Gender discrimination in social norms: Measuring the invisible
Understanding gender-based discrimination
Despite significant progress, gender inequalities persist in all areas of social and economic life. The discrimination embedded in social institutions – laws, social norms and practices – is a key driver of this inequality, perpetuating gender gaps in education, employment and health, and hindering progress towards rights-based social transformation. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) measures such gender discrimination across 179 countries.
These particular forms of discrimination are often invisible. Yet, failing to address discriminatory laws, attitudes and stereotypes restricts the ability of women and girls to contribute to society and the economy.
Defining key terms
What are discriminatory social institutions?
Discriminatory social institutions are the complex web of formal and informal laws, social norms and practices that restrict women’s and girls’ access to rights, justice, empowerment opportunities and resources, undermining their agency and authority.
Women and unpaid work: The effects of gender discrimination
Discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes limit women’s professional agency. According to the SIGI 2023, half of the population globally (or 56%) thinks that when a mother works for pay, her children suffer. Women are often expected to undertake the majority of unpaid care and domestic work, limiting time available for education, training, or paid employment. This came into stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, when mitigation measures placed an unequal burden on women's domestic and unpaid care work.
Source note: This figure is based on data harnessed for the SIGI 2023. It takes into account population weight, and uses the 90 countries for which data are available. The figure is higher than that calculated for OECD countries alone, because unpaid care and domestic work is more unbalanced in developing countries.
Women hold just 25% of management positions globally, according to SIGI 2023.
The result of this systemic discrimination is widened gender gaps in labour market engagement and outcomes, including women’s overrepresentation in low-wage sectors, the informal economy or among part-time workers; as well as women’s underrepresentation in leadership and management.
The STEM gap: Gender stereotypes in education
The social norms lens of discrimination also helps us understand observed differences in the subjects young women and young men go on to study at school or pursue as a career.
Measuring gender discrimination in social norms is complex, and requires sex-disaggregated data on social attitudes and behaviours, as well as existing formal and informal laws.
Comprehensive, comparative data on institutional discrimination against women are key to understanding the scope of the problem, and helping governments develop evidence-based policy solutions.
The OECD Development Centre's SIGI is one such data source. It is used to assess whether legal frameworks are in place to promote, enforce and monitor gender equality and women’s empowerment, as codified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5.1.1.
The SIGI is a unique indicator that measures discriminatory social institutions across girls’ and women’s lifespan in four main areas: discrimination in the family, restricted physical integrity, restricted access to productive and financial resources, and restricted civil liberties. It also aims to address intersectionality, as women are not a homogeneous group.
These data underpin the OECD's work with key partners and countries to produce global and regional reports, country studies, and actionable policy recommendations.
Policy in action
Masculinity and social norms
How can a focus on men and boys shift gender discrimination?
As discrimination in social institutions affects everyone, concepts of masculinity should be central to policy conversations.
This is why recent OECD research has examined masculinity, which encompasses shared ideas about what men do and who men are, as well as what men should do and be. This research focused on identifying norms of "restrictive" masculinities that restrain women’s empowerment and rights, and explained how they could be turned into more gender-equitable ones to support women’s empowerment.
But there are ongoing debates around how to best involve men and boys in programmes that seek to transform social norms in alliance with women and girls, and the policies that can best support these efforts.
One approach, for example, could focus efforts on enabling both women and men to take parental leave, on the basis that engaging men and boys in a fairer distribution of unpaid care and domestic tasks could help shift mind-sets and practices.
Gender norms and leadership
Can quotas change attitudes about women in politics?
On average, 62% of the African population believes that men make better political leaders than women. While significant debate remains around the use of quotas to shift the balance of gender representation in both the public and private sector, quotas can help change the status quo where rigid gender norms restrict women’s ability to become political leaders.
On average, women’s representation in the parliaments of African countries with quotas of any kind is 10 percentage points higher than in those that do not have quotas.
African countries that have adopted quotas for women include:
Chad: Established a progressive quota of 30% for women’s representation in elected office
Guinea-Bissau: Requires a minimum of 36% women candidates on party lists for national and municipal elections
Djibouti: Increased the quota for women from at least 10% to at least 25% in elected positions and state administration
South Sudan: Quotas for women’s representation in the executive and legislative branches, as well as commissions and ministerial positions
Rwanda: Grants 30% of posts in decision-making bodies to women