The biases against women are as they were ten years ago

The picture is clear and shocking: we are generally still biased against women as we were a decade ago, with no improvements and even some setbacks on previously granted rights.

From underrepresentation in leadership positions to doubts about their business capabilities, from challenges in achieving economic empowerment to high pay gaps often due to the motherhood penalty, women still suffer from persisting stereotypes, prejudices, and all the consequent difficulties. A situation almost unchanged in the last ten years.

At the end of May, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched its latest Gender Social Norm Index (GSNI). Covering 85% of the global population, it quantifies biases against women, illustrating people’s attitudes toward “expected” social roles.

According to this year’s report, nine out of ten men and women still hold biases against (other) women. Half the people worldwide still believe that men make better political leaders, and 40% believe they make better business executives. The stereotypes encompass regions, social status and areas of interest, to the point that 25% of people worldwide even think it is justified for a husband to beat his wife.

No matter how much progress we have made, also thanks to the rise of movements voicing, demanding, and in many cases obtaining more rights for women and minorities, we do not seem to have followed suit when it comes to biases on the path toward equality, so much that the dismantling of women’s rights and human rights violations are reported far more frequently than we would have expected. Or hoped.

Harsh numbers

In depicting the reality of people’s perception of social roles, GSNI considers four dimensions; political, educational, economic and physical integrity. It noted, for example, that if women have walked the walk in terms of education, their attainments have not translated into similar achievements in economic empowerment. As the report maintains, “average income gaps between women and men are correlated more strongly with measures of gender social norms than with gaps in education.”

Undoubtedly policies aimed at achieving equal participation in education are working, and women are catching up in enrollment and completion at all levels. Yet, even in countries where they are, on average, more schooled than men, the median gender income gap reaches 39%. An occurrence that, as writes the report, is “linked to deep-rooted social norms and gender stereotypes.” And fed by the “child penalty, arising from social expectations that women devote more time to childcare than men.

(Moreover) Gender stereotypes also contribute to the undervaluing of women’s contributions.

Women leaders

The permanence of biases on an economic level also affects the path toward equal participation in top leadership positions. In 21st-century politics, regardless of the many formal barriers removed throughout the years, women are still at the margin of decision-making. Worldwide the percentage of female leaders at the head of a state is around 10%, as it was in 1995. Women holding seats in parliaments are, on average, still around 25% and 22% if we look at the ministerial positions.

Even if everywhere in the world, there are almost undisputed voting rights for everyone, and even if technical opportunities to enter the control rooms are widely granted, when female leaders gain public power and attention, they are generally more harshly criticized – as it happened, an example among the recent ones, to Sanna Marin, former Finnish prime minister.

Because they also face difficulties already approaching the path to the top, few women are in higher positions. It is a loss for our societies. “Biased gender social norms – continues the UN report – not only limit freedoms and choices for women but also deprive societies from the benefits of women’s leadership.” Benefits that are evident when tackling contemporary challenges, from environmental crises to social security and health-related concerns. We have seen it, for example, during the pandemic: countries led by women better contained Covid-19’s spread or reported lower numbers of deaths.

The persistence of rooted biases affecting social norms at large has threatened even some achieved political and social rights and liberties – particularly regarding women. But as hard to change as stereotypes are, rules and social norms aside, the shift can be strengthened, by the support of influential personalities, for example, or educating people about the consequences of harmful practices fuelled by (gender) biases.

Change through comprehensive actions

The UNDP’s report mentions some of the actions that can be effective, especially if linked together and when taken comprehensively. Formal policies enabling equal participation in social life must address the risks and how gender social norms affect women’s lives. Investing in gender-responsive institutions can help governing bodies to be effective and accountable in working toward equal societies.

To allow more independence to women, while strengthening social protection, it is also central to regulate gender misinformation and disinformation, hate-speech and online violence. When women feel safe, they can better participate in the economy and society and feel more in control of their lives and choices.

Because biases are so rooted and widespread, the change should start with educating students in schools about positive gender norms and social behaviour. It should continue through developing communication and mass media campaigns that modify the narrative around gendered social norms. And actively monitoring and tracking misinformation, taking advantage, among others ways, of social media to spread the messages of feminist movements.

But we should also work, through legal and political efforts, on preventing, responding and raising awareness around the constraints of gendered roles and stereotypes, especially in light of the decreasing levels of rights in the world and the worryingly rising numbers of women suffering from gender-based violence.

Alley Oop’s newsletter
Every Friday morning Alley Oop arrives in your inbox with news and stories. To sign up, click here.
If you want to write to or contact Alley Oop’s editorial team, email us at