Shifting mindsets to challenge gender roles

By: Mariel Verroya, Nola Hennessy, Nicky Panont, and Akshitha Menon.

Historically, attempts at reducing violence against women and girls are often represented as a timeless and universal phenomenon (United Nations, 2021). This creates the adverse perception that violence against women and girls is too large a problem to be addressed, which further enables acts of violence to be normalised in society whilst continuing to foster a culture of violence (AIHW, 2018). This article will explore gender socialisation and why it matters. This article argues that challenging gender roles begins with shifting mindsets – a high level of self-awareness of the effects of gender stereotypes and being willing to unlearn certain behaviours that perpetuate them.

In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reiterated that one in three women and girls globally will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, with most survivors and victims of violence reporting that they have experienced violence and abuse from someone they know (WHO, 2021). Violence against women and girls is found to be largely due to systemic and institutional gender inequalities that majorly disempower women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people from progressing in social and economic domains (AIHW, 2018). As a result, it drastically holds back the global fight in reducing gender inequalities (United Nations, 2021). Further undermining the health, dignity, security, and autonomy for women and girls who have experienced violence or abuse in their lifetime (WHO, 2021), as seen in Australia on Monday 15th of March 2021.

On Monday the 15th of March, 2021, a nation-wide protest, March4Justice, occurred across 40 cities and towns in Australia, with thousands of people joining to protest against sexism, and gendered violence in Australia. The protest was sparked by the recent wave of allegations of sexual assault and the treatment of women in Australia’s parliament, with organisers suggested it could be the “biggest uprising of women that Australia’s seen.” The recent wave of allegations in Parliament has sparked a nation-wide discussion on the sexist cultures, and how sexual assault and harassment is addressed in today’s Australian society. Many Australian women and girls expressed that they were not happy, with many, including critics, arguing that the government’s treatment of victims and survivors was unacceptable. This culture of victim-blaming and protecting accused perpetrators resulted in a nation-wide advocacy for women’s rights, safety and security. Many Australian citizens called on governing leaders, and petitioned lawmakers to do more in addressing the culture of sexism, misogyny and the gender inequalities that still exist today (BBC, 2021). In February 2022, Grace Tame openly rejected ‘common pleasantries’ and openly showed her frustrations towards the inaction towards the issue (Priestley, 2022). Building on a platform of growing activism for women’s rights, this was a fresh call to advance significant policies to protect women and children from discrimination, harassment and violence to continue the momentum from 2021.

Gender socialisation is the process of learning what constitutes gender-appropriate behaviours and attitudes. Gender socialisation begins at birth and is intensified during adolescence and adulthood through social structures, such as families, peers and communities, and institutions, including cultural and social norms, media, and political structures (Balvin, 2017). The idea of gender as deeply rooted in stereotypes about the appropriate behaviour, roles, and values means that these ideas are pervasive and absorbed even if people oppose them (Gaze, 2018).  Gendered stereotypes are therefore ‘notoriously sticky’ because people are often unaware that they hold them and that they can influence impressions and judgments subconsciously (Likki, 2018). Another reason they endure is that, despite progress in women’s rights, stereotypes remain entrenched in institutions such as schools, media and entertainment (Gaze, 2018). The combination of gender socialisation and stereotypes can create a fertile breeding ground for ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘passive femininity’.

This challenge is reinforced by gendered political structures and the socio-economic conditions of a country. This reinforcement makes gendered stereotypes more challenging to identify because it occurs in the subconscious. The events of the last 24 months demonstrate these endemic behaviours are also embedded within Australia’s political institutions. Durbach (2018) discussed the often reactive instead of proactive approach to issues of sexual harassment. For example, universities are often focused on encouraging sexual harassment victims to report incidents instead of exploring why they are not reporting or why sexual harassment happens in the first place. Cox (2018) argued that social movements such as the #MeToo movements are not enough to foster gender equality because the real problems exist within the institutions that reinforce gendered socialisation. This reinforces stereotypes which then enables a passive attitude towards sexual harassment. This passive attitude is then compounded by the lack of trust, and the lack of will from institutions to address the issue, thus, contributing to the cyclical nature of violations to the right to live freely, in good health and away from inhumane and degrading treatment.

