Gender and power dynamics

Gender dynamics

Gender dynamics refer to the relationships and interactions between and among people, based on gender. Gender dynamics are informed by socio-cultural ideas about gender and the power relationships that define them. Depending on how they play out, gender dynamics can reinforce or challenge existing norms (i.e reinforcing a gender norm could be a man saying that women can only stay home and look after children; whereas challenging a gender norm would be saying that it is okay for men to feel emotions and express them, including crying).  

What has gender got to do with relationships?

The way we experience healthy relationships can vary according to how we identify ourselves, how other people perceive our gender, and from our understanding and expectations of different genders. We learn ideas about gender from movies and social media, from whānau, from our religion and/or culture, and from observing how the world around us works.  

Some of these ideas go back a long way, and create 'traditional' or 'stereotypical' ideas around gender that are untrue and often harmful. These stereotypes can be supported by: 

  • social media 
  • movies 
  • our interactions with others.

Gender stereotypes and gender binaries (believing that there are only two distinct genders–man and woman) can be harmful for our men, women, Rainbow/Queer and Takāatapui people and for those who identify as non-binary or gender-fluid. These gender stereotypes can make us believe we need to: 

  • act  
  • dress 
  • look 
  • think  
  • talk a certain way, and can contribute to us feeling like others should do the same  

In real life, biological sex (what body parts you are born with you), gender identity (what gender you feel you are), gender expression (how you express your gender – clothing, the way you talk, the way you act etc) are all diverse, fluid, and exist on a spectrum, meaning there aren’t just two options or a ‘binary’.  

Gender stereotypes can lead to unhealthy relationships or relationships that don't have equality, because they can lead to people feeling like they, and others, should act and 'be' a certain way depending on their gender. Like when one person gets to make all the decisions, and the other person doesn't have any control. When we have gender stereotypes about how people are supposed to act, we reinforce harmful and unhealthy expectations about gender and the relationships between different genders. It’s important to note that everyone, no matter who you are, can reinforce and uphold these gender stereotypes and standards, and that working to deconstruct or challenge them, is to the advantage of all of us.   

Important information and links

If you are worried you might not be in a healthy relationship, have a chat to someone about your concerns.

Check out Project Rockit talking about gender stereotypes. 

Power dynamics

Power is a person's ability to exert influence and control. Power is not fixed or something we have all the time. It is not something we are biologically born with (i.e it is not inherent to us but is constructed based on circumstance, community, and context) or something that we always have all the time. We are constantly moving in and out of situations and relationships in which we have more or less power – for example, a woman who is a manager at work has power over her team, but she may not have the same level of power at home with her husband. Power can lead to positive and negative feelings: We often feel positive and in control when we are feeling powerful, and we have negative feelings when we are feeling less powerful. This affects our ability to influence and take action in a situation. Power in and of itself is not bad; it is how we use our power that makes all the difference. 

Power dynamics refer to how power affects a relationship between two or more people.  In the context of sexual harm and consent we must talk about power dynamics, because research shows that sexual harm is fuelled more by power and control than it is by pleasure/sexual attraction (World Health Organization, ‎2003)‎. Inequal power dynamics are inherently entrenched in university systems too, because of the hierarchical nature. Within universities, there can be many webs of power, hierarchies, and the blurring of personal and professional boundaries can occur.  

International research shows that one in 10 female graduate students at major research universities say they’ve been sexually harassed by a faculty member. More than half of cases involve alleged serial harassers (Cantalupo and Kidder, 2018). Unequal power dynamics between staff and student, specifically, means that the relationship can potentially be vulnerable to exploitation and can affect the capacity of a student to consent freely to sex or relationships initiated by the staff member/person in power, as well as creating barriers for the student to speak up about any sexual harm they've experienced at the hands of the staff member/person in power.

When people use their power unsafely or irresponsibly, this can manifest in coercive behaviors (link to CB page). If you are worried you are experiencing an unequal power dynamic have a chat to someone about your concerns.