Glass ceilings and social norms

A recent working paper (gated) by Marianne Bertrand, Sandra Black, Sissal Jensen, and Adriana Llenas-Muney examines a Norwegian law that aimed to put more women in the C-suite. The results are decidedly mixed, from reading the abstract, and I’m not sure what’s to come out of it. One easy conclusion is that there no “virtuous cycle” or “trickle-down” effect from putting more–or more qualified–women into top positions.

My first thought was simply that it hasn’t had time to take effect. The law was only enforced in January 2008, but that doesn’t seem that short unless there’s a binding constraint on the number of educated women who might be eligible for jobs down the line. However, there don’t seem to be any effects on university students’ intended career paths or desired fertility.

You could also criticize the clear selection by firms that decided to stay public and thus had to comply with the law, but if anything, that would bias you towards finding a significant result.

So, is it a question of who is being hired? If these executives are women but don’t display characteristics that make them seem like appropriate role models to young women, we might not expect to see an effect. Or is it that these quotas are in place, but haven’t done anything to affect social norms? If societal expectations to marry and reproduce aren’t seen as compatible with higher earning, higher power jobs, then perhaps we won’t seen an effect at all of more visible women.

The abstract is here:

In late 2003, Norway passed a law mandating 40 percent representation
of each gender on the board of publicly limited liability companies.
The primary objective of this reform was to increase the
representation of women in top positions in the corporate sector and
decrease gender disparity in earnings within that sector.  We
document that the newly (post-reform) appointed female board members
were observably more qualified than their female predecessors, and
that the gender gap in earnings within boards fell substantially.
While the reform may have improved the representation of female
employees at the very top of the earnings distribution (top 5 highest
earners) within firms that were mandated to increase female
participation on their board, there is no evidence that these gains
at the very top trickled-down.  Moreover the reform had no obvious
impact on highly qualified women whose qualifications mirror those of
board members but who were not appointed to boards.  We observe no
statistically significant change in the gender wage gaps or in female
representation in top positions, although standard errors are large
enough that we cannot rule economically meaningful gains.  Finally,
there is little evidence that the reform affected the decisions of
women more generally; it was not accompanied by any change in female
enrollment in business education programs, or a convergence in
earnings trajectories between recent male and female graduates of
such programs.  While young women preparing for a career in business
report being aware of the reform and expect their earnings and
promotion chances to benefit from it, the reform did not affect their
fertility and marital plans.  Overall, in the short run the reform
had very little discernible impact on women in business beyond its
direct effect on the newly appointed female board members.


On vocabulary and observation at the ASSA (a little late, but you know what they say…)

As a first-time job market candidate, the annual ASSA meetings every January are stressful and busy and kind of terrible, but as I’ve gone more and more, I’ve realized they’re kind of awesome. My two favorite events are the CSWEP mentoring breakfast and the CU reception, but everywhere you go, you’re running into people you want to have a conversation with, people you haven’t seen in a year or more, people who want to ask you something or share something exciting. I spent most of the weekend hearing about cool papers, having great conversations about economics, and seeing people I care about. I’m a big fan, turns out.

Even if it’s 0 degrees F and we’re all tromping around in the snow that the city won’t clear.

But I digress. One of the other events I was excited for this time around was the T. Schulz memorial lecture put on by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. I like ag economists.

The lecture was given by Michael Kremer of Harvard. It wasn’t a traditional lecture in the sense there wasn’t much talk of big ideas or themes. He really just presented a new paper, which was a bit disappointing, but, taken at face value, ultimately interesting.

The paper was trying to ascertain the extent to which asset-collateralized debt would be successful in an experimental setting in East Africa (yes, likely a community that has seen plenty of these interventions). Most of the debt we take on in the US is asset collateralized, if you don’t pay your car loan, they take your car, for instance, but it’s not like that in many other parts of the world. Collateral for loans, especially small loans, often comes in the form of guarantees from family or neighbors, or some cash reserve itself, or sometimes none at all. So, asking whether individuals saw these loan as different is an interesting question if someone is trying to institute them.

