Published on Let's Talk Development

How to apply a behavioral lens to increase women’s economic opportunity

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Countries, communities, businesses, and economies can only achieve their full potential and address today’s challenges when girls, women and people of all gender identities have the same rights and opportunities. While recent decades have seen a narrowing of gender gaps, more innovative approaches are needed to tackle these persistent challenges. 

Behavioral science pays special attention to social, psychological, and contextual factors affecting how people think and what they do, offering new insights and tools not traditionally used in policy design helping to #AccelerateEquality 

A new policy note, Behavioral Approaches to Address Gender Inequality in Economic Opportunity, helps to motivate and guide policymakers and practitioners to design policies addressing gender inequality. The note offers: 

  • a simple, evidence-based guide for applying a behavioral lens to policies and programs aimed at enhancing women’s economic opportunity; and 

  • a selection of examples of rigorously evaluated interventions in developing country contexts that have addressed drivers of behavior, specifically to increase women’s participation in the labor force and women’s ownership and control over productive assets, such as bank accounts, insurance, land, and technology. 

3 Steps to Apply a Behavioral Lens to Increase Women’s Economic Opportunity  

Although there are numerous tools available to help design development projects through a gender lens, these tools do not always look at the specific beliefs and behaviors that can both promote or impede a project’s success . The note suggests three steps to help practitioners apply a behavioral lens to projects and activities to increase women’s economic opportunity. 

Step 1: Define and Diagnose  

Start by identifying the overarching goal in your project, for example, increasing the number of women working outside the home. Then identify key actors, relevant behavior(s), and the factors that influence their decisions and actions by asking:  

  • What decisions and whose behaviors are at play? 

  • Whose views and opinions matter for such behavior? Who holds power, and who gives the power to act and/or decide? 

  • What contextual factors might hold influence? 

  • What is the information available and its sources? What views do different stakeholders hold about the specific action and decisions, and what is their assessment of their ability to act/decide? 

There are several models and frameworks used for diagnosis. One that is closely related to Kabeer’s women’s empowerment framework (which identifies capabilities as the combination of resources and agency or the ability to make choices and the presence of choice) and achievements (the desired outcome attained) is the COM-B system. COM-B asks to identify whether members of the target group in question have the necessary capability (physical and psychological), opportunity (both resources and an enabling social environment), and motivation for the desired behavior(s) to manifest (see also here, here, here, and here for additional source behavioral frameworks). 

Identifying barriers to one or more of these elements creates possible entry points for designing behavioral interventions. For example, women’s decisions related to higher education are influenced by gender stereotypes, particularly when choosing the type of career and educational institution. However, behavioral insights could be leveraged to increase self-efficacy and self-confidence levels—positively impacting their motivation. The diagnostic process can be based on existing evidence, such as surveys and administrative data, as well as qualitative or quantitative data collection with the target group and other relevant stakeholders. 

Step 2: Design  

Once the barriers to the target behavior are identified, is becomes easier to select which types of interventions have a greater chance of success. Choose from the barriers identified in Step 1 and then design an intervention that targets/leverages the barriers that appear to be the most difficult to change by asking: 

  • Which policy options can best target each of these barriers? Are there options that can target more than one barrier? 

  • How feasible to implement are these options? 

  • What is the possible impact of each option, and for whom? 

Choosing which barriers to target may require balancing criteria that will vary by context, the primary ones being the feasibility of the intervention’s successful implementation and the potential for impact.  To help narrow down the options, consider additional relevant sources such as literature reviews of programs targeting similar barriers, identification of existing entry points within the policy setting, design and implementation challenges, and cost-benefit of each option. Generating a solid evidence base can generate efficiencies and facilitate and strengthen the design of the intervention. 

Step 3: Implement, Assess, Adapt 

Behavior and decision-making are contextual. In addition to relying on careful diagnostics, interventions should involve an iterative process of testing and adapting both the design features and the delivery method. Testing can be scaled down and less expensive by doing smaller pilots to test feasibility, fidelity, ease of implementation, and comprehension. Once the testing is scaled up, to include monitoring and evaluation, nimble evaluations or randomized control trials need to be carried out and are critical to evaluating the intervention’s effectiveness.  


Examples of Interventions Applying Behavioral Insights to Increase Women’s Economic Participation

This policy note and a related one from the IDB offer several examples to help guide practitioners. Several studies, for instance, have shown that inaccurate perceptions of others’ beliefs can result in husbands restricting women’s opportunity to work outside the home in contexts where husbands have decision-making authority.
One study diagnosed this challenge using a social norms framework. Their solution: reveal that most husbands support wives working outside the home in contexts where most husbands privately support women working outside the home but have been conforming because they (incorrectly) perceive most other husbands aren’t supportive.
A separate study addressed the challenge that women encounter when it comes to attending financial literacy training, such as time and cost constraints and having less experience managing income. 
Their solution: offer a shorter, cheaper financial literacy training that renders content easier to absorb and more relevant by using simple rules of thumb and by taking a goal-oriented, action-focused approach targeting a change in behaviors.

During the initial implementation stages, it is important to use iterative methods that enable continuous refinement of the intervention -- such as smaller scale pilots, simple experiments, and agile-based project management -- that can generate knowledge that is then fed back into the design process, leading to more effective solutions. 

Today’s complex challenges faced by women, girls and people of all gender identities require innovative approaches supported by evidence and context. By using behavioral insights to either complement solutions that address structural barriers or as stand-alone interventions, policymakers and development practitioners can help to ensure greater impact  in defining, designing and implementing projects. 

With thanks to the following: Kathleen Beegle, Ana Maria Muñoz Boudet, Abigail Dalton, Nour Nasr, Aletheia Donald, Shuba Chakravarty, Caren Grown, Renos Vakis, Zeina Afif, Andrea Kucey, Stefano Mocci, and Colleen Gorove-Dreyhaupt. 

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