Economics 101: Helping men to help women work in Saudi Arabia

The issue remains complex, and perceptions about how socially acceptable it is for women to work surely play a role

A Saudi woman poses for a photograph with her Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) automobile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Lifting the ban on driving is likely to increase the number of women seeking jobs and could add about $90 billion to economic output by 2030 -- as much income as plans to sell shares in the national oil company. Photographer: Maya Anwar/Bloomberg
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Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world.

The government recently took a step toward raising that figure by legally allowing women to drive. Yet the issue remains complex, and perceptions about how socially acceptable it is for women to work surely play a role. A new study shows that Saudi society is changing faster than people think, and that simply demonstrating to men how supportive other men are of women working can make a significant contribution to female labour force participation.

Economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Alessandra Gonzalez (both University of Chicago, US), and David Yanagizawa-Drott (University of Zurich, Switzerland) conducted field research in Saudi Arabia for a report, sponsored in part by the kingdom's Human Resources Development Fund, aimed at improving our understanding of women’s low contribution to the labour force. Saudi Arabia’s laws and social customs mean that in the case of married women, the husband plays a pivotal role in determining whether or not the woman seeks employment. Accordingly, the researchers focused their study on assessing the views of married Saudi males. They then explored techniques for modifying those views, and investigated the effects of doing so.

Before we describe their findings, we need to understand the concept of “pluralistic ignorance”, which the researchers conjectured was impeding female labour force participation in Saudi Arabia. Humans are, for the most part, conformists, meaning that they don’t like to hold views that differ from others. Moreover, in the event that a person’s view differs from others, that person will usually try to conceal it to avoid being stigmatised by peers, meaning that the person will act as if they believe what others believe.

This is one of the reasons why pollsters failed so catastrophically to predict US President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential elections: social norms made people conceal their support for Mr Trump, undermining researchers’ ability to assess his true popularity.

If people’s beliefs about societal views are wrong, however, this opens up the possibility of “pluralistic ignorance", whereby a majority of people privately disagree with a social norm but act as if they agree with it because they, incorrectly, believe that other people actually agree with the norm. The result is a self-fulfilling social norm born out of ignorance.

For example, a UK citizen on the eve of the 2016 Brexit vote who personally supported leaving the EU may have feared stigmatisation from expressing such views openly because they overestimated the number of people who supported remaining in the EU. If a new referendum was held today, now that people realise how widespread support for Brexit is, they will probably happily declare their views truthfully when asked by journalists or pollsters.

Naturally, the likelihood of pluralistic ignorance is higher in societies that are rapidly changing, as that raises the possibility of people making errors in their assessments of the views other people.


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Mr Bursztyn and his colleagues conducted an anonymous online survey on 500 young, married Saudi males living in Riyadh and found that 87 per cent agreed with the statement: “In my opinion, women should be allowed to work outside of the home.” The same people were then paid to correctly guess how others responded to the same question; the researchers found that approximately 75 per cent underestimated the strength of support for female labour force participation, suggesting the possibility of pluralistic ignorance.

After completing the survey, the men were then offered a choice of either receiving an additional bonus payment, or signing their wives up for a job matching mobile application specialising in the Saudi female labour market. Crucially, a randomly selected group of men was told about the actually high levels of support for women working emerging from the survey before they chose between the two options. This group was 36 per cent more likely to select the app, suggesting that learning the truth made them more comfortable with the idea of their wives working.

Mr Bursztyn and his colleagues followed up with the married couples several months later, and they found that signing up for the app was not just a superficial gesture. Wives of men who were told about the 87 per cent level of support for women working were significantly more likely to have applied for jobs outside the home, and to have successfully secured an interview. There was also a modest increase in the likelihood of actually having a job.

What does this research teach us? First, male attitudes toward women working outside the home are still an important determinant of female labour force participation in Saudi Arabia. Second, male attitudes may be based on erroneous beliefs about the degree of societal support for women working: men underestimate how many people actually find it acceptable. Finally, an intervention as inexpensive as revealing the true levels of support can have a significant and sustained positive effect on female labour force participation.

This last conclusion is particularly important for policymakers, who usually try to get women into the labour force via expensive and disruptive structural labor market reforms. As Confucius remarked: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.