Social norms and gender equality: The potential for social transformation and women’s empowerment – Women Deliver

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June 11, 2018 Gaëlle Ferrant and Léa Fuiret OECD Development Centre

Social norms and gender equality: The potential for social transformation and women’s empowerment


Photo credit: Les Enfants de Bam

Gender equality is still a long way away.

Policy-makers and researchers have increasingly turned attention and resources to closing gender gaps in key economic and social indicators. Since the Beijing call for action in 1995, there have been impressive improvements: the share of women in paid employment outside of the agricultural sector has increased from 35% (1990) to 41% (2015); gender parity in primary education has been achieved in five of the nine so-called developing regions (MDG Monitor, 2016).

However, the promise of gender equality remains unfulfilled. While more and more girls are going to school, this has not been translated into equal opportunities in the labour market. Despite accounting for 41% of the global labour force, women generate only 37%  of global GDP due to their  overrepresentation in part-time jobs and low-productivity sectors (Mc Kinsey, 2015); the gender pay gap stands at 23% globally (UN Women, 2018). Women’s rights are still denied in some countries: every year, 15 million girls under the age of 18 are forced into marriage; 200 million women have undergone female genital mutilation; only 52% of women married or in a union freely make their own decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and health care (UN Women, 2018).


What are discriminatory social institutions?

Social institutions influence decisions, choices and behaviours of groups, communities and individuals. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct) and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights) (North, 1990).

Discriminatory social institutions are formal and informal laws, social norms and practices that restrict women’s and girls’ rights, access to empowerment opportunities and resources (OECD, 2014).



Why is progress towards gender equality so slow?

The Millennium Development Goals experience (2000-2015) demonstrated that focusing attention and resources on gender disparities in outcomes, such as in education and employment, fails to produce the social transformation needed to achieve gender equality (Kabeer, 2005). We must therefore strengthen data collection efforts to better understand the root causes of gender inequality and to eliminate such persistent discrimination.

Discriminatory social institutions that restrict women’s access to opportunities, resources and power explain slow progress towards gender equality. They influence collective understanding of what are acceptable attitudes and behaviours for women and men (Elson, 1991) and can either drive processes of social change or act as brakes and barriers to such processes (ODI, 2014):

  • Gender disparities in the labour market are to a large extent attributable to deeply entrenched stereotypes that restrain women to caregiving and men to breadwinning (OECD, 2014). On account of gendered social norms that view unpaid domestic and care work as a female prerogative, women globally two to ten times more time than men to these activities. And where this gap is more pronounced, gender gaps in labour force participation rates are wider, quality of female employment is poorer and the gender pay gap is larger.
  • Regarding female genital mutilation, criminalisation and law enforcement are essential, but not enough. In Burkina Faso, where the practice has been outlawed since 1996, it still affects 63% of women today. Entrenched acceptance by communities undermines progress: four in five men are in favour of its elimination. Yet, half of them would prefer to marry a woman who has been cut, and prevalence is higher in areas where acceptance is more common (OECD, 2018).

What is the SIGI?

The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) is a cross-country measure of gender-based discrimination in formal and informal laws, social norms and practices.

It is comprised of three main components: Country profiles containing comprehensive qualitative information on legal, cultural, and traditional laws and practices that discriminate against women and girls;  the Gender, Institutions and Development Database (GID-DB) comprising indicators on gender discrimination in social institutions; and the Index classifying countries according to their level of discrimination in social institutions.

The SIGI enables policy makers and development practitioners to better understand and eliminate structural barriers to gender equality. It assesses social institutions holistically by looking at the de jure (legal) and the de facto (actual) situation. It combines information on legal discrimination as well as discriminatory social norms (attitudinal data) and practices (prevalence rates).

The SIGI offers data for monitoring all gender-related Sustainable Development Goals and is an official data source for SDG 5.1.1, measuring whether legal frameworks promote, monitor and enforce gender equality and women’s empowerment.



Putting social institutions at the core of policies promoting gender equality can achieve new and sustainable results.

  • Closing the legal loopholes that weaken women’s rights and perpetuate gender inequalities is a first step. Harmonising customary laws with national laws as well as ensuring women’s legal literacy and implementation of laws and policies is critical.
  • Gender-neutral laws and policies are essential but not enough to guaranteeing equality. Constitutional and other legal protections do not suffice to protect women’s rights and empowerment opportunities due to discrimination in social institutions.
  • Design holistic gender-responsive policies to tackle discrimination across a woman’s life would ensure efficiency of actions. Discriminatory social institutions interact within a complex matrix that reinforces gender inequalities and compound women’s deprivation and marginalisation. It is therefore important to put a woman’s life course at the centre of action, to break the cycle of inequality.
  • Greater investments are needed to bridge the data gaps. Ongoing international and national efforts to fill data gaps and harmonise statistical standards are promising. Mainstreaming sex-disaggregated statistics across all areas, incorporating gender dimensions into socio-economic surveys and carrying out better dedicated surveys are fundamental for tracking change and designing appropriate policies.


The data challenge

Measuring social norms is challenging for two reasons: first, because of a widely held perception that social norms are unquantifiable; second, because data collection across countries is too patchy to be meaningful for a global average.

However, the SIGI has shown that social norms can be measured, and that tracking progress on efforts to tackle the drivers of inequality is feasible across all regions, irrespective of levels of development. The innovation brought by the SIGI is the use of attitudinal and prevalence data, to capture socially transformative changes and estimate the level of gender-based discrimination in social norms.

Since the launch of the SIGI in 2009, data sources on discriminatory social institutions have been gradually improving. For example, more attitudinal data are available, such as in the area of attitudes regarding domestic violence (see Demographic Health Surveys). In addition, comparability and reliability have been improved, courtesy of international guidelines and standardisation of data collection methodologies.

Finally, SIGI country studies offer policy-makers and development practitioners evidence-based analysis and policy recommendations to tackle discriminatory social institutions and promote gender equality at the national and sub-national levels. These studies aim also at strengthening national statistical capacities and transferring expertise on how to measure discriminatory social norms. Through data collection activities, SIGI country studies also improve their availability and comparability across countries.



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