The Puggle: August 2017 Edition

Welcome to the August installment of The Puggle, where the Echidna Giving team highlights emerging issues and findings related to girls’ education. In the early days of September there is always a rush to get stuff done, and we find ourselves longing for the dog days of summer when we got to read and reflect and ponder the awesomeness of the universe.

August offered plenty of great material, including a collection of essays from the Center for Universal Education on Meaningful Education in Times of Uncertainty; a new book by Echidna Global Scholar Urvashi Sanhi on Reaching for the Sky: Empowering Girls Through Education; and two interesting pieces from the NYTimes on how students learn best: A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry and Britain Turns to Chinese Textbooks to Improve Its Math Scores.

Perhaps more than any other reading material from the month, though, we were intrigued by the "It's Not a Women's Issue” of Scientific American, which argues that "everybody has a stake in the new science of sex and gender.” In this installment of the Puggle we’ll dive in on key lessons from that issue and related material.

First, we learned that gender differences that seem biological are deeply influenced by cultural norms. This article makes the case that "'In humans, the fact that you're raised as a particular gender from the instant that you're born of itself exerts a biological impact on your brain'…plasticity, the way the brain changes in response to experience, drives sex differences in behavior more than hardwired biology does." This means that, as argued here, "when culture changes--creating a very different pattern of rewards, punishments, norms and consequences, compared with those in the past--so, too, will patterns of sex differences in behavior."

Furthermore, the process of cultural hardwiring starts very young. This article suggests that "By about 18 months toddlers begin to understand gendered words such as 'girl' or 'man' and associate those words with sex-matched faces. By 24 months children know of sex stereotypes (such as associating women with lipstick), and before their third birthday nearly all kids label themselves and others with gender labels that match their sex." These early gender identities also shape perceptions of what girls are capable of. As described here, "by age six, girls were less likely than boys to think that members of their gender are 'really, really smart,'" which in turn subtly nudges girls away from careers that are commonly perceived to rely on brilliance.

Given these findings, it’s comforting to know that cultural norms are malleable. For instance, government policies can shift them: India’s quota for female positions in local government helped to weaken gender stereotypes and increase the aspirations of girls. New economic roles for women can also change norms. As Graça Machel argues, "When women participate in the job market and engage actively in business or political decision-making, patriarchal power dynamics shift, elevating the social status of women. Economic equality also challenges accepted beliefs, and dispels harmful myths that perpetuate narrow definitions of gender norms. In other words, bringing more women into the workplace leads to an emancipation of mindset – in men and women alike."

And norms shift based on economic incentives. Here is one powerful example: a famous safari lodge in Botswana hired exclusively women guides based on "the bottom line...Simply put, the women were better drivers. They were saving the company money."

A recent piece from Data2x linking theory and practice on social norms reminds us that changing social norms also requires removing “the economic and legal circumstances that contribute to sustaining harmful practices and behaviors." For example, this article describes how enabling women to participate in the job market may require relieving them from their traditional duties of childcare and housework.

Of course we also believe that education has a role to play in shifting norms as the diagrams on the right suggest. But we cannot assume that education will play this role, since it can equally help to reproduce societal norms. That’s why we’re fans of disaggregating the impact of programs by sex and were excited to see that a recent policy brief and accompanying blog post from J-PAL on getting children into school does just that. We’ve worked with grantees to think about the gender impact of their work in ways akin to these eight Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality and wonder whether gender equality standards can also help chip away at harmful social norms? Share your thoughts in the comments below.