Equality for women? Nope. Not even close.

Lina AbiRafeh
8 min readSep 20, 2022


“Women in much of the world lack support for fundamental functions of a human life.”

That’s what Martha Nussbaum said in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.

Meanwhile, 22 years later… where are those “fundamental functions”?!

Women are still less likely to live a free and full life — and we are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. You’ve heard me howl about the gender gap and how it is getting worse.

And here goes yet another reality check.

Women at work still enter at lower levels, stay at lower levels, and are paid less — even if we reach higher levels. Women in politics have even more hurdles to jump through. The law still doesn’t see women as equal in too many countries — including right here in the US. Women are still expected to take on the bulk of domestic and childcare burdens. And, worst of all, women still suffer from violence that deliberately targets us — because we are women.

So, no wonder women are not able to reach their full potential — the world actively keeps us from it! Meaning our freedoms and capabilities are actively, and deliberately, constrained. This is the stuff that dictates human development. What is that, really?

Well, human development can be anything from basic stuff like access to clean water to more strategic stuff like better laws, representing different levels of empowerment. When our freedoms and capabilities are restricted, we lose out on human development. And when that happens, we fuel gender inequality. We know this to be true — and increasing — from just about every single report in recent years.

The 2020 UNDP Human Development Perspectives Report is yet another case in point. Focusing on the concept of social norms, it shows us that progress toward gender equality is slowing. In areas that are considered basic, progress towards equality is present. But not so in the so-called strategic stuff.

What does that mean?!

Basic needs are about subsistence, the stuff we need to make everyday life easier like access to water and health and so on. Strategic stuff is what we need to move towards more equitable gender roles and relations, for instance laws that protect women from violence, ensuring women have access to credit, and those types of critical things.

Strategic stuff alters gender power relations — for the better. These are about agency, power, change. Basic needs do not challenge power relations (although in the long term they may make microscopic changes — but these aren’t good enough or fast enough).

Already disadvantaged groups, like women, catch up in the basic needs and fall behind in the strategic needs. The gap widens where it really matters. The higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gap. Our basic needs are closer to being met, but our strategic needs are a long way off. Meaning progress is uneven, and the trap of the unequal distribution of power continues.

Areas such as politics, the economy, leadership, and decision making all remain vastly unequal. So, yes women can vote, but are they heads of state? Yes women have gainful employment, but are they on the CEOs and billionaires lists?! Although women’s overall employment might be close to parity in some countries, women are underrepresented in more senior positions.

The glass ceiling is more like a concrete roof.

If we want gender equality (ohhellyes FFS it’s about time!), we need the strategic stuff because that’s going to expand women’s agency and empowerment.

Gender inequality is inherently tied up in discriminatory social norms, traditional roles, and unequal power dynamics. Social norms are the values, behaviors, and attitudes held by society which in turn influence and uphold power relations between individuals, communities, and institutions. (In short, CisHet white men have power over women and marginalized folk.)

Women face strong conventional societal expectations — fueled by patriarchy. It goes without saying these are extremely unfair. Exclusion and inequality have basically existed since the beginning of time, meaning our opportunities, choices, voices, have always been limited — and in some cases entirely stifled.

So while we sorta-celebrate progress in access to education and health care, women and girls in most of the world are still kept from reaching their full potential. That’s why we must measure beliefs and attitudes that are keeping us from making better changes faster. These beliefs and attitudes create biases and prejudices towards women’s empowerment.

Social norms heavily influence someone’s identity — things like age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, and so on. We are multidimensional beings, and therefore our lives are layered. Meaning that our roles, expectations, obligations are layered too. Meaning also, that the norms and stereotypes that define our layers are, well… layered.

All this stuff determines power relations — who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, and how they abuse it.

When these social norms and stereotypes are discriminatory, they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and unequal power dynamics. For example, norms dictating strict expectations for masculine and feminine behavior will impact individual choice, freedom, and capability — and not in good ways. Those who share a common identity are required to abide by these ideals, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

If you want to belong, you’ve got to behave… or you’re out. That’s what society says, anyway.

So, norms determine the extent of our autonomy and freedom. And they also determine the price we pay if we transgress. That’s why the Gender Social Norms Index is so important — because it measures the beliefs, biases, and prejudices that are keeping us from equality. They were first introduced in the 2019 Human Development Report, inspired by the World Values Survey, global research examining how our values and beliefs impact societies over time.

