Social Identity

How social norms hold women back: A look at recent evidence

  • Blog Post Date 15 March, 2024
  • Perspectives
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Nikita Mujumdar

Deputy Managing Editor, I4I

In light of India’s low female labour force participation rate, as a follow up to International Women’s Day, I4I Deputy Managing Editor Nikita Mujumdar highlights a selection of economic research on social and household norms in India which have held women back from taking up higher education and work; and brings together some ideas on how women’s economic and political participation can improve household and community outcomes and improve how they are perceived in society.

India lags behind many developing and developed countries in terms of gender parity. In 2023, it ranked 127 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. Despite having narrowed the gaps in school enrolment and educational attainment (Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER), 2024) and recent increases in female labour force participation (FLFP) (Deshpande 2023), the country continues to underperform in terms of women’s economic participation.

This post curates some of the literature on the social and familial norms which have held women back, as well as work that explores how increased economic and political empowerment of women can change both how they are perceived within their household and society, and also how they perceive themselves.

Identifying and addressing gender disparity in educational choices

Despite a reduction in the gender gap in recent years, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Research by Dongre, Singhal and Das (2020) also finds that women are underrepresented in economics in India – and particularly in academia, where a little less than one-third of faculty members teaching economics are women. Further, women make up a very small proportion of the workforce in the financial sector (Mehta, Sharma and Jhabvala 2019). 

This difference could be traced back to their earlier schooling years – a study by Kumar and Sahoo (2023) finds that female students are nearly 10 percentage points less likely to choose the science stream as compared to boys. Similarly, Dasgupta and Sharma (2020) find that more than half of the women in their study preferred to major in social sciences of the humanities, which they attribute to the gender divide in subjective expectations of earnings and enjoyment. 

Using data from ASER surveys, Das and Singhal (2021) find a significant female disadvantage in mathematics learning in the age group of 8-16 years, noting that this difference is associated with the prevalence of patriarchal household norms. Other research suggests that, while gender gaps in enrolment are closing, gender inequalities in the quality of education have increased, with families preferring to invest in private schooling for their sons rather than daughters (Maitra, Pal and Sharma 2016, Deshpande and Gupta 2020).

What can be done to improve the learning outcomes of girls and ensure their greater participation in fields that are currently dominated by men? Based on a study in Andhra Pradesh, Bhattacharya et al. (2017) find a positive effect of teacher-student gender matching on the mathematics scores of student. However, they note that this phenomenon is restricted to urban, private-schools, as the best female students and teachers ‘self-select’ into such schools, and suggest providing incentives to female teachers to government schools to help reduce this spatial inequality.. This is supported by Kumar and Sahoo (2023) and Maitra, Pal and Sharma (2016), who advocate for the increased recruitment of female teachers. Jain and Nandwani (2022) further find that greater female representation in school management committees is associated with more female teachers being hired, increased school enrolment, and improved learning scores for girls.

How marriage and family hinder female labour force participation

Even with high rates of school enrolment for girls, FLFP in India – particularly outside the agricultural sector – remains low. Among the barriers to employment faced by women are patriarchal social norms, which restrict their ability to gain meaningful employment. These barriers are particularly significant for married women who are expected to take on domestic and childcare responsibilities. 

Research by Dhar (2022) reveals that working women face a penalty in the marriage market, with women who have never worked receiving 15-22% more interest from men. Additionally, Jayaraman (2023) notes that, even after marriage, factors such as co-residence with fathers-in-law limit women’s employment. In the context of urban employment, Gautham (2022) uncovers that having a child is associated with a 7% reduction in real daily wages – indirectly reducing the ‘opportunity cost’ of women staying at home after having children.

Importantly, the ‘male breadwinner’ norm affect married women’s labour market participation and earning potential – for instance, Gupta (2021) shows that an increase in the probability that a wife would earn more than her husband reduces her likelihood of participating in wage and salaried jobs, and raises the gap between her actual and potential earnings. Sahoo and Sarkar (2021) find that women have more transitions in their employment status than men (with the birth of children and presence of elderly household members increasing their chance of exiting the workforce) and they tend to participate in paid employment only when there is a need to augment household income.

Certainly, while there is a clear preference against having a working wife, Dhar (2022) also highlights a weak ‘income effect’ which offsets prevailing gender norms. While there is a marriage market penalty for working women, this is lessened when the wife is high-earning and can contribute to the household income. This is borne out in other research by Dureja and Negi (2021), which finds evidence of intra-household labour substitution, wherein the male household head falling ill increases the wife’s labour supply, in an attempt to offset the decline in household earnings. In Uttar Pradesh, McKelway and Redstone (2023) find that providing husbands and in-laws with details about an employment opportunity for married women in weaving improves their opinions their wives working outside the home and increases women’s participation in the programme.

Impact of social norms and safety concerns

In addition to household norms, concerns about women’s safety outside the home have restricted their mobility and limited their participation in education and work. Concerns about the lack of public infrastructure such as public toilets, street lighting and road safety also restrict women’s mobility (Afridi 2023) and lower their ability to take up location-based work.

In Jalandhar, Punjab, Vijaya, Bains and Bhullar (2023) find that only 18% of the school-aged girls that they surveyed are allowed to travel independently, as compared to 43% of boys. While these shares increase when they move to college, the gender disparity persists. Similarly, based on a study across Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Mehta and Sai (2021) observe that women are most mobile when visiting markets in the same neighbourhood, whereas their mobility is restricted when travelling long distances and taking public transport. Their findings suggest that women who do not have any restrictions on their mobility (that is, they do not require permission to travel) have a higher probability of taking up employment.

In an assessment of the effectiveness of the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana (Chief Minister's Bicycle Scheme for Girls) in Bihar, Mitra and Moene (2019) find that providing girls with bicycles to go to school increases their likelihood of completing secondary schooling. Vijaya, Bains and Bhullar (2023) also note the impact of intergenerational gender norms: in households where adult women travel alone, a greater proportion of girls gain freedom to travel in college. With regard to safety, Lalji et al. (2021) suggest that increasing awareness and training adolescent girls in self-defence can improve their confidence and increase their motivation to graduate and work.

Enhancing women’s economic and political participation

Various research studies have shown that increasing women's access to financial resources enhances their decision-making role within the household. Kochar et al. (2022) look at the case of self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihoods Project and find that women’s access to loans from a Community Investment Fund improves their bargaining power – but only if the loans are sufficiently large. McKelway and Redstone (2023) find that increased FLFP also leads to greater involvement of women in decisions about spending on food, children’s education, and savings.1

Women’s economic empowerment can also have an impact outside the household. Khera (2019) notes that when women have greater access to credit, it supports the creation of more women-owned businesses, increasing FLFP – a large share of which is currently driven by self-employment. In a study of tribal communities in Meghalaya, Brulé and Gaikwad (2021) find that, in matrilineal tribes – where wealth passes from mothers to daughters - women are 9 percentage points more likely to vote than men, a reversal of the ‘conventional gap’ in political participation.

Women’s political participation is likely to have village- or community-level spillover effects, thereby benefiting other women. For instance, Bhalotra et al. (2023) highlight how the increased presence of women in parliament as a result of gender quotas led to declining maternal mortality rates and fertility rates. Jagnani and Mahadevan (2023) find that the election of a female MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) reduces the incidence of crop fires, since women leaders are more likely to consider crop fires a very serious problem due to the associated health costs for children. Indeed, female MLAs show a preference towards policies that favour increased investment in child health and education.

In a review of J-PAL studies around women and politics, Wattal and Gopalan (2023) observe that women leaders invest more in policies that women care about. They also note that having more women in positions of power can change men’s perception of women, and lead to higher career aspirations among girls.

As the research summarised here highlights, there are widespread and long-term positive externalities associated with the economic and political empowerment of women. Providing women with access to employment and financial resources is likely to improve their position within the household, and result in better education and less restrictive norms for future generations – creating a positive cycle of progress towards gender parity.


  1. However, there could be an adverse consequence to strengthening the economic position of women – Anderson and Genicot (2015) discovered that improved inheritance rights for women increased family conflict and was associated with an increased incidence of suicide.

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