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Surprising insights from a global study on perceptions of gender norms

SIEPR’s Alessandra Voena and her co-authors find a rift between what people believe and what they think others believe about certain policies meant to empower women.

Not long ago, a team of researchers made a startling discovery about attitudes toward women in Saudi Arabia. Most young married men in the country were privately in favor of women working outside of the home but mistakenly believed that a majority of their peers were not.

After being told that most married men in their age range actually support women’s employment, they became more willing to help their own wives look for work — and women were more likely to take on higher-paying jobs.

Those findings, published in the American Economic Review in 2020, raised an intriguing question: Was the disconnect between how views toward women were perceived, versus what they actually were, limited to Saudi Arabia? Or is it pervasive worldwide?

Turns out, Saudi Arabia is the rule — not the exception — when it comes to what people think others’ attitudes about gender policies are and what those attitudes truly are, according to a new global study by Stanford economist Alessandra Voena and a team of researchers that included authors from the Saudi Arabia experiment.

“Misperceptions of gender norms are ubiquitous across the globe,” says Voena, an economics professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

In the new paper, released by the National Bureau of Economic Policy Research, Voena and her co-authors analyze gender views in 60 countries representing 85 percent of the world’s population. They find that people worldwide often misjudge what others think about certain policies supporting women and what the majority opinion actually is.

Men and women, for example, are often believed to be on opposite sides of gender issues, such as whether women should have an advantage in hiring for leadership positions in government and business. The study data suggest that such perceptions are wrong: Men and women are much more aligned than people think.

And though the study’s overall results show that, across the world, both genders support issues around women’s rights to a much higher degree than conventional wisdom holds, the evidence suggests, too, that women tend to be less supportive, and men, more supportive than most people think.

The patterns uncovered in the study are so pervasive, Voena and her co-authors write, that they suggest that policies aimed at closing the gender gap — or the absences of such policies — may not reflect what people actually want.

The findings, Voena says, have important implications for efforts to design policies that narrow the gender gap.

“We are not saying that we have to get rid of these misperceptions,” she says. “But if a goal of policymakers is to promote gender equality, it’s useful to know as an initial step that we as a society are more progressive than people think and that maybe we should be acting according to those more progressive views.”

What you think, what others think

How is it that people are getting public opinion so wrong? Research since at least the early 1930s has consistently shown that people often misread societal attitudes — and that those miscalculations shape their behavior. In the context of gender issues, Voena and her co-authors suggest that misperceptions exist for a number of reasons. These include outdated gender stereotypes as well as the tendency for minority views to get outsized attention in the media and elsewhere.

“It also takes a while for people to learn that views change,” says Voena, pointing to human psychology as another reason.

For their study, the researchers — who include Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago; Alexander Cappelen and Bertil Tungodden, both of The Norwegian School of Economics; and, David Yanagizawa-Drott of the University of Zurich — relied primarily on a Gallup World Poll conducted in 60 countries in late 2020 and early 2021.

The roughly 66,000 participants were asked to weigh in on one of two questions. The first is whether women have the right to work outside of the home. The other is whether government and businesses should prioritize women when hiring for leadership roles. They were asked for their personal views on the issue and also their sense for what men and women in their country separately think about it.

The researchers also used the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index — which looks at women in the labor market and in politics, among other measures — to show how actual and perceived views relate to the level of gender equality in each country.

The study’s results are striking. While the paper includes findings for all 60 countries, two countries — the Netherlands and Zimbabwe — reveal just how stark the disconnect between perceptions and reality can be.

In the Netherlands — ranked by the U.N. as one of the world’s most gender-equal countries — men and women both overestimate the level of support for giving women an advantage in hiring for leadership roles in government and business, Voena and her collaborators find. But it’s Dutch women who miscalculate the most: They predict that 62 percent of their female peers support the policy, when only 35 percent actually do.

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, ranks at the low end of gender equality, according to the U.N. On the issue of the right of women to work outside the home, the researchers find that men and women underestimate the overall level of support for the policy. But the underestimation is most severe among men: Zimbabwean men estimate that only 37 percent of male peers are in favor of it. In reality, 72 percent are.

“The patterns we see in the Netherlands and in Zimbabwe turn out to be pretty typical of many countries around the world,” Voena says.

Separately, the researchers also show that when people overestimate or underestimate gender norms at the national level, they do so at the local level, too. By informing people that they miscalculate what others within their own communities believe, this can lead them to not only correct their misperceptions but also perhaps change their individual behaviors — similar to what the Saudi Arabia study found.

“Progress on changing actual gender norms can take decades,” she says, “but simply informing people that their perceptions of those norms are wrong could be a very effective way to make meaningful progress far more quickly.”