The Gender Social Norms Index builds from this to help us understand if, when, how social beliefs obstruct gender equality and women’s empowerment across the following dimensions: political, educational, economic, physical integrity. They have a set of questions that give us indicators to better understand how people view women across these dimensions. For example: Do men make better leaders than women? Should men have more rights to a job than women? Should women be able to decide about their own bodies? Is it ever ok to beat a woman? And so on.

The answers determine the Index. And… it’s not pretty. It’s basically a story of widespread bias and backlash.

The 2020 report is the most recent one — probably because we need a few years to process this bad news. Ok but seriously, they do it in a cycle of a few years because it examines changes over time. And COVID created delays. And will probably contribute to some deteriorations as well. So, whatever we’ve got from 2020, we can safely assume it’s gotten worse since then!

The survey found 91% of men and 86% of women show at least one bias against gender equality across politics, the economy, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights. Approximately 50% of men and women from 75 countries believe men make better political leaders than women and over 40% of those surveyed felt men made better business executives. Nearly 30% agreed it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner. Nearly 30% of men and women agreed.

Only 14% women and 10% men have NO gender social norms biases — yup, that’s all.

It comes as no surprise that women have less bias against gender equality and empowerment. But… bias is on the rise globally, despite decades of progress in women’s rights. Instances of backlash and regressive attitudes are evident — in both men and women.

But there’s good news! Norms can change! It’s just like that pesky word “culture” — it’s not static. Stop using it as an excuse to oppress.

It starts with the family — they lay the foundation for any unconscious (or entirely conscious) gender bias, meaning there is opportunity to learn and unlearn traditional attitudes. Adolescence is an arena of socialization also, especially for boys. This is where they come to understand how society defines what it means to be male or female — although I’d say that happens even earlier. But during this period, beliefs crystallize into behaviors and more rigid expectations and pressures are placed on them.

It is especially important to intercept the fixed social and cultural expectations related to masculinity that are placed on boys as they will then go on to reproduce and perpetuate the patriarchy.

Challenging these stigmas and stereotypes are difficult, especially by individuals who have the most to gain from complying with norms and the most to lose from defying norms. But it must be done — otherwise women are kept from claiming rights due to the power of social expectations.

I always say females are discriminated against from before they are born until they die — from fetus to funeral. Think sex-selective abortions, last to be fed, first to leave school, forced marriage, unpaid care work, occupational downgrading, the list goes on and on.

If women do enter the workforce, participation — let alone success — is largely dependent on having a supportive partner or family structure. The report literally says that professional women have two options: “a super-supportive partner or no partner at all.” Yup.

But wait, it gets better. We’ve heard a bazillion studies about how smart women are less attractive (no, not to alllll men… but there’s still truth here). The report says that skilled women “face social norms that make them less attractive potential partners in the marriage market.”

I put it in quotes so you all know I’m not making it up.

Ok, what does this mean? Skilled women end up with a lower marriage rate. Meaning there’s a “nonlinear relationship” between women’s labor market prospects and their marriage outcomes. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

What’s the answer?

We need to change. Universal policies help to provide a basic floor — but they aren’t enough. They specify that we all should get the same things. And yes, we should. But inequalities built from social norms and resulting in social exclusion are harder to tackle. Social exclusion actively keeps people from participating in a full rich life because of the bazillion ways we discriminate against each other.

In these cases, targeted or affirmative action policies can help — when a group has been historically disadvantaged and things won’t “equal out” on their own. When we speak about historic disadvantage, gender is one of the most prevalent. And no, it’s not progressing just fine without our help. We need to do more. And do it better. And faster.

Is there a positive in all of this? A glimmer.

There are new social movements — particularly in the online space — to raise awareness, assert independence, agitate for equality, and ultimately help shift norms. Hashtags and movements like #IWillGoOut in India and #NiUnaMenos in Latin America are good examples. #IWillGoOut is a movement asserting women’s right to public space — to safe public space. To go out at any time, anywhere, without fear. It’s a pretty radical idea considering that fear exists just about everywhere.

#NiUnaMenos — or, Not One Woman Less — advocates for bringing “our bodies, our abortions, and our desires out of hiding” — and not going back. “We will not let ourselves be burned,” they say, “because this time the fire is ours.”

This time the fire is ours.



Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com