Situation Normal: The Challenge of Cultural Change

July 26, 2019 Ariel Robinson 0 Comments

When someone holds open the door, we say “Thank you.” When someone runs a red light, we curse them out. On Wednesdays, we wear pink.

Every community, from a family to a company to a nation state, has norms that shape member interactions. Norms can emerge organically or be established formally, perpetuated through repetition or education, and reinforced through punishments and rewards. Something becomes normalized when it is accepted as the standard value, attitude, behavior, or practice in a community. This can happen gradually as norms evolve (it’s normal for American women to wear pants now! Hooray!), or quite quickly, when a set of norms is disrupted by something newer and (hopefully) better.

Shifting norms always meets some level of resistance, because norms end up being both reflections and instruments of a community’s power structures. For example, there are a lot of things that are easier to do in pants; blocking women from wearing pants, by market, by social custom, and even by law was one way men could protect the power they had in Spaces Where People Wear Pants, a practice also known as “gatekeeping.”

Check out this history of the unwritten but absolutely-enforced “Women can’t wear pants” rule of the United States Senate, something that didn’t change until the early 1990s. The rules only changed when there were enough women Senators to challenge the established norm.

MentalFloss, March 22, 2017

It can be difficult for leaders to understand how the norms they take for granted can be mechanisms of gatekeeping. Are your industry’s happy hours and networking events always after work? Does your company health insurance policy cover adoption or IVF costs as well as more typical birth costs? Do you have maternity and paternity leave? Does your company dress code protect religious and gender identities? More importantly, even if your policies protect minority community members, does your culture?  Everything down to the words that we use should be an intentional choice. What ways can you affect your community’s norms to promote and empower others?

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