Published on Let's Talk Development

This International Women’s Day, 3 things you can take from behavioral science for a more equitable world

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Many insights from behavioral science apply directly towards better understanding and addressing inequalities between men and women, in education and health, ownership of assets, access to more and better jobs, and the capacity to act on one’s own behalf and interests.

Here are three insights that stand out as critical to closing these inequalities by 2030.

Changing Social Norms to Address Gender-Based Violence (GBV)
People make decisions based not only on their own beliefs, but also on what they expect others believe.  For example, Christina Bicchieri’s work suggests that behaviors like early child marriage, harassment on public transportation, and female genital cutting can be pervasive even where most people privately do not endorse these practices. In many cases, individuals have grown accustomed to seeing these behaviors and, over time, come to expect them; thus, the practices become normalized. People believe others endorse the practice and so they do not vocalize their discomfort and the behavior continues.

Once such a social norm is identified, it is possible to weaken negative social norms, especially in cases where most people secretly oppose the practice (a phenomenon academics call “pluralistic ignorance”).

One way to weaken negative social norms is by signaling. Perpetrators of GBV who encounter no social sanctions receive a signal that neither other members of the public nor those in authority have an opinion about harassment behavior. Lessons from behavioral science suggest it is important to signal to them that most people admonish harassment behavior. For example, having laws that oppose GBV is a good and necessary step. Although a persistent challenge is enforcing such laws, awareness of the law itself signals that the negative behavior is not acceptable.

The Hazme el Paro (“Have My Back”) program in Mexico City found that one of the key challenges women faced regarding harassment on public transportation was that bystanders did not intervene and in some cases held the perception that women did not object to this behavior. The resulting intervention combined mobile technology and loudspeakers on buses, among other things, to enable women and bystanders to anonymously report harassment in real time, which would then trigger an announcement admonishing harassment, which could be heard by everyone on the bus. This served as a sanction against perpetrators, sending a strong signal about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, and rendering the social environment hostile to harassment behavior.

Positive Mental Models and Reducing Implicit Biases to Enable Women Succeed at Work
The second area where behavioral insights are important for work towards equality is in tackling barriers to female labor force participation.

Research shows that in many places even with a high school degree, women are not accessing higher paying jobs as much as men. In some cases, this missing bridge is because of implicit and often explicit biases of hiring managers, who are mostly men.

But it is not only employers who are responsible. Women themselves have absorbed social norms about what is appropriate economic activity, and in many countries women’s rate of entrepreneurship is lower than men’s.  In Togo, our Africa Gender Innovation Lab (GIL), which is supported by the Bank's Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality, introduced the personal initiative training, a program designed to encourage self-starting, future-oriented, persistent behavior. This psychology-based training outperformed traditional business training and led to a boost in profits for microentrepreneurs and was particularly effective for women business owners.

The results have encouraged programs to implement similar trainings in Mozambique, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and Mexico, with this study making a strong case for the role of psychology in influencing how small business training programs can be better taught. Research underway on the impact of this training in the contexts of some of these countries will show if the same promising impact holds for entrepreneurs in other parts of the world.

Similarly, a study in Nicaragua shows that a key intervention accompanying a business grant program for women entrepreneurs sustained the effects after the program ended. The study finds that the key channel was raising aspirations for women by facilitating structured interactions with strong female leaders. The experience not only improved the women’s motivation and effort at work, but it spread to other domains – the children in these households have better outcomes across the board long after the program ended, suggesting that programs that change norms can also have dramatic effects to improve inter-generational equity.

Making Things Easy and Changing Defaults –Asset Ownership
Finally, behavioral diagnostics and evaluation can be applied to understanding and closing gaps between men and women in the ownership of land and other productive assets. Women in many rural areas are not entitled under the law to inherit or own land, leaving them without collateral or credit and constant insecurity. And while many countries have enacted new laws to change this, the implementation of those laws requires several steps, any of which could present new barriers.

One crucial lesson from behavioral science is that often, making simple changes to defaults (and therefore eliminating any mental friction required to overcome a bias or behavioral obstacle) can have enormous impacts.

A government program in Odisha and another in Gujarat, India used this tactic to make decision making processes more equitable by issuing land titles, seeking out people even in the most remote areas, and changing defaults by putting the titles in the name of both the husband and wife (as opposed to only the husband’s name, as had been the previous default). Several thousand women benefited from these programs, with at least 100,000 women having been added to land title documents (via the 2005 Odisha government program).

Looking through a behavioral lens can help us fully understand the individual and social attitudes, behaviors, biases, expectations, and perceptions that drive constraints and offer ways to maximize the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of interventions that close these gaps. We will need to seize all of these opportunities to get to equal by 2030.

Let us know what you think. Do you agree with our list? What would you add?


Caren Grown

Former Global Director, Gender

Renos Vakis

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice, World Bank

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