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Why Social Norms Matter for Policy-Making on Gender

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(Parallel Session 16 at the ABCDE, Paris)

Gender equality has not been achieved yet, and progress comes at a different pace across countries and across different dimensions of gender equality. In some domains, as childcare, access to some occupations and sectors, and dimensions of agency, change has been limited or negligible. Even in the domains where improvements have been widespread, as in education, the change has not reached all groups within a population or occurred at the same pace across countries.

Why improvements have come so quickly in some domains while there has been little change in others? One possible explanation that has been recently receiving much attention among the academic community is gender roles, which are in turn the result of differences in biological responsibilities and in preferences between men and women, but also of social norms.

Knowing more about the role of social norms is fundamental for policy-making, in particular for policies on gender equality. If social norms are sticky and determine either the improvements or the pace towards gender equality, then little space is left for policies designed with such purpose. If, on the other hand, social norms can change, it becomes essential to understand the relationship between social norms and outcomes and policies.

This session explored different aspects of the problem, which we hope will trigger the discussion. The first presentation showed the importance of social norms in shaping economic outcomes. Dante Contreras showed that the impact of machismo and other cultural values on female labor force participation in Chile is not negligible: Having a chauvinist perception has an impact on female labor force participation almost twice as large as the effect of having a child under 4. Secondly, social norms are sticky. Eliana La Ferrara investigated the effects of one particular social norm—inheritance of property and transfer of kinship—on one particular economic decision—inter-vivos transfers among members of the family. In her analysis she stirred up many questions by comparing matrilineal vs. patrilineal societies, and the problem of intergenerational transfers and bequest behavior. Finally, is there any role for policy interventions through existing institutional systems, such as voting, to change social norms? In emerging economies women are less likely to vote than men, and when they vote they follow the choices of their husbands. Xavier Giné and Ghazala Mansuri conducted an experiment in Pakistan to see the role of information on female vote.


Josefina Posadas

Senior Economist in the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, World Bank

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