Key message 1 – Cultural and social norms, and their manifestations, prevent women from realising their full economic potential

Historically, in many developing countries, families have a pro-son bias. Consequently, they are less invested in their daughters’ human capital, particularly in terms of career-oriented skill development. Hence, women become disadvantaged as potential entrants to the productive workforce.

In an IGC experiment in Ghana, Duflo et al. (2012) find that girls are less likely to pursue secondary education even when the financial barrier is removed. Students who passed secondary school entrance exams but could not enrol for financial reasons were randomly awarded scholarships: Only 64% of female awardees enrolled vis-à-vis 81% of boys.

Early marriage and childbearing are common among girls in developing countries, and this limits their human capital accumulation and labour force participation. IGC research in Uganda (Bandiera et al., 2018) finds that providing adolescent girls vocational training and information on sex, reproduction, and marriage makes them 4.9 percentage points more likely (48% increase over baseline levels) to engage in income-generating activities.

Studying the long-term effects of a one-time targeted transfer – cash for school girls to buy bicycles – by the government in Bihar, India, Mitra and Moene’s (2017) IGC research finds that the programme empowered girls and raised their aspirations. The beneficiaries were more likely to complete their education, look for more productive work outside agriculture, and delay marriage and childbearing. These positive outcomes also reflect some improvements in the attitude of others towards girls. Yet, many of the ‘cycle girls’ reported that their families did not permit them to work, an indication that some social norms stuck or would need more time to change.

Work in Saudi Arabia by Bursztyn et al. (2018) suggests that female labour supply may also be constrained by misperceived social norms: While a vast majority of young married men in Saudi Arabia privately support FLFP outside of home from a normative perspective, they substantially underestimate the level of support for FLFP by other similar men. Correcting these beliefs about others increases married men’s willingness to let their wives work (as measured by their costly sign-up for a job-matching service for their wives) as well as the wives’ likelihood to have applied and interviewed for a job four months after the intervention.

In developing countries, women are less likely to own assets such as land – they either do not have the legal right to inherit parental/ancestral property, or families choose to not bequest property to daughters. Women also do not have much control over household resources. Since loans typically require collateral, this constrains female entrepreneurship. In an IGC project undertaken in collaboration with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, Field et al. (2016) find providing microfinance to women helps integrate them into the workforce in the long-run by supporting greater participation in household business activities.

Yet another manifestation of social and cultural norms is ‘time poverty’ among married women. Even when women are educated and allowed to work outside the home, they simply may not be able to do so because they disproportionately bear the burden of the care economy. IGC research in Uganda by Ali et al. (2015) shows that women’s greater childcare responsibilities explain two-fifths of the gender gap in agricultural productivity. In general, the issue of time poverty among women is an important area for further research. There is a data gap as time-use surveys are expensive and difficult to implement.

Influencing gender attitudes among adolescents in Haryana, India

Dhar et al. (2018) conducted a baseline survey, as part of an IGC project, to assess gender attitudes among 14,809 adolescent boys and girls in middle school and 6,126 parents in the Indian state of Haryana in 2013–2014. They used measurement tools such as self-reported attitudes surveys, psychological experiments, and a computer-based psychometric tool called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Gender attitudes were found to be quite regressive: For example, about 80% of boys and 60% of girls believed a woman’s most important role is being a good homemaker. In general too, girls were less likely than boys to endorse gender-discriminatory views.

The researchers have undertaken a multi-year intervention aimed at eroding support for restrictive gender norms – among both boys and girls – which involves engaging adolescents in classroom discussions about gender equality. They find the intervention substantially increased adolescents’ support for gender equality, even though there are other factors influencing their gender attitudes, such as their parents’ views. Programme participants also report more gender equitable behaviour; for instance, boys report helping out more with household chores.