received her PhD from Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Switzerland. Her research interests revolve around innovation, social networks, and gender inequality. Carla is particularly interested in understanding how workplace dynamics perpetuate or limit gender inequality within research-intensive corporations.
  • GC Gianluca Carnabuci is a professor of organizational behavior at ESMT Berlin. He is also the holder of the Ingrid and Manfred Gentz Chair in Business and Society. His research and teaching focus on how informal networks shape the flow of information and knowledge within organizations, and how that affects the productivity of leaders, teams, and organizations.
  • MG Martin Goossen is an assistant professor in the Department of Management of Tilburg University. His research focuses on the role of individual employees in the R&D activities of high-technology firms.

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Troubling Nature and Political Ecology: Feminists in the Capitalocene

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Mellon Foundation Awards $100,000 to UMass Amherst Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies

WGSS raised fist

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $100,000 to the UMass Amherst Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $100,000 to the UMass Amherst Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) as part of its “Affirming Multivocal Humanities” initiative to advance the study of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  

WGSS will use this funding to support both established and novel curricular programs and co-curricular activities ranging from undergraduate internships and guest speaker series, to microgrants for programs to promote clear understandings of the fields to the public. 

“Affirming Multivocal Humanities is an initiative that champions the insightful scholarship and teaching taking place in these disciplines—those that are too often undervalued and even undermined in American society today,” says Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “We are proud to support colleges and universities in the United States that are advancing deep research and curricular engagement with the stories and histories of our country’s vast diversity and the modes of inquiry that race, gender, and ethnic studies explore and expand.” 

Among the first women, gender, and sexuality studies programs established in the U.S., the department is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of lectures, panels, book discussions, community events, and more. 

"We look forward to extending our existing programs and imagining new directions for how we can support our vibrant student community,” says Svati Shah, associate professor in WGSS. “We feel that Gender and Sexuality Studies is more vital than ever and deeply appreciate seeing this supported by the Mellon Foundation.” 

A pilot version of the program was officially inaugurated at UMass Amherst in 1974. Called the Women’s Studies Program, it was developed from the rich terrain of feminist organizing, anti-war and anti-imperialist activism, racial justice, and other social change work that took place in the region, country, and world. In 2009, the program officially changed its name and became a department. 

“The Mellon grant will help us amplify and celebrate the work of WGSS faculty and students,” says Kiran Asher, professor and chair of the WGSS Department. “Our work truly embodies and exemplifies feminist interdisciplinarity, intersectionality, and principles of abolition justice".   

WGSS carries a long history of activism and intellectual energy. The department is committed to an interdisciplinary and intersectional analysis, drawing from different disciplines, in which the study of women and gender is multifaceted, diverse, and embedded in a network of power relations, including race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and nation. WGSS scholarship, teaching, and activism develop new theoretical approaches and engage and transform the analytical tools of many fields of study.   

With primarily small classes, WGSS offers an undergraduate major, an undergraduate minor, and a graduate certificate in Feminist Studies. Through its innovative pedagogy and esteemed curriculum, programming, and classes, the department prepares students to consider challenges faced by marginalized individuals in both domestic and foreign spaces, and work to conceptualize solutions that can be applied in communities around the world.  

Learn more about the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies .

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People with hypermobility may be more prone to long Covid, study suggests

People with excessive flexibility 30% more likely to say they had not fully recovered from Covid, research finds

People with excessively flexible joints may be at heightened risk of long Covid and persistent fatigue , research suggests.

Hypermobility is where some or all of a person’s joints have an unusually large range of movement due to differences in the structure of their connective tissues that support, protect and give structure to organs, joints and other tissues.

Up to 20% of adults are hypermobile and many of them are completely healthy. Hypermobility can even be beneficial, with many musicians and athletes having very flexible joints . However, it can also create problems, such as an increased propensity to pain, fatigue, joint injuries and stomach or digestive problems.

Dr Jessica Eccles, from Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and her colleagues had been investigating a potential link between hypermobility, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia (a condition that causes pain all over the body), when the Covid pandemic hit.

“We started thinking, if hypermobility is potentially a factor in ME/CFS, is it also a factor in long Covid?” Eccles said.

She teamed up with researchers from King’s College London and examined data from 3,064 participants in the Covid symptom study (now the Zoe health study) to see if they had hypermobile joints, had fully recovered from their last bout of Covid, and if they were experiencing persistent fatigue.

The research, published in BMJ Public Health , found that people with hypermobile joints were about 30% more likely to say they hadn’t fully recovered from Covid-19 than those with normal joints, and were significantly more likely to be affected by high levels of fatigue.

Although the study doesn’t prove that hypermobility caused their illness, there is a plausible mechanism through which it could contribute symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS) – where people’s heart rates rapidly increase when they stand up.

Eccles added: “We’ve known for some time that PoTs is closely associated with hypermobility.” The theory is that loose connective tissue in people’s veins and arteries can cause blood to pool in their tissues, meaning the heart has to work harder to pump blood to their brains when they stand up, triggering symptoms such as palpitations and dizziness.

“It may be that some of these abnormalities were always there, but Covid unmasked them in a vulnerable person,” Eccles said.

One theory she is investigating is whether reduced blood flow to the brain could contribute to brain fog and fatigue in a subset of individuals. However, there are other possibilities.

Eccles said: “We also know that hypermobility is related to conditions such as ADHD and autism, and ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, so fatigue might be a consequence of that.”

She stressed that long Covid was unlikely to be a single entity, but said a better understanding of the link with hypermobility may aid the development of new treatments.

“What this work suggests is that there may be a subgroup of people with long Covid who are more likely to be hypermobile,” she said.

“This is important to identify. It may be that some of the same things that help people with hypermobility and pain, such as strengthening and supporting the core muscles, could help across the board.”

  • Coronavirus
  • Infectious diseases
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