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Last edited: August 12, 2020

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Gender and other stereotypes are at the heart of discrimination. Stereotypes are harmful when they result in a violation or violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, when they limit women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives and life plans. Harmful stereotypes can be explicitly hostile/negative (e.g. women are irrational, weak, etc.) or can appear harmless (e.g. women are nurturing, social, etc.), but inadvertently perpetuate discriminatory ideas. It is for example based on the stereotype that women are more nurturing that child-rearing responsibilities often fall disproportionately or even exclusively on them. With respect to violence against women, it is stereotypes and beliefs about what women should or should not do (e.g. drinking/partying, wearing revealing clothing, staying out late, etc.) that often place blame on the victim in a rape, rather than maintaining the focus on the perpetrator and holding him accountable to the crime he has committed.

Illustrative Gender Stereotypes and Gender Discriminatory Roles

  • Men as tough, unfeeling, and aggressive, and expected to conceal or suppress emotional vulnerability - ‘stiff upper lip’ culture.

  • Men as dominant in the family, within intimate relationships and in social settings with women.

  • Men as the sexual initiator or entitled to sex with women. Some groups of men in minority groups as more sexually violent and more controlling (based for example on income levels, regions, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation).

  • Culture of acceptance or victim-blaming around rape, especially if the survivor had been drinking alcohol, wearing clothes considered provocative, walking home alone at night, or was ‘leading’ the perpetrator ‘on’.

  • Men’s social standing and reputation as upheld by the loyalty, obedience and fidelity of their female spouses, siblings and children, the absence of which may be a justification for violence.

  • Men considered as effeminate and weak if they are gender egalitarian or support feminist movements.

  • Notions of femininity based on passivity, vulnerability, purity and heterosexuality.

  • Women who assert, speak out, or defend equal rights as ‘man-hating’ or unwomanly.

  • Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women as outside the feminine ‘norm’ and as needing policing/correction.

  • Some groups of minority women as inherently more sexually available or “up for it”.

  • Families and elders as entitled to control girls’ and women’s behaviour more rigidly than boys’/men’s, and to make decisions about marriage, dating, and other aspects of women and girls’ social lives.

  • Women as hypersexualised, and their bodies for the pleasure and spectacle of men.

  • Double standards regarding nudity:

    -Censorship of women’s bodies which are considered sexualised and indecent as compared to men’s, especially on social media and online platforms.

    -Women’s bodies expected to meet specific beauty standards but considered lewd in their natural state (e.g. during menstruation, showing bodily hair, breastfeeding, diverse body shapes and skin colours).

  • Policing of women and girl’s clothing and the idea that certain styles of dress are distracting to men and boys.

  • Blaming and/or stigmatization and shaming of sexual violence survivors, and women and girls who report sexual violence as promiscuous, liars or ‘out to get’ the perpetrator.

  • Men as breadwinners and women as care givers/home makers.

In a survey conducted by Ipsos and the Female Quotient across 28 countries with men and women, it was found that (Unstereotype Alliance, 2018):

  • 72% feel “most advertising does not reflect the world around me”
  • 63% claim “I don’t see myself represented in most advertising”
  • 60% say “I don’t see my community of friends, family and acquaintances represented accurately in most advertising”
  • 64% think “Advertisers need to do more to eliminate traditional or old-fashioned roles of men and women in their ads”
  • 84% “really like when ads include a positive message about making the world better”
  • 75% of consumers say they “feel more positive toward companies that demonstrate in their advertising that men and women have the same capabilities and roles”

In addition to broad-based gender stereotypes that exist, different contexts generate unique social norms and gender roles, which can vary even within the same geographic or socio-political setting for different groups of women and girls (Fergus 2012).

Compounded gender stereotypes can have a disproportionate negative impact on certain groups of women, such as women in custody, women from minority or indigenous groups, women with disabilities, women from lower caste groups or with lower economic status, migrant women, LBTI women, etc. Changing social norms so that VAWG can be eliminated is inevitably a discussion about power between women and men. It is also a wider discussion about power between different social groups. Addressing VAWG requires rooting the discussion more broadly to encompass gender norms and the intersection of multiple inequalities, to ensure that the various risk factors that perpetuate discrimination and abuse are captured for all segments of the population. 

A 2018 survey (Unstereotype Alliance, 2018) of 1000 women in South Africa, Brazil and India examined gender together with other factors, such as race, class, language, education, appearance and sexuality that tend to compound gender- based discrimination. In South Africa, 66% of single, black women believe that society expects them to be feminine, dutiful and obedient, with this figure rising to 72% for married, black women. In India, 62% of younger unmarried women feel underrepresented in media, while 51% of younger, married women feel under pressure to stay at home, as opposed to 44% of women as a whole. In Brazil, 79% of women feel they're not fairly represented in society. This figure is even higher for single women, where 85% feel unrepresented. Failing to successfully reflect intersectionality in advertising could lead to a damaging and restrictive idea of ‘normality’ that leaves millions of women feeling disenfranchised and excluded.

A gender lens requires that programmers and media personnel are familiar with the specific gender dynamics and social and cultural reference points that prescribe the roles of men and women in any given society. This requires socio-cultural research and analysis to understand what the norms and expectations are for men and women in any given context and how this might affect portrayals, interpretations and presentation of the issue. Intentional attention should be paid to how these notions interact with and influence the attitudes and behaviours of the target audience and surrounding community, to ensure that negative gender stereotypes and discrimination against women and girls are deconstructed and not reinforced.

Perceptions of social norms are equally if not more powerful in reinforcing negative stereotypes and practices, even if they are not reflective of the true attitudes and beliefs of a given population.  Research (new or existing) can be helpful in exposing misperceptions, by revealing that the majority of people in a group do not hold the attitudes or behaviours that gender norms suggest.  Understanding what is actually common in a group, is critical to getting the messaging and approach right, which can provide an incentive to change and in time can set new social expectations. 

Lessons learned from FGM Campaigns

Early campaigns to eradicate female genital mutilation/cutting were focused on criminalization and raising awareness of the health consequences. The campaigns were largely driven in a ‘top down’ style without consultation or engagement of the communities that were most affected. Campaigns became more successful later, when they were based on in-depth knowledge of the social norms involved in the practice.  Ongoing engagement with communities unveiled the deeply held views on parenting and the desire for families to do what they thought was in the best interest of their children (e.g. beliefs related to protecting them from sexual assault and ensuring their marriageability). It then created face-to-face opportunities for continued dialogue and an eventual collective rejection of the practice.

For more information, see: Heise, L. (2011) What Works to Prevent Partner Violence? An evidence overview, London: DFID

The aim of prevention work with media partners is partially to move away from focusing only on individual incidents of violence as if they are one off and unique, to situating the violence as a social phenomenon that is based on a common cause of unequal gender power relations. The bigger conversation would bring-in various elements to demonstrate this, including: the costs and consequences of violence on women, families, communities and even nations; the inter-connections and commonalities between different forms of violence; the role of gender stereotypes, harmful masculinities, discrimination and inequality in perpetuating VAWG; and the ways in which these dynamics intersect with other identities (e.g. race, sexual orientation, etc.) and social inequalities (e.g. poverty) and that may impact the experience of violence differently for certain groups of women and girls.