About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

On the Long-Term Persistence of Gender Norms

Published in The Edge Malaysia, 7 April – 13 April 2014 as, “Striving for a Gender Equal Society.

March the 8th was International Women’s Day. Upon hearing that fact, men usually respond pretty predictably, “So when is International Men’s Day?” A common answer I hear is, “Every other day of the year.” A classmate of mine had a different (less tongue-in-cheek) answer. She said that it is a day for everyone to take stock of the state of women in society, how far we have come in terms of gender equity and how much more there is still to be done. While the common answer is, in fairness, pretty accurate, I think my classmate’s answer is the far more accurate one.

It is absolutely true that the global community, at the aggregate, has made huge leaps in reducing gender inequity over the past century. For instance, it is near unthinkable today, in nearly all nations, for women to be excluded from voting. This was not true a hundred years ago, even in most developed nations. In her paper entitled, “Three Questions about Womanhood Suffrage in Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives,” Carole Pateman – a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at UCLA – argues that the enfranchisement of women required a reconstruction, be it from a societal or an individual perspective, of gender roles within society.

This argument is particularly potent when we consider how gender norms tend to persist in cultures over long periods in history. By gender norms, I mean a set of implicit social and behavioral norms that, within a specific culture, are widely considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex. In a research paper entitled, “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough,” economists Alberto Alesina, Paula Giuliano and Nathan Nunn show that the descendants of societies that traditionally (in pre-industrial times) practiced plough-based agriculture have less equal gender norms in present day, measured using reported gender-role attitudes and female participation in the workplace, politics and entrepreneurial activities.

This is because the plough was a labor-saving technology, enabling households to have division of labor, with men traditionally working the plough (given the plough’s requirement of greater physical strength) and women thereby performing household chores. These gender norm differences persisted across time and influence gender-role attitudes today. Interestingly, when the authors test for the importance of culture by examining second-generation immigrants living with Europe and the United States, they find that even among individuals born and raised in the same country, those with a heritage of traditional plough use exhibit less equal beliefs about gender roles today. The evidence therefore lends credence to the notion that gender roles persist over long periods of time and thus continuously builds upon itself over time.

If Pateman’s argument is right, compounded with the evidence presented by Alesina, Giuliano and Nunn, then any form of reconstruction of gender roles within society is going to be extremely difficult. This is particularly troublesome and worrying for Malaysian civil society. The 2013 Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum ranks Malaysia as 102nd out of 136 countries in terms of gender equality. Despite being only a prima facie indicator, this is still nonetheless unacceptable and requires massive upheaval. However, given what we know about the ease, or lack thereof, of reconstructing gender roles in improving gender equity in society, and given that Malaysia’s gender equity condition is so entrenched, what can we do?

In 2011, the Government announced that the corporate sector should have at least 30% women representation in boardrooms in five years. This form of policy is known as affirmative action. Critics of this particular policy argue that this is actually disrespectful to women as women who end up being board members will not be able to securely tell if they were there on merit or on the basis of their gender. They argue that merit and merit alone should determine boardroom representation.

Where this argument is weak, to me, is that it assumes that any judgment of merit is independent of pre-conceived implicit cognitive gender norms. A whole host of studies around the world have shown that gender norms persist even in companies that explicitly state themselves to be equal opportunity employers. It is not that companies are necessarily consciously sexist; it is just that gender norms in society are very powerful1 .

Esther Duflo, a MIT economist, counters this argument as well in her paper entitled, “Women Empowerment and Economic Development.” In a review of the current research work in the literature, she finds evidence that development will not be enough to overcome discrimination and stereotyping at home and at work. Therefore, she argues, more policy work is required as an intervention to overcome these problems.

In another paper entitled, “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias,” Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and co-authors find that affirmative action policy which mandate that the chief councilor position in local government, in certain villages in India, be allocated to women does weaken stereotypes about gender roles in the public and domestic spheres and eliminated negative biases in how female leaders’ effectiveness is perceived among male villagers. These changes in attitude are electorally meaningful; after 10 years of the quota policy, women are more likely to stand for and win free seats in villages that have been continuously required to have a female chief councilor.

Therefore, there is empirical research that lends support to the notion that policies such as a 30% board membership representation could be useful, not because it promotes women per se but because it helps to deconstruct existing social norms. Of course, these policies should have a sunset clause; as gender norms are eradicated, then a merit-based process – free of pre-conceived gender norms – is absolutely the way to go.

In the case of Malaysia, if we are to be a gender-equal society, we do need more affirmative action policies that help to eradicate outdated gender norms. For instance, it is difficult to take pledges by political parties to improve gender equity in Malaysia seriously when there is a separate branch just for Women in a given political party which effectively prevents women from holding the Deputy President and President posts in the party. Thus, anytime that party is in power, a woman can never be Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister, even if she is the best person for the job. This, to me, is inefficient and unfair, and needs to be remedied immediately.

There are many outstanding Malaysian women. Nicol David is one that comes to mind. Another less well-known one is Wong Chin Lin, a physicist at Harvard University who was recently an integral part of the team that made a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery in Physics. This discovery was described by an MIT cosmologist as, “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science.” Unfortunately for Malaysia, these outstanding women are the exception more than they are the norm. And, as long as Malaysian civil society lags in their reconstruction of gender norms in society, this will continue to be the case. We must do much more to become a gender equal society.

1 If you want to check your implicit gender bias (or perhaps lack of bias), you can easily do so online via an Implicit Association Test on www.understandprejudice.org .

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