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Chapter 4. Policy options: what works and what doesn't in leveling the gender playing field?

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

What are the policy options available to combat gender discrimination? What do we know about their effectiveness? What do we know about their distributional effects?

When preparing this workshop, we realized that in our first three workshops, we had been focusing on the problems women are facing in economics but not so much on the solutions. So what can we do?

Gender quotas

One relatively simple, quick and effective way of combating women's under-representation in leadership positions is the gender quota. It is often said that gender quotas trade-off equity with efficiency, but the literature does not confirm this. Baltrunaite, A., Bello, P., Casarico, A., Profeta, P. show that a quota barring both genders from making up more than 2/3 of the list for municipal elections increases the overall quality of the elected politicians as measured by education. Two channels are at play: first, more highly educated women are elected into office, and, second, fewer lowly educated men are elected into office. The result is robust to the use of an alternative quality measure. Similarly, Besley, Folke, Persson and Rickne find in "Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man" that a quota in the Swedish Social Democratic Party in 1993 raised men's competence politicians where it raised women representation the most. The authors argue that the most critical channel for this result was the resignation of mediocre men leaders. 

Baltrunaite et al. (2014)
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Besley et al. (2017)
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Why are quotas so contested? 

Because they are mean and unfair! Or: are they? Most of the time, when we change the rules of the game, there are winners and losers. When analyzing the gender balance in powerful positions, we can think of it as a zero-sum game. The total amount of power held in the world is relatively fixed (contrary to output as more gender-balanced allocation of responsibility may well lead to more output and thus is not zero-sum). Designing equal outcomes instead of equal opportunity can thus backfire and lead to women in powerful positions not being viewed as legitimate (think: 'quota women'). At the same time, what is 'equal opportunity' in real life? In the presence of prescriptive gender stereotypes and endogenous preferences (we will discuss this in greater detail in chapter 5), it can be tough to uncover whether something that looks like equal opportunity is equal opportunity. There is no easy solution to this, but ignoring reality's complexities will not produce an effective policy toolkit. 

Why is (a political) representation of women of particular importance? 

It is a well-known fact that politicians design "the rules of the game". If they cater the game to player of type A, then the player of type B that is different from type A might have a disadvantage and, in that case, be very unhappy about it. Having everyone's interests be represented at the state level should be a no-brainer. Any well-designed representation mechanism should mirror the population's group proportions at the executive level. However, as mentioned above, women's power must be perceived as legitimate, so restricting candidates, not elected politicians, is the way to go. 

Outside of the political context, it is also essential to pull more women into leadership positions with visibility. More job opportunities for women at the top translate into an increase in girls studying that subject because they see opportunities for themselves out there. This is an important mechanism showing why quotas in some contexts are powerful and low-cost compared to what they can achieve in the long-run - more girls aspiring to become leaders without any policy intervention that requires a deeper understanding of their particular struggle. 

What can we do in the meantime?

During our first roundtable, we talked about mechanisms that can help us overcome subconscious biases in the workplace (or deal with frustrations related to that). It was generally acknowledged that issues range from being interrupted in seminars or meetings, being explained something without asking for an explanation (also known as: 'mansplaining'), saying no to additional tasks and negotiating salaries on the job. Everyone deals with these situations differently. One strategy is to ignore microaggressions and just keep going. Another is to talk about them and seek support from friends and trusted colleagues or superiors. A mixed strategy in which you' pick your battles' might be advisable from an energy-saving perspective. Simultaneously, actively working on your resilience and practicing to say 'no, thank you' cannot hurt. Some people like meditation, others do a form of psychotherapy, whatever suits you, just go for it!

Why is women's labor force participation so low while educational attainment has improved? 

Globally, there are 64 women for every 100 men in the labor force. In India and Pakistan, there are only 28 working women for every 100 men. Kondylis & Loeser (2020) argue that policy effectiveness requires a deeper understanding of the forces shaping women's labor force participation. According to the authors, India has fared relatively worse than its neighbors due to a combination of demand (husband's wages and wage gaps, "gendered" jobs, role models) and supply-side (mobility constraints, education, norms and family, psychological traps ) forces. Subramanian (2020) uses a job search platform in urban Pakistan to study how jobs' characteristics affect women's decisions to apply. She finds that women are much more likely to apply to jobs with female supervisors. However, women only show a preference for jobs with female coworkers when they are primed to think about their family's attitudes towards workplace choice. This suggests that women's intentions might not overlap with their family's perspectives, which in turn may limit their choice.

Kondylis & Loeser (2020)
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Subramanian (2019)
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Do external constraints and expectations influence us?

In our second roundtable, we asked participants to reflect on their own family's expectations and how that influenced their path to becoming an economist. The answers were wide-ranging from 'my grandma has given up on me having kids and stuff' to 'gender norms did not play a role in my family and choice of career.' Some said they would not have chosen economics had they known how male-dominated it is. Others said they intentionally chose development because there were more women. Others wanted to study math but did not feel comfortable in that environment, so economics was a 'less bad' fallback option. There is considerable variation in experiences among our participants, and everyone's perspective adds a different layer to our understanding of the situation. This sharing session was in anticipation of our 5th workshop, where we discussed the role of sticky stereotypes in greater detail.

How to address subconscious biases?

Women should 'lean in' and 'negotiate more.' Or should they? Exley, Niederle and Vesterlund (2019) show that negotiations are not helpful for women in a setting where negotiating is generally payoff-relevant. Women' know when to ask' and avoid negotiations that lead to a negative profit. The result generally cautions against the popular push for women to negotiate more. 

Exley et al. (2019)
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In the ensuing discussion, it was mentioned that understanding how to articulate the skills we bring to the table profitably seems like 'a tightrope' between 'leaning in' and avoiding social backlash. According to one participant, the bias against 'agentic' women is real, and it is vital to learn to negotiate. The best way to do so is to use leverage, starting by being conscious of your skills and value-added and monitoring the market to know the alternatives. On the job market, negotiation skills are incredibly important, and the impression was that many of the men did a much better job negotiating than the women. 

The Apéro

Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Tineke Ritzema who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private. 


Baltrunaite, A., Bello, P., Casarico, A., & Profeta, P. (2014). Gender quotas and the quality of politicians. Journal of Public Economics, 118, 62-74.

Besley, Timothy, et al. (2017). Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden. American Economic Review 107(8), 2204-42.

Exley, Christine Linman, Muriel Niederle, and Lise Vesterlund (2019). Knowing when to ask: The cost of leaning-in. Forthcoming at the Journal of Political Economy.

Kondylis, Florence, and John Loeser (2020). 28%. WORLD BANK BLOG.

Subramanian, Nivedhitha (2020). Workplace Attributes and Women’s Labor Supply Decisions: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment

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