CES Transformation Field Report: Shifting Gender Roles in Tanzania

Blog post written by Project PI David Lawson on the project ‘Norm Misperception and Conformity as Barriers to Positive Change in Gender Ideology’

Field Report: Shifting Gender Roles in Tanzania

David Lawson


Our CES Transformation Fund project examines how young men acquire beliefs about gender roles during a time of cultural change. Tanzania has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and the twin forces of urbanization and globalization are creating new incentives for supporting women’s empowerment as well as increasing exposure to alternative ‘cultural scripts’ that clash with traditional beliefs about women and men. This presents a fitting context to not only study social learning in action, but to explore synergies between cultural evolution frameworks and wider scholarship on gender socialization.

All of our work is conducted in a semi-urban community in Mwanza, Tanzania, and in collaboration with the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research. Together, we have been documenting the accuracy to which men perceive one another’s beliefs about gender, how the beliefs of others are rendered visible in everyday life, and the role of conformity and prestige-bias in shaping men’s beliefs. To this end, we have combined attitudinal surveys, focus group discussions, participant observation and a novel social learning experiment in the field. Here, we share some of the joys and challenges of turning our research proposal into a reality.

What do other men think?

One joy of the project has been the opportunity to invest in a mixed methods design, including a qualitative component. This has allowed us to tackle a common critique that the cultural evolution literature is too grounded in abstract theoretical models, rather than documenting social learning in the real world.

Using attitudinal surveys, we have demonstrated that men tend to overestimate the extent to which their peers support inequitable gender norms (Lawson et al. in press). This phenomenon, referred to as ‘norm misperception’, has been found in other contexts too, but remains poorly understood. Focus group discussions and participant observation with young men, led by project Co-I Alexander Ishungisa have allowed us to get a better picture of how men observe and share one another’s beliefs about gender.

A group of people are sitting around some tables in a circle.
A focus group discussion with young men led by project Co-I Alexander Ishungisa (standing) and collaborating social scientist Elisha Mabula. All participants provided consent to share this photo. Credit: David W. Lawson.

Our analysis so far (Ishungisa et al, in review) finds that young men are acutely aware of recent, rapid change in gender norms, and that this change has introduced both novel diversity and uncertainty when discerning the beliefs of others. Furthermore, some aspects of gender roles such as women’s labor market participation, are enacted in public settings, rendering peer beliefs visible. In contrast, other aspects, like how couples make decisions about sex and reproduction are obscured from public view or taboo to discuss outside of a relationship. Finally, men acknowledge that a fear of appearing weak to other men, causes them to hide some activities deemed supportive to women, such as assisting in domestic tasks. This last observation may be particularly useful in explaining why men often believe other men are less supportive of women than they really are.

Together, these findings provide an unusually rich contextual understanding of the social learning of gender roles. It has also been one of most rewarding aspects of fieldwork. Young men, unsurprisingly, were very opinionated about cultural changes in their community and conflicting viewpoints across generations, leading to animated, lively discussions. Some participants thanked us for the opportunity to share their perspectives both with us and among themselves. These discussions also continued beyond data collection, culminating in a ‘thank you event’ where the community came together to reflect on the themes of our project.

Two pictures. On the top, a group of people stand holding a sign that reads "Social Learning of Gender Ideology Project", with logos from the supporters of the project. On the bottom, a group of people are playing football.
A team photo following a thank you event at the end of project. We brought together community members for a discussion of our project objectives, past work in the community and preliminary findings. To show our appreciation, and encourage young men to participate, we also arranged football matches and disseminated footballs and jerseys to local teams. Credit: David W. Lawson

Experiments in the field

One challenge has been designing and then running a novel social learning experiment in a relatively busy semi-urban field setting. To determine if men ‘perform’ alternative gender ideologies depending on social context, we designed an experiment to compare how men respond to questions about gender roles across four different conditions.

We first contrasted men surveyed alone to men interviewed in small groups of their peers. Our hypothesis here is that since men ostensibly overestimate peer support for inequitable norms, they will be inclined to hide support for women’s empowerment when interviewed together in order to portray conformity and avoid negative social judgements. We also set out to explore the role of prestige-bias by comparing how men respond when questioned in front of groups of elders or men from the city. Analysis, led by project Co-I Lotty Brand is underway!

Two photos. On the left, a group of 5 people are talking. On the right, a pair of two people are talking.
Two of the conditions of our novel social learning experiment administered by team members Pius Charles and Charles Mang’era. In our control condition, young men were interviewed alone (right image). This was then contrasted to men interviewed in small groups of peers (left image). All participants provided informed consent to share these photos of staged interviews. Credit: David W. Lawson.

Administering this experiment was a challenge. Not least of all it was difficult to find private spaces within the community to do the experiment, particularly since men were often recruited from their places of work or while going about daily activities. Our field team were also new to experimental methods. So, we had to do a lot of training, piloting and monitoring to ensure that the conditions of the experiment were upheld; with interviewers maintaining consistent behavior across each setting and groups sufficiently isolated from one another and passersby to prevent contamination. We also had to enlist senior men from the community to form the elder condition, requiring further training.

From the perspective of Co-I Lotty Brand, who would usually perform experiments online, the challenge of trying to capture ‘real world’ dynamics such as conforming to your peers, whilst also keeping the separate conditions as similar and comparable as possible, was extremely rewarding and satisfying when it finally came together.

A group of people sit in a circle in a room with a circle of tables.
A team training day at the National Institute for Medical Research. Here, some of us are role-playing one of our field experiments. Credit: David W. Lawson

Meeting these challenges would not have been possible if we didn’t have a very talented and dedicated team, combining background training in anthropology, psychology and global health, along with experience in recruitment, translation and interacting with the local community. Long training sessions not only ensured we were on the same page and well-prepared, but also helped the team bond and to get to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses before data collection kicked off. 

Moreover, support and hospitality from the community was essential. We are most grateful to our participants and community leadership for supporting our project, sharing their perspectives, and giving us the opportunity to learn about how gender roles are negotiated during times of cultural change. We hope the lessons we learn here will be transferable to similar urbanizing communities in Tanzania, Africa and beyond. We also thank the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for giving us the chance to take risks and new directions in our research, and Kiota hostel for always making us feel at home in Mwanza. As data analysis continues, we look forward to sharing our findings!

Two people sit cross-legged on yoga mats on the floor, facing each other and with their arms outstretched.
Co-Is Alexander Ishungisa and Lotty Brand unwinding at Kiota hostel in Mwanza after completing a successful first week of team training! Credit: David W. Lawson

Lawson DW, Chen Z, Kilgallen J, Brand CO, Ishungisa AM, Schaffnit S, Kumogola Y, Urassa M. (in press). Misperception of peer beliefs reinforces inequitable gender norms among Tanzanian men. Evolutionary Human Sciences.

Ishungisa AM, Kilgallen JK, Mabula E, Brand CO, Urassa M, Lawson DW. (in review). What do other men think? Understanding (mis)perceptions of gender role ideology among young Tanzanian men.

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