Gender equality pays dividends all round

| Jane Zhang 6 Mar 2019

As we all know, International Women's Day aims to raise awareness about the struggles of women the world over and to honor their achievements.

While we are still fighting hard for equal pay for women and more female representation at executive levels, we often overlook the role that gender norms - standards and expectations to which women and men generally conform - play in obstructing women from realizing their potential.

Instilled and internalized early in life, gender norms can establish expectations that limit what women can or should do.

Experimental research has shown that women are less willing to compete than men, leading young women to choose less lucrative areas of specialization in school; women are also less likely to negotiate their job offers.

However, studies also demonstrate that when women are asked to negotiate on behalf of someone else and to compete for the benefit of their children, the gender gap disappears.

Women tend to compete less not because they are incapable, but because being competitive does not conform with gender norms.

These perceived norms are hurting women in marriages as well.

In the United States, women who earn more than their husbands have lower marital satisfaction, and do more housework than women who earn less than their husbands, possibly as compensation for violating gender roles that promote the husband as breadwinner and the wife as homemaker.

History tells us that gender norms can change when the labor market becomes more gender equal.

As more women started to outearn their husbands, fewer people (both men and women!) supported the statement that "it's generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than his wife" - a decrease from 40 percent in 1997 to 28 percent in 2013.

Governments can also influence gender norms by implementing more gender-equal policies.

My research finds that reforms starting in the 1950s in China that reduced gender inequality in education and the labor market, and increased women's autonomy in marriage decisions have changed gender norms.

Specifically, they have increased young women's willingness to compete.

Today, many countries are directly targeting the lack of female representation in high-ranking positions, particularly on corporate boards.

Norway has set a quota of 40 percent; the UK aims for one third of top positions in FTSE 350 companies to be filled by women by the end of 2020.

And in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has called on corporations to appoint more females as board members.

Government-initiated policies can change norms by changing values, beliefs, and preferences.

When women are not judged negatively for seizing opportunities and competing against peers for educational and career prizes, when it pays for women to bargain as hard for themselves as they would for others, and when couples celebrate increases in household income, regardless of who earns more, we may start to see a society where the most important positions are filled by the most competent, regardless of gender.

HKUST experts have their fingers on the pulse of a new age of science, technology and innovation

Assistant Professor, Division of Social Science, HKUST

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