Are social norms really the main cause of low female employment?

Policymakers must put the horse before the cart: Create conditions for female employment before spending immense sums on efforts to engender a new culture of equality

By Ashwini Deshpande

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Published: Wed 17 Jan 2024, 9:50 PM

In China, the painful custom of binding young girls’ feet to alter their shape began in the tenth century and continued for a millennium, until it was outlawed in 1911. Although the practice did not truly end until the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, by 1990 China’s female labor-force participation rate had climbed to 73 per cent – well above the OECD average.

In fifteenth-century Europe, women started wearing corsets, often reinforced with wood, bone, or even metal, designed to mold the upper body into a V-shape. Comfortable clothing that was easier to move in came into fashion only over the course of the twentieth century. And yet today, several European countries have the highest rankings in terms of gender parity across various dimensions.

Both practices – binding women’s feet and constricting their waists – started among the aristocracy before spreading to the middle and lower classes. Given this trajectory, it is not surprising that adherence to beauty norms made it difficult for women to participate in economic or productive work.

Although China and Europe are poles apart culturally, both pushed women into subservient roles in similar ways. Similarly, both societies were able to shed restrictive social norms – of which body modification is only one example – and make significant progress on gender equality.

It is important to understand how this happened, especially because international organizations and academics have increasingly focused on changing social norms as a means of achieving gender equality, designing toolkits and interventions aimed at nudging individuals toward new attitudes and practices. But they tend to forget an important lesson from history: social norms are products of material realities and, as a result, only shift in response to changes in those conditions, not because of a sudden change of heart.

Comprehending the complex evolution of social norms requires examining the long arc of history. The work of Nobel laureate economist Claudia Goldin exemplifies this approach. Focusing on the United States, Goldin found that “increased participation of women over the long run resulted more from a changed nature of jobs, such as decrease in hours of work and the rise of white-collar work, than from shifts in social norms and attitudes.”

This insight is particularly useful in India, where the proportion of women in paid work remains very low, despite high rates of economic growth and rapid poverty reduction over the last two decades. The discrepancy has sparked debate about which social norms are constraining female labor-force participation and, equally importantly, whether norms are the only limiting factor.

Our new study identifies the norms that matter. Foremost is Indian women’s disproportionate responsibility for domestic chores, including cooking, gathering fuel, fetching water, household maintenance, childcare, and elder care. Indian women spend as much as ten times more time on these activities than men, one of the highest gaps globally. Moreover, with nearly universal marriage and a strong preference for sons, young women enter marriage and motherhood sooner than in other parts of the world and are expected to produce a male heir.

Despite the limiting effect of these norms, our data also reveal unmet demand for paid work on the part of women. Women move in and out of paid employment over short periods, indicating a willingness to take on such work when it is available. Constraints on mobility vary by caste status, with women from lower castes historically participating in the labor market at higher rates and also reporting a greater number of transitions, indicating the precarity of available work.

The low proportion of women in paid employment in India is a matter of serious concern, and policymakers should focus more on generating demand for female labor, rather than changing social norms. That means working to ensure the regular availability of paid work that women can access and incentivizing employers to hire them.

Several Indian states have already enacted gender quotas in public-sector employment. But with more than 90% of India’s workers in the informal sector, such quotas do not affect female labor-force participation rates substantially. Instead, private employers must hire, retain, and promote women workers. Some leading companies, including Tech Mahindra, Wipro, Hero Motocorp, and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, have already launched initiatives to increase female workforce participation, and others should follow their lead. More importantly, mandatory reporting of gender-disaggregated data can reveal the exact contours of gender gaps and shape a focused policy response.

Given India’s predominantly rural population, there is also an urgent need to create avenues for remunerative employment for women in labor-intensive sectors such as food processing, textiles, leather goods, and small-scale, low-tech manufacturing.

Women in India want to earn their own livelihoods, as shown by the massive number of rural women – larger than the combined population of Canada and Australia – who have joined self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihood Mission, the largest and longest-running program of its kind in the world. There is tremendous potential to promote productive and remunerative female self-employment.

In East Asia, the availability of rural non-farm employment provided a massive stimulus for women to enter the paid workforce, and social norms started to change in response. There is no reason to believe that India is any different in this respect. Policymakers must put the horse before the cart: create conditions for female employment before spending immense sums on efforts to engender a new culture of equality. — Project Syndicate

Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics and Founding Director of the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University.


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