Can employers change gender norms?

Meredith Lidard Kleeman | Oct 14, 2019

Sections Economics

Despite India’s growing economy and an increase in education rates among girls, just 26 percent of women there work outside the home, according to the International Labour Organization. 

But shifting the gender norms that discourage women from working could require long-term, sustained action, suggests research by Chicago Booth’s Joshua Deanand Northwestern’s Seema Jayachandran.

The researchers conducted two employer-led interventions at a private kindergarten provider in Karnataka, a state in south India, that operates over 200 schools and employs young women who reside in the same village as the center. Dean and Jayachandran studied whether a minimal, “light-touch” approach could help young women’s family members become more supportive of their teaching careers. 

It has been well documented that some families in India fear the social stigma associated with a woman who works, while others worry about her physical safety during her commute or at her job. The researchers sought to address these concerns through two low-cost interventions that adhered as closely as possible to the recruitment and orientation tools that some employers in rural India already use. 

Thinking that family members might be more supportive of women working if they heard firsthand accounts about the benefits, the researchers created two videos with testimonials from the kindergarten provider’s experienced teachers and their families. One video highlighted nonmonetary benefits, such as personal growth, while the other addressed common concerns that were mostly related to safety. 

The researchers also conducted guided conversations between the teachers and their family members about the pros and cons of working, a strategy inspired by established practices of the provider. When the school’s human-resources staff learn that a teacher’s family has concerns, they typically send someone to help mediate a discussion between the woman and her family and provide reassurances that the teacher will be safe. Instead of mediation, in this intervention, a member of the research team asked the teachers and their family members open-ended questions—and didn’t offer opinions or facts. The researchers theorized that the conversations would provide an opportunity to correct any misperceptions held by family members, resolve disagreements, and address concerns, and possibly minimize future demands on the company’s HR staff.

The study included 171 female teachers, who each identified family members in their household who most influenced their decision to work. The teachers and family members were surveyed at the beginning of the study and again a year later, revealing that the interventions had failed to increase retention among female employees at the kindergarten center or to raise support more generally for female employment and empowerment.

Could a more intensive intervention at the community level, such as a series of videos or a leadership seminar, produce a different outcome? Possibly, but the researchers note that such an intensive approach is unlikely to be in an employer’s best interest, given the high cost and the fact that employers are unlikely to capture a significant share of the benefits, as employees may leave for other companies at any time. 

However, “this reasoning does not mean we should completely discard the possibility of a role for employers in shifting gender norms,” write Dean and Jayachandran. “It is possible that the most effective way [employers] can shift norms is simply by pursuing their core missions. Providing employment opportunities for women in areas with low female labor force participation could be doing more to shift norms than the firms could achieve through a direct campaign.”