Social Norms and Participation of Women in Work

I was a guest speaker in the International Workshop on Social Norms, Gender and Sanitation Behaviour at IRMA on February 1, 2022. The discussion was on perspectives from the volume edited by Indranil De, Shyam Singh and Shilpi Smita Panda titled Social Norms, Gender and Collective Behaviour Development Paradigms in India. The Panelists in the session were Vibhuti Patel, Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Jeemol Unni, Professor, Ahmedabad University, Gujarat, Mangla Sunramanian, Professor, Purdue University, USA, and Sonal Zaveri, Founder and Board Member, Community of Evaluators South Asia and Regional Coordinator, Gender and Equity Network South Asia. Here are my thoughts on the book as presented at the Workshop. You can listen to the video recording of the workshop here. My views can be heard from 33:00 to 49:00 minutes in the recording.

The book, raised an interesting set of gender issues on the impact of social norms on work and sanitation. Since I am most familiar with the issue of women’s work participation I will confine myself to this topic. The study is based on cases of women in six villages in three different states of India, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. The study uses the framework of social norms suggested by Bicchieri (2012), in a lecture on ‘Social norms, social change’.

Women’s work participation is low in India, more so in urban areas. Economics uses the utility framework to study whether women in a society participate in the workforce or not. It is explained in terms of the income and substitution effects. The substitution effect implies that when the education level of women rise, the opportunity cost of her staying at home rises and so she enters the labour market. The income effect implies that when the household income or income of the husband rises, social norms or social prestige demand that women stay at home. This framework assumes the male bread winner model and hence women withdraw from the labour market, women’s work participation falls.

Whether women in a society work or not depends on whether the positive substitution effect or negative income effect is stronger. Women’s work participation rises if the substitution effect is stronger. Decline in women’s work participation has been observed in India over the last few decades. It appears that the negative income effect is stronger in India. Even this hard core economic utility framework considers the impact of social norms. Whether women withdraw from the work force is based on social norms on what is expected from women in the society. That is it is based on the collective behaviour of the society. This is also the impact of the patriarchal form of society.

The study in question, using the Bicchieri framework, presents four types of collective behaviour.

Custom: is a habitual pattern of behaviour. Women do not participate in work on the factual belief that it is more important to take care of the household and children.

Moral norm: is rule of behaviour that individuals conform to. Unlike custom, moral norms are followed as a sense of duty and obligation rather than in a sense of self interest.

Descriptive norm: a pattern of behaviour to which individuals prefer to conform on condition that most people in their reference network also do so. Fashion, fads, table manners are descriptive norms. Rajput women do not work and tribal women work is part of a descriptive norm. Descriptive norms change over time.

Social norm are socially conditioned. They are rules of behaviour that individuals prefer to conform to on condition that they believe more people in the reference network conform to (empirical expectation) and most people in their reference network believe that they ought to conform to it (normative expectation).

Compliance of norms is also backed up by belief of threat of sanctions. When women go out to work, the negative sanction for not conforming to social norms could be displeasure to actual punishment. However, positive sanctions are also possible, if it is seen that women’s work reduces financial stress of the household. Or in societies that see that women are dynamic, confident and hardworking, and motivate daughters to be self-dependent.

In the case of social norms, actions of individuals are inter-dependent on others expectations and approval. Therefore, change in the norm would require collective changes of both the empirical expectations and the normative expectations. This will clearly be a slow process. The first movers in this change will face a lot of challenges.

The advantage of this categorisation of norms or of collective behaviour is that the policy design would need to be different. Identifying whether non-participation in work by women is due to custom, moral, descriptive or social norm is essential for designing policies for change. It non-work is due to custom, this may change if the custom is found to be useless. It women do not participate due to social norms, then change would require collective action as the entire reference network category would need to change its rules of behaviour. Obviously this is a more difficult proposition.

Political Action: Can political action change social norms or rules of collective behaviour? In January 2021 Kamala Hasan’s political party in Tamil Nadu promised salary to housewives. This was followed by other political parties in Tamil Nadu before the state elections. This can be considered a way of recognising the social reproduction work of women. Could it have a positive or negative effect on work participation of women?

Statistical Definitions: Traditional definition of work is ‘work for gain or profit’, which excludes social reproduction work. This leads to undervaluation of the caring and nurturing roles of women in the household. The new 19th ICLS, ILO has created a broader more gender sensitive definition of work, including ‘paid’ and ‘unpaid’ activities to produce goods and services. Five activities constitute work:

  1. Production for own use
  2. Production for others for pay or profit.
  3. For use of others NOT for pay or profit including
  4. Unpaid trainee work
  5. Other unpaid work’
  6. Volunteer work.

The Indian Statistical Office is working on a pilot survey incorporating this new definition of work.

Judicial Framework: Vibhuti Patel pointed out that women’s work and value of the work can be seen from a judicial framework as well. Prabha Kotiswaran has recorded many judicial discussions in the Supreme Court and High Courts of the country on estimating the value of women’s unpaid work. The discussion was in the context of compensation to be paid by insurance companies in the case of death of a woman.

The questions I pose are:

  1. Will the announcement of political parties to pay salaries to housewives improve the status of social reproduction work of women? By changing the social norm? And then in the second round lead to increase in women’s work participation?
  2. Will measurement based system of the National Statistical Office accounting for work of women help to improve women’s work participation? Or at least improve counting of women’s work. Will it help change the social norms with regarding to reporting work of women?
  3. Will the discussions in the judicial system have an influence on improving the value of work and status of women?
  4. Do we still have to find a way to change social norms thorough collective action? This may be a more difficult route.

The final question, whether you take the social norms framework, statistical framework, the political framework or the judicial framework is: How to design policy to improve women’s work participation in India? Social norms remains a major factor to contend with no matter which framework is used to design policies.


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