deshpande2_INDRANIL MUKHERJEEAFP via Getty Images_indiafemaleworker Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

Are Social Norms Really the Main Cause of Low Female Employment?

The proportion of women in paid work remains very low in India, despite the economy experiencing high rates of growth and rapid poverty reduction over the last two decades. New research suggests that policymakers must create conditions for female employment before spending immense sums on efforts to change cultural norms.

NEW DELHI – In China, the painful custom of binding young girls’ feet to alter their shape began in the tenth century and continued for a millennium, until it was outlawed in 1911. Although the practice did not truly end until the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, by 1990 China’s female labor-force participation rate had climbed to 73% – well above the OECD average.

In fifteenth-century Europe, women started wearing corsets, often reinforced with wood, bone, or even metal, designed to mold the upper body into a V-shape. Comfortable clothing that was easier to move in came into fashion only over the course of the twentieth century. And yet today, several European countries have the highest rankings in terms of gender parity across various dimensions.

Both practices – binding women’s feet and constricting their waists – started among the aristocracy before spreading to the middle and lower classes. Given this trajectory, it is not surprising that adherence to beauty norms made it difficult for women to participate in economic or productive work.