Perhaps the most important result is that people were paying back their loans, and not only paying them back, but paying them back early, which Kremer attributed to debt aversion.

As Kremer started in on his preliminary results, the first things I heard were not his interpretation, but rather whispers from all sides around me.

“Neighborhood effects.”

“Peer effects.”

“Why should we think debt aversion is driving this behavior?” There seemed to be a consensus, at least in my part of the audience, that individuals were paying back their debts not because they disliked having debt, per se, but that they thought it made them look bad in the eyes of their neighbors. Some of the first questions following the lecture pertained to the interpretation of the observations.

Two ideas immediately came to my mind during this exchange. The first has to do with quantum physics and how when we observe something, we change it. The second is that many of the whispers around me could be re-interpreted as a discussion of social norms. In the peer effects interpretation, borrowers could see their peers repaying and thus be more likely to repay. And in the social norms sense, borrowers could perceive that having debt is not seen well by the community and thus be more likely to repay. It seems that much of the debate could have been settled by a survey question or two regarding attitudes about debt, social norms around debt, and the perception of debt aversion on a community level. “What percentage of people in this community pay their debts on time?” or “How are people who don’t pay their debts treated in this community?” Or something like that.

It strikes me that the language economists and other social scientists use to explain similar phenomena are often very different. Also, it seems that Kremer could have fairly quickly disabused his critics of their notions had he conducted at least a little surveying on debt aversion and social norms.

Changing perceptions of FGM/C

Sarah Tenoi, a Maasai woman from Kenya, talks about her work to encourage her community to take part in an alternate rite of passage to womanhood in order to end FGM/C. She says that 98% of girls were cut before she started, but now the perception is that 20% of girls go through the alternate, no-cutting ceremony.

It’s a great story and don’t I wish someone had been on hand to implement a rigorous qualitative and quantitative survey with questions on social norms before and afterward.

h/t @Africasacountry

Honor Codes, Cheating and Social Norms

I spent lunchtime yesterday at a gathering of students and faculty put on by Lafayette Student Government. One of the suggested topics for conversation was the possible implementation of an Honor Code. It’s apparently an extremely contentious issue and while each member of the group I encountered had different perceptions of honor codes, one of the biggest takeaways from the conversation was that social norms, or the “culture of cheating” plays a big role. How individuals perceive the actions of their peers wields influence in how much cheating actually occurs.

Today, one of the New Yorker blogs highlighted cheating and this paragraph stood out to me:

Social norms, too, play an important role in the decision to cheat: if cheating seems more widely accepted, people are more likely to be dishonest; the reverse is true as well. In one set of experiments, psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University found that if someone had obviously cheated, by finishing a problem-solving task much more quickly than would be possible had he completed it honestly, other people in the room became more likely to cheat as well—but only if they perceived the cheater to be like them. If the cheater seemed different—in this case, if he wore a rival school’s T-shirt—students became far less likely to cheat. In the case of the Long Island students, it seems that, while relatively few students actually cheated, most were aware that it was a regular occurrence. It was a student, in fact, who first brought the alleged cheating to the attention of a Great Neck counsellor. Cheating was a known, somewhat accepted norm; little wonder that it swept through five separate schools.

We didn’t really come to any conclusions. I’ve been at schools where the Honor Code meant you had to sign something saying you didn’t cheat on each test or paper and at schools where the professor wasn’t allowed to be in the room. One colleague noted the Honor Code at another college was inhibiting to learning and trust because students would turn each other in for any kind of collaboration, even that which was sanctioned by the professor.

Ultimately, though, it was a good opportunity to encourage student government to take initiative. Any change in the culture or implementation of an Honor Code has to come from them to be credible.