Whilst born in the 1950’s Nola Hennessy, a globally renowned author and advocate for women believes that little has changed in relation to gender socialisation, the sexualised treatment of women, and the propensity to value male contribution greater than that of females. In fact, through her own experiences and observations of workplaces, community and family structures, the actual programming and treatment of women, in these contexts, has eroded significantly. This is despite, and by comparison, advances having certainly been made in relation to women’s employment opportunities and remuneration, attainment of and recognition in leadership and entrepreneurial roles, and willing acceptance into powerful positions of influence across the globe.

The influencings factors for these changes over the decades are many; the 1960-70s relentless anti-war sentiment coupled with another wave of empowerment of women seeking equality in the workplace and at home; resistance to feminism by both women and men; and the expansion of education opportunities during the 1980-90s for girls and young women in the Australian education system-potentially at the expense of boys and young men. However, the demonstrations seen during 2021, such as the March4Justice, speak loudly to the ineffectual nature of the changes that have been actioned in past decades. One has to ask, if change is not creating the outcomes we have been seeking since the 1960s, what are we missing?

After more than 70 years of adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), nation states have both missed opportunities and largely dismissed obligations. Within the framework of the UDHR, Article 1 sets the tone for equality and respectful treatment of all humans, irrespective of gender i.e. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. To reinforce the required levels of societal commitment and help affect necessary change to realise positive human rights outcomes for all, UDHR Articles 5, 7, 12, 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 28 and 29 speak loudly of empowering people to realise the best possible outcomes for themselves and their families, with particular attention paid to protecting the holistic nature of motherhood and childhood. The UDHR’s Article 30 further enforces obligations on “State, group or person” not “to perform any act aimed at destruction of any rights and freedoms” of others.

In Australia over the past 30-40 years, we have welcomed various pieces of legislation that are designed to provide both new and increased protections for people at home, work and in the wider community, such as for workplace health and safety, equal employment opportunities, and anti-discrimination. Our legislative framework has evolved over time as a result of increasing demands for the realisation of equity, equality and mutual respect, but also a realisation by Australia’s political, cultural and community leaders of the need for Australia to actively commit to its obligations under the UDHR, international laws and international standards of best practice. Whilst we should not celebrate the events that led to the March4Justice, if the latest news (SMH, 2021) about increasing accountabilities via the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 realises the outcomes that are needed, that is a positive change in behaviour and attitudes, then that is a positive step to achieving justice for all, despite the societal programming that still continues.

Gender socialisation is contextual as it is influenced by factors such as socio-economic conditions, political structures, social and cultural norms, and local communities and networks. It is crucial to emphasise the intersectionality of gender socialisation and the multiple levels of influence; structural, social-interactional, and individual. Restructuring the mindset of individuals to oppose gender stereotypes must commence from the very-root of human socialisation i.e., self-awareness and familial surroundings. The portrayal of gender-roles and stereotypes by parents, for example, males performing outdoor work and jobs while females conduct household chores, can program the mindset of children who further internalize biased norms. Children can and should be encouraged to develop the same through emotional- behavioural values and trained to vocalize opinions irrespective of their gender (Hussain, 2015).

Educational institutions are in an influential position to nurture social values, morals, and knowledge throughout the phase of adolescence and initial adulthood, thereby playing a significant influence on gender stereotypes and biased socialisations. School curriculums across the globe need to be supported in removing gender-biased pictorial or theoretical representations and replace them with gender-neutral content to bring about an attitude in children that breaks traditional norms (UNESCO, 2020). Australia is in a position to support policymakers and teachers across the globe to amend their practices prior to implementing gender-equality on children by adopting a challenging attitude towards historical constructions of gender (Islam & Asadullah, 2018).

Media, a powerful agent in gender socialisation could begin generating content that gradually transforms and breaks the gender-stereotypical thoughts in the society (International media support, 2020). While fear and lack of awareness of legal rights in the event of violence remains an influencing factor, the media could dedicate broadcast space to raise awareness of gender equality and legal rights of victims to facilitate a meaningful shift in attitudes within individuals and communities.

Programmes and policies at a structural or institutional level need to be repositioned to have more coordination to complement each other. Furthermore, for a significant change in mindsets, self-awareness is needed to challenge our own assumptions. Understanding our own biases that result in stereotypes can minimise the impact of biases on decisions and interactions. We each need to develop the ability to identify and reflect on norms and behaviours that perpetuate potentially harmful gender roles and foster environments that challenge gender socialisation.



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