The complexity of female empowerment interventions

  • Blog Post Date 30 March, 2023
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Siwan Anderson

University of British Columbia

In the final post of I4I’s month-long campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2023, Siwan Anderson unpacks the complex dimensions and interactions between measures of female empowerment. She highlights the sobering and unintended perils of policy interventions that aim to increase women’s economic and political empowerment or change gender norms. She urges policymaking to remain mindful of the backlash within families to women’s expanded economic prospects, the benchmarking and transplanting of gender norms from developed countries and measures to build capacity to make political quotas effective.

The ongoing push which places gender equality at the centre stage of development policy has led to unprecedented improvements in women’s legal rights, education, health, employment, and political positions. Still, women and girls continue to suffer extreme discrimination and violence across the globe.

To achieve the next stage of improvements, we need to increase our understanding of the complex feedback mechanisms inherent in reaching gender equality. Female empowerment is a multi-faceted concept, well appreciated by academics and policymakers alike, but not well understood on how the various dimensions interact and co-evolve with each other and with society more broadly. Many policy objectives presume that different measures of female empowerment work in tandem. In contrast, I argue that it is useful to conceptually “unbundle” female empowerment in a systematic way across multiple domains: within the household, society as a whole, and via the dynamics of norm formation (Anderson 2022). The paper highlights instead the complexity of interactions between these separate facets of female empowerment and extrinsic societal factors. This is important because overlooking these interactions across dimensions has the potential to lead policy astray.

These complexities can be illustrated in the context of three general policy objectives: one, to increase female economic empowerment; two, shift towards unbiased gender norms; and three, to increase female political empowerment.

Female economic empowerment and its associated backlash

The past decades have witnessed an explosion of development policies aimed at directing resources– in the form of government transfers, micro-credit, savings accounts, assets, knowledge, training and skills – into the hands of women. When evaluating these initiatives, it is important to recognize that since marriage is almost universally observed in poorer countries, women typically reside in joint households. So any policy directly targeting women also impinges on the dynamics of household behaviour. Because of this, the effects of a single policy can be multi-fold. Targeting individual women with economic benefits alters dynamics within the household, and can have broader societal impacts.

Economists model this behaviour by assuming that household members have conflicting preferences over goods. Household decision making is resolved through a bargaining process whereby the strength of one member’s relative bargaining power inside the household, and the quality of their outside opportunities (such as employment), will lead to a household allocation in greater accord with their preferences. Therefore, placing economic resources directly into the hands of women will increase her agency within the household.

This simple conceptual framework is very consistent with overall policy aims.  However, emerging research suggests a more complex picture. The standard model of household decisions as a bargaining process assumes members have full information and are able to perfectly communicate. However, there is significant empirical and experimental evidence to the contrary. The ability (and willingness) to conceal information appears critical in affecting how resources are allocated. Most programs that were proven to be successful in improving women’s economic empowerment were designed to enable women to hide decisions from their spouses (Chang et al. 2020). These included keeping money hidden from husbands in bank accounts (Dupas and Robinson 2013, Fiala 2018) or in-kind grants (Fafchamps et al. 2014) and mobile money deposits which were less likely to be appropriated by husbands (Riley 2020). This design feature is not well suited to long-term development strategies. 

Research further shows that in some contexts, development programs that aim to benefit women and girls may not ultimately empower them and can even reinforce their lack of power. A channel would seem to be when female economic empowerment increases the potential for conflict within the household. There is indeed mounting evidence of a backlash effect. Increasing resources available to women may strengthen men’s incentives to use violence, or threats of violence,  to control or diminish these newly obtained resources.

Anderson and Bidner (2022) uncover a systematic non-monotonic relationship between measures of relative female decision-making power and intimate partner violence (IPV). Women experience IPV at the highest rate when they alone make household decisions, followed by when husbands alone make them, and the lowest rate of IPV happens when decisions are made jointly. Something about joint decision-making makes IPV less likely.

The impacts of costly conflict in the household may extend to both genders. Anderson and Genicot (2015) show that improved female property rights in India lead to increases in both male and female suicide rates. This highlights the extreme psychological costs may temporarily arise, for both men and women, when policies suddenly oppose conservative gender roles. In this sense, increasing relative female economic empowerment plays out in both private and public spheres suggesting that backlash reactions from husbands, or other male family members, may not just be an effort to control household resources but a resistance to changing gendered norms. 

Engendering unbiased gendered norms

Recent policy initiatives are oriented towards actively inducing social change by altering these gender biased norms. Some interventions provide direct monetary incentives to reduce the practice of particularly harmful customs like child marriage (Buchmann et al. 2017). Others provide information to families on the benefits of breaking gender biased norms such as preventing women from working outside the home (McKelway 2021, Dean and Jayachandran 2019).  Educational campaigns in schools and colleges which promote gender equality and include both males and females into the conversation are shown to be successful (Dhar et al. 2022, Sharma 2022). Other approaches engage female leaders as advocates of gender equality or encourage smaller scale collective action amongst women as agents of change (Jejeebhoy et al. 2017a and 2017b).  As with female economic empowerment, shifting norms is a complex multi-faceted endeavour: only starting to be explored, and also likely to yield unintended consequences that are hard to predict in advance.

Implicit in most policy initiatives is the assumption that pro-women norms should move in tandem. In particular, improving women’s position in a society as a whole should positively impact women’s position in her household. But both conceptually and empirically, things are more complicated. Anderson et al. (2021) show that it can be important to unbundle these two different realms of male dominance in the public and private sphere – that there are good reasons to expect that gendered norms within the two spheres will not necessarily operate in concert. An example is the practice of seclusion (purdah), synonymous with low female empowerment in the public sphere but does not necessarily imply that women have no decision-making power inside their own households.