The social safety net: Attitudes and values

The Pew Global Forum highlights a hefty paper by some folks at the New America Foundation (.pdf here) today on Americans’ attitudes towards the social safety net. There are enough facts in it that trying to summarize it here would be futile, but you can probably guess the results. Americans are less supportive of programs for the poor than their European counterparts. One of the most striking revelations is how much Republican support for taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves has declined, since the Reagan administration, but perhaps more interesting, since the end of the George W. Bush administration. Somehow, being in the biggest recession that most of us can remember led those who identify as Republicans to think we should support the poor less.

I won’t say I’m not baffled.

Though the study does not go into it, part of this likely has to do with the increased distaste for the national debt, a war that is raging in Congress right now with little end in sight. I’m not going to enter that fray or even link to the madness because I think it’s ludicrous and irresponsible, but you can google “debt ceiling” and see for yourself, if you like.

Reading the Pew survey reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad about Social Security. He’s eligible to collect benefits and is trying to decide whether to get on the rolls now or wait. He’s afraid that means testing will be implemented and then he will not be eligible, but starting to collect also means that he will not be able to work one or two days a week as he has done since he retired. Means testing turns Social Security into one of the programs for people who cannot take care of themselves, and if Pew is right, support for it will dramatically drop. Many of my father’s generation seem to be of the mindset that “I paid into Social Security; it’s my right to collect,” while many of my generation see a small chance of Social Security existing into the future (rightly or wrongly), and perhaps have tended to write off that portion of our incomes.

There is a lot more in the NAF report about the intersection of value and attitudes. It is worth a read.

The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Inheritance and education as substitutes

The effect of inheritance laws on gender equity is a subject that remains largely understudied; most of the information we have is anecdotal or follows from intuitive reasoning. It makes sense that in places where land ownership is a significant predictor of future outcomes and job opportunities are limited, not owning land (or not inheriting it) would likely lead to worse outcomes. Given that inheritance laws tend to favor male children (and in some cases first-born male children), it stands to reason that women and girls would have the most to lose from disinheritance.

In a twist, a working paper by two Italian economists shows that inheritance actually leads to less investment in schooling, and more investment in health for male children, but not for female children. The paper relies on a policy change in Ghana which changed inheritance from a primarily matrilineal system to a more patrilineal system, leading to more male sons inheriting land from their fathers. The authors show, using a difference-in-difference strategy, that males who were subject to the new laws, and thus more likely to inherit land, eventually obtained one less year of education than boys who weren’t subject to the law. They were also healthier using a height-for-weight z scores, indicating higher investments in nutrition and health, which would be necessary for more efficient working of land.

The argument is that inheriting land/investments in health and education were close substitutes due to the social norm that fathers provided for their sons’ livelihoods. If a father could not provide for his child by giving him land, he could send him to school or set him up with an apprenticeship. Given limited resources, the parents might choose education over investments in health. With inheritance laws favoring sons of fathers, that “over-investment” in education ceases and higher investment in health follows. This is likely only an issue for parents for whom the constraints are binding–i.e., they have a limited amount of resources to spread around. The poorer a family is, the more likely they are to run up against this constraint, and thus the effect of the patrilineal inheritance laws is likely greater for the landowning poor than wealthier landowners.

For girls, the results are somewhat ambiguous, and theoretically, the outcome is difficult to predict. Whether girls are affected by disinheritance of land as a result of the changed law (through lower nutrition and higher education?), is likely closely tied to the social norms regarding providing for girl children. If the social norm is “people in this community (should or do) set up girls to provide for themselves,” as it appears to be for boys, we would likely see such changes in investments. If the social norm doesn’t reflect an obligation to girl children, then the change in inheritance laws shouldn’t have a great effect.

Source: La Ferrara, E. and A. Milazzo (2011) ‘Social Norms, Inheritance and Human Capital. Evidence from a Reform in the Matrilineal System in Ghana’. A preliminary draft.

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