How Social and Cultural Norms Affect Intra-household Decision-making

Early economic models of household decision making modelled households as “unitary” - a collective unit that pooled household resources and incomes, and maximised total household welfare. Over time, the literature has evolved to look at decision making in a household in the form of bargaining between multiple parties - with household outcomes depending, in part, on the relative bargaining power of different members. Self-reported data by female respondents in the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) shows that the poorer the country, the less likely it is that women have a say in household decisions about making 11 GENDER BI-ANNUAL 2022 ACADEMIC WORK large purchases. A similar pattern is seen for decision making in other spheres, such as whether they can visit family and friends.

Yet, welfare policies around the world often treat households as unitary, with benefits given to male-household heads or family planning interventions that assume couples have similar preferences on fertility. To design more effective policies, it is important to understand the differences in bargaining power within a household and what factors influence these differences. This article discusses some of the ways that social and cultural norms influence bargaining power and decision making within a household.

An important determinant of bargaining power within the household is gender relations, which determine how men and women are expected to behave within a household and outside it. These relations are a product of social and cultural norms. Women in countries across South Asia are restricted by patriarchal values and discriminatory social norms. The Gender Social Norms Index, which measures how social beliefs obstruct gender equality in areas like politics, work, and education, reveals that over 98% of people in India and Pakistan hold a bias against women in at least one of these areas.

Social norms affect bargaining and intra-household decision making by setting limits on what can be bargained for. Further, they can directly, and indirectly determine relative bargaining power and can themselves be a factor to be bargained over since social norms are subject to negotiation and change. Research in Central Africa has shown that women in matrilineal kinship systems (where inheritance is traced through female members) have greater bargaining power in the household, as compared to women in patrilineal systems (where inheritance is traced through male members).

Cultural norms often influence how marriage markets operate, which can further affect relations within households, and expectations from married women. Marriages in developing countries are mostly arranged by family members (95 percent or more marriages in South Asia are arranged), involve a transfer of resources between families at the time of marriage, and cultural norms about gender roles are strong determinants of spousal interactions.One would expect that women in arranged marriages have less decision-making power since they tend to occur at an earlier age and in traditional societies. Research in Pakistan and India has shown that women who have a say in choosing their spouses have greater autonomy in their marriages.Further, many cultures practise patrilocality, wherein a married couple lives with the husband’s parents. This relocation of women from their maternal home to a new family could also reduce their bargaining power since the inlaws continue to be a part of the household.

Yet, socio-cultural norms’ effects on intra-household decisionmaking don’t just work through the family structures. Current and lifetime earnings can have significant effects on household decision-making power. The DHS data on household decision making shows that women above the median wealth level in their country have more decisionmaking power in their household than those with wealth below the median. In developing countries, social norms can restrict women’s earning possibilities by discouraging or preventing them from working outside the home, limiting the types of jobs they may undertake, and limiting their mobility. While comparing data on labour force participation across South Asia is difficult, available comparisons show that employment rates for women are lower than what one would expect given South Asia’s economic development. In contrast, male employment rates tend to be as high as those in other developing countries. Gender norms can be a driver of the cross-country variation in female employment because they differ across societies for reasons unrelated to the current level of economic development.

So, what are the implications of household decision-making structures for policy design? Making policies without understanding the underlying household dynamics that drive interactions between household members could also have unintended consequences. An experiment in Zambia provided Cultural norms often influence how marriage markets operate, which can further affect relations within households, and expectations from married women. ACADEMIC WORK 12 GENDER BI-ANNUAL 2022 1. H Jayachandran, Seema. “The roots of gender inequality in developing countries.” economics 7, no. 1 (2015): 63-88. 2. “Tackling Social Norms - A Game Changer for Gender Inequalities (2020 Human Development Perspectives).” United Nations Development Programme, 2020. 3. Lowes, Sara. “Kinship systems, gender norms, and household bargaining: Evidence from the matrilineal belt.” JEL Classification D 13 (2016): N47. Anukriti, S., & Dasgupta, S. (2017). Marriage markets in developing countries. The Oxford Handbook of Women and the Economy, 97-120. 5. Hamid, Saima, Rob Stephenson, and Birgitta Rubenson. “Marriage decision making, spousal communication, and reproductive health among married youth in Pakistan.” Global health action, no. 1 (2011): 5079. Dasgupta, Shatanjaya. “Women’s Partner Choices and Gender Relations in India.” Indian Journal of Economics and Business 13, no. 3 (2014). 6. Friedberg, Leora, and Anthony Webb. “Determinants and consequences of bargaining power in households.” (2006). 7. Jayachandran, Seema. “The roots of gender inequality in developing countries.” economics 7, no. 1 (2015): 63-88. 8. Najeeb, Fatima, Matías Morales, and Gladys Lopez-Acevedo. “Analyzing female employment trends in South Asia.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 9157 (2020). 9. Jayachandran, Seema. “Social norms as a barrier to women’s employment in developing countries.” IMF Economic Review 69, no. 3 (2021): 576-595. 10. ashraf, Nava, Erica Field, and Jean Lee. “Household bargaining and excess fertility: an experimental study in Zambia.” American Economic Review 104, no. 7 (2014): 2210-37. 11. Ashraf, Nava. “Spousal control and intra-household decision making: An experimental study in the Philippines.” American Economic Review 99, no. 4 (2009): 1245-77. 12. Thomas, D. (1990). Intra-household resource allocation: An inferential approach. Journal of human resources, 635-664. Duflo, Esther. “Grandmothers and granddaughters: old‐age pensions and intrahousehold allocation in South Africa.” The World Bank Economic Review 17, no. 1 (2003): 1-25. 13 GENDER BI-ANNUAL 2022 access to contraceptives to women - in one condition, they asked only for a wife’s consent, and in one condition, they asked for consent from both the husband and the wife. While women who did not require the husband’s consent were more likely to access the contraceptives, they reported lower subjective well-being and increased household friction as a result of concealing the access from their husbands. Research on financial choices in the Philippines documents that information asymmetries interact with underlying household structures. Policies that provide information to only one party may create incentives for that party to take advantage of the changes in information created through the program.

It is important to account for asymmetries in decision-making power and the role of social norms. Greater decision-making power in a household for women can be an end in itself since it could increase their well-being by allowing them to bargain for what is good for them. What’s relevant from a policy perspective is that when women have more control over household resources, health and nutrition outcomes for children improve. Thus welfare policies targeted at women could be more effective than those that target male household heads, but at the same time might lead to unintended consequences depending on how they affect asymmetries in the household.

Acknowledging the role of social and cultural norms is important since gender norms tend to be sticky in the short run, and restrictive norms may persist across generations despite economic growth. Thus, welfare policies need to go hand-inhand with policies that get to the root of gender norms - the social, legal, and cultural institutions and gender attitudes that shape how women are expected to behave in a society.

Prerna Kundu is a