Gender Norms: A Key to Improving Health & Wellness Among Black Women & Girls


Gender Norms: A Key to Improving Health & Wellness Among Black Women & Girls

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This report was published by the The Heinz Endowment.


Black adolescent girls and young women – referred to as ‘Black girls’ in this report – face special barriers related to both race and gender, which have immense effects on their health, achievement and life outcomes. This is especially the case for low-income Black girls, who have added challenges associated with poverty.

The effects of race are well-explored, and researchers have found strong links to lower life outcomes in health, sexuality and intimate relationships. But what about gender? In this context, ‘gender’ does not mean the biological fact of being male or female, or even as specific traits usually associated with one sex or the other.

Rather, by ‘gender’ refers both to the rules, customs, beliefs and expectations for being a woman or man, as well as the inherent inequities of power and privilege usually associated with these practices.

From this perspective, traditional norms of masculinity are understood as a combination of strength, aggression, emotional toughness, dominance and sexual prowess, and traditional femininity as a combination of physical beauty, sexual desirability, motherhood, dependence and nurturance. These vary in important ways among racial and ethnic groups, nonetheless key features seem remarkably common across different groups.

This may be because sex is considered an unvarying biological fact, while gender norms are learned from childhood. Learning how to ‘œbe’ feminine and masculine and be seen as a young man or young woman may be the central rite of passage for youth, especially during the ‘œgender intensification’ years of late adolescence and early adulthood, when awareness of traditional gender norms accelerates and belief in them solidifies. This awareness of gender norms grows because there is an increased expectation from the young person’s environment (i.e., family, community and society) for them to behave according to traditional gender norm standards. As the young person moves from adolescence to early adulthood, they experience more pressures to conform to gender norms.


The Heinz Endowment. (2013). Gender norms: a key to improving health & wellness among black women & girls. Retrieved from

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