Another example of norms moving opposite to the desired direction comes from the Indian puzzle of declining female labour force participation rates over the last few decades of economic growth. One compelling explanation is that of Sanskritisation: lower caste women adopting or mimicking upper caste norms — in this case, the practice of Purdah or not working outside the home (Klasen and Pieters 2012). This may reflect aspirations by lower castes to upgrade their social status by imitating the more rigid female-restrictive norms of higher status groups. This reduction in choices of, and perhaps worsening welfare of women was not easy to anticipate.

Perils of transplanting and benchmarking gender norms

In policy forums focused on directions of social change, it is often the case that gender norms in more developed countries are used as a benchmark. When this is so, we need to carefully consider the conditions under which transplanting gender norms from one society would work to improve female outcomes in another. Gendered norms are fundamentally different from other norms in that they are zero-sum: if more is given to women this often comes at the expense of men. It is why the phenomenon of societal backlash is so ubiquitous and needs to be seriously considered.  Using the template of pro-women norm shifts in the history of developed countries should not necessarily serve as a normative guide for policy elsewhere.

There is little reason to expect that cultural changes in currently developing countries will mimic the paths followed in the West. The heterogeneity in how such norms appear to be changing within the developed world today also suggests that local cultures may persist or change in differing ways under similar economic pressures. Added to this, the timing of structural changes is different. Developing countries today typically experienced an expansion of education and growth in the service sector at much lower levels of development than when they took off in the West. Their legal contexts are also markedly different. Today’s developing countries generally inherited the formal legal structures of their former colonists, which tend to be more progressive and favourable to women than the corresponding legal structures that prevailed at comparable levels of development in the West. At the same time, inherently gender biased norms co-exist such as sex-selective abortion, dowry violence, polygyny, and female genital mutilation. These norms were not widely present in today’s developed countries during their transition to pro-women norms. 

Qualifying female political empowerment

Gender equality in elected office has become a global commitment. There are 137 countries to date with constitutional, electoral, or political party quotas for women. Many developing countries surpass developed ones in this regard. The most direct way to assure female leadership is to reserve political seats for women. Policies that reserve political seats for women, either at the national or sub-national level, are only present in less developed countries, no such policies are imposed in the West. 

India led the way in 1992 when the 73rd amendment to the Constitution mandated that women fill a third of seats in the village, block, and district level councils of the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Further to this, at least a third of the offices of chairpersons of these councils were also reserved for women. More recently, a number of states have increased this female representation to 50%.1 Not only was India a world leader in instigating large-scale female quotas in local politics but the rotational selection of voting wards for imposing female quotas across election cycles rendered it the most extensively studied natural experiment for analysing the direct impact of placing women in leadership positions. 

As with other measures of female empowerment, from a humanitarian perspective, increasing female political representation is a goal in itself. There are also persuasive arguments that having women as leaders could impact society in preferred ways. Female leadership could increase equity – as women better represent women’s needs – or efficiency – if female politicians tend to be less corrupt and more altruistic. If women and men do have different policy preferences, female political agendas could lead to increased investments in child health and education, and thus positive long-term consequences for growth. 

Thanks to the visionary and unprecedented policies of the Government of India more than 30 years ago, there is now ample empirical evidence to suggest that having females in public office does indeed make a difference. Mandated female political representation by these policies has been shown to: impact the types of public goods and expenditures chosen by village governments (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004); increase the educational attainment of girls (Beaman et al. 2012); advance the aspirations, accomplishments, and political engagement of women (Beaman et al. 2009, Beaman et al. 2011); sustain female political representation (Bhavnani 2009); and also improve male perceptions towards women in leadership positions (Beaman et al. 2009).  

However, the social context can matter. Afridi et al. (2017) uncover more NREGS inefficiencies and leakages in village councils reserved for women heads because their political and administrative inexperience render them more vulnerable to bureaucratic capture. Their findings highlight how capacity building is needed to bolster the effectiveness of political quotas for women. On the other hand, a study from West Bengal demonstrates that women who enter politics are less likely to engage in dishonest behaviour than men, but that this gender gap narrows with time in office (Chaudhuri et al. 2022). So that in contexts with widespread corruption, women too eventually become socialised into the local political culture. So once again, for lasting change, increased female representation will need to be accompanied by changes to the local political culture. 

This focus on increased female representation in public office seems paramount, since well-functioning formal political institutions are germane to economic development. But given that in many developing contexts, particularly rural areas where the reach of the state can be weak, informal institutions can also play a major role. The growing movement of Self-Help Groups (SHGs), brought in by the National Rural Livelihoods Mission of India, are one such example.  Female-run SHGs are typically set up for collective credit and financial support but are increasingly politically motivated. Evidence suggests that members are more likely to vote (and to vote according to their own choice), attend village council meetings, and hold local leaders accountable (Kumar et al. 2019, Prillaman 2021). It is therefore not a surprise that SHGs are garnering attention from political parties to secure votes. 

In general, there is very little known about the interaction between such informal female political institutions and more formal political administrative structures. Once again, we should not assume that all spheres of female political empowerment work in tandem. Here the distinctions and interactions between formal and informal spheres seems relevant. And we should take care when disrupting the traditional order of one institution in isolation, as it will likely have broader political implications.   


  1. States which increased to 50% of seats reserved for women Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tripura, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal.

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