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Unspoken barriers constrain women’s economic opportunities

April 24, 2019

Social norms can have an inordinate influence in the trajectories of women’s lives — they create informal barriers, especially in terms of the type of paid work women can do. However, because these norms are understudied, there is scarce evidence about how best to address them.

It may be difficult to fight an invisible obstacle, but one thing is clear: policies and programs that promote changes to harmful norms can make a big difference.

Spotlight on social and gender norms

Social norms are unspoken assumptions that a community shares about a variety of behaviours. Fueled by social interaction, norms usually reflect what the community considers acceptable. Members who try to operate outside these “rules” can experience harsh social consequences. 

Gender norms are a subset of social norms that often interact with social status norms like class, caste, and race. They focus on how people of a particular gender are expected to behave, and can amplify gender-based inequalities.

The Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program — a partnership between IDRC, the UK’s Department for International Development, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — funded 14 research projects in some 50 low-income countries that, despite it not being their formal intention, yielded considerable evidence about how social and gender norms affect women’s economic opportunities. 


  • Some of the most persistent norms concern the suitability of jobs for women.
  • Norms are not formally articulated — they are enforced through gossip or intimidation.
  • Fear of sexual and gender-based violence prevents many women from working.
  • At times norms can be flexible: in some contexts, women have successfully defied restrictive norms.
  • More study is needed for sustainable change to harmful norms.

Stubborn norms about work

A key characteristic of norms is their persistence — and some are “stickier” than others. Norms that concern gender divisions of labour and care work seem to have staying power, including those that limit women’s mobility and access to public spaces and norms around which jobs are considered suitable for women. On the other hand, in some contexts norms related to education have already evolved quite a bit, possibly because of improved government policies.

However, GrOW studies have found that better education for girls and women has not automatically translated to better jobs. There are many reasons for this fact: for one, social and gender norms in some places prevent women from doing paid work outside of their communities, or even outside of their homes. This norm is more pronounced in certain parts of the world, such as South Asia.

Yet even in highly restrictive societies, economic necessity can override the pressure for women to conform to traditional roles. To confuse the matter even more, norms for highly educated women with higher earning power also tend to be more flexible.

Respectability, household work, and marriage

Norms about whether women should work are often tangled up with cultural values about respectability and decorum. For example, concern that going out alone could spark gossip or affect their reputation may discourage women from working — or motivate men to prevent them from working.

I can’t go anywhere alone. I have to go everywhere with my husband

Shazia Bibi, a seamstress in rural Pakistan

Norms about contact between men and women can be problematic, and those that restrict women’s mobility can stop them from working. The attire required for certain jobs, such as mining, may also contravene norms for appropriate dress.

On top of that, norms that assign the vast majority of unpaid household work and childcare to women restrict their mobility and leave them no time for paid work. In places where child marriage and child labour are socially acceptable, these practices prevent women from achieving a level of education that could lead to high-quality or well-paid work.

These forms of social intimidation can be just as powerful as oppressive rules and laws.

Fears of violence can keep women from working

Norms that silently permit sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) also limit women’s opportunities by making them justifiably fearful of certain workplaces or of taking public transit. This is a global issue, but the prevalence of rape or intimate partner violence is much worse in some places, notably Africa and Asia.

Prevalence of GBV worldwide

The link between partner abuse and paid work is difficult to understand. For example, increased intimate partner violence is associated with women’s paid work in certain countries (including in Latin America and East Africa) and sectors (such as agriculture), but not necessarily in others. The subject needs more research.

90% of women bus riders have experienced sexual harassment and 82% have been harassed at a bus stop.

Attitudes about gender may evolve

There is some evidence that as national incomes rise, gender norms may ease and attitudes may become less confining for women. Studies have also found cases where women have defied restrictive norms with some success — but it’s not yet clear whether this defiance leads to long-term change.

For example, in Central and East Africa, women are dramatically under-represented in higher-paying mining jobs, and even actively barred from sites at certain times. But one study found that they were beginning to break into higher-paying roles with support from male peers, and there have even been reports of all-female mining teams.

More to discover about harmful norms

Social norms are often the most poorly understood factor in research and policies designed to enhance women’s economic empowerment, but it’s clear that they matter. What is less known is how they are maintained, how they change, why they change in some contexts but not others, and what backlash may arise.

Overall, better data and more in-depth, policy-oriented research are needed to support new solutions. We need to know more about:

  • The links between laws and social norms
  • Whether incentives can lead to lasting gender norm change
  • Norms about asset ownership and their effect on women’s entrepreneurship
  • How men’s attitudes affect women’s economic empowerment
  • How conflicts and post-conflict dynamics affect norms
  • How support for women’s groups or access to childcare services may change norms

Always implicit, highly prescriptive, and sometimes malleable, social and gender norms play a lead role in shaping women’s economic empowerment. Gaining a better understanding of these issues may help ensure sustainable change for women, their families, and their communities.

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