Local Gender Norms Across the United States

Image: Kara Muse via Pexels

Chicago is the city of big shoulders, New Orleans is known for its laid back vibes of the Big Easy, and Nashville for its southern charm and country music. Places throughout the United States have unique cultural reputations that are not only marketed for tourism, but are a source of pride for local residents. Alongside these popular cultural features, however, places are often associated with a set of gender norms. New York is popularly portrayed as a place of women’s independence in sitcoms such as Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. The Motor City of Detroit is home to men’s adoration of muscle and manufacturing (Home Improvement). Southern depictions of “southern belles” and “cowboys” are rather explicit gender norms associated with cities such as Dallas (conveyed in the soap opera named after the city).

We wanted to learn more about whether gender norms varied across cities in the U.S. and if so, and what this means for gender equality. Although we often revel and delight at places’ unique cultural flair, does this local culture also contain  elements that convey different expectations for women and men? Our analysis and results are published in a recent Gender & Society article. We highlight our key findings below.


We measured local gender norms by focusing on the way they’re reflected in personal attitudes about gender (e.g. beliefs that women are better caregivers than men and beliefs about women’s suitability for politics) as well as revealed preferences behavior (e.g. age of mothers’ first birth and the segregation of college majors). Focusing on differences in these indicators across commuting zones, we found that cities and their surrounding areas (commuting zones)  fall into four general categories of gender norms:

  • Liberal-egalitarian areas have norms that convey values of gender equality. In these locations, women and men are expected to contribute equally to caregiving and are viewed as having similar skills and leadership qualities. Places with these norms include Burlington, VT, Honolulu, HI, San Francisco, CA, and Washington, DC.
  • Egalitarian-essentialist places have local norms that support women’s labor force participation and leadership, but where people hold  gender essentialist beliefs that women and men are inherently suited for different types of work. Areas with egalitarian-essentialist norms include Charlotte, NC, Milwaukee, WI, and Orlando, FL.
  • Traditional-breadwinner norms exist in places where people hold  beliefs that the ideal family is one where men work and women tend the home. In these areas, women and men are not viewed as essentially different, but instead expected to hold different responsibilities. Places with these norms include Knoxville, TN and Tulsa, OK.
  • Traditional-essentialist locations are places where people believe in the essential difference between women and men with norms that women should focus primarily on family responsibilities. Places with these norms include Little Rock, AR, Charleston, WV, and Midland, TX.

By identifying four types of place based gender norms, we identify gendered aspects of local culture.  But where do these gender norms come from? How are they sustained?


In a time where internet, social media, and remote work make geographical location less consequential than ever, we found it is surprising to observe such variation in gender norms. To understand how these differences emerge, we studied  two possible contributing factors.

First, we wondered whether some places have certain gender norms because of the type of people who tend to live there. For example, since highly educated individuals tend to be more supportive of gender equality, it is possible that some places have egalitarian norms because more residents have a college degree. But we also wondered about a second possibility, whether the experience of living in an area with certain gender norms influences individuals’ attitudes and behaviors.

We found greater evidence that people are influenced by the gender norms where they reside rather than their personal characteristics, particularly if they live a city with traditional-breadwinner or traditional-essentialist norms. In those traditional places, even residents with a college degree, who tend to show more support for gender equality, were much more likely to oppose women’s leadership and feel that men should be earners and women caregivers than college graduates who lived in more egalitarian environments. Residing in a place with traditional norms appears to cause those who would otherwise support gender equality to, instead, endorse more conventional beliefs about women’s leadership and the gendered division of labor.


When we travel across the U.S., we encounter diverse gender norms. In Burlington, VT women and men are expected to contribute equally in families and at work, but things are very different in Little Rock, AR where women are expected to focus primarily on families with little support for their careers.

Our research indicates that local gender norms can play a powerful role in shaping individuals’ beliefs and orientations toward gender equality. By raising awareness of the role of local norms, we can be more intentional about changing them in ways that advance gender equality more broadly.

William J. Scarborough is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Texas. His research examines the cultural and economic determinants of gender and race inequality across the U.S. His recent work appears in Social Science Research and Gender, Work & Organization. He is also co-editor of the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Ray Sin is a Behavioral Scientist at Early Warning Services. His research focuses on financial decision-making, and more recently, on how money can be sent easier, safer, and faster to friends, family and trusted contacts. His recent work appears in Gender & Society and Journal of Financial Planning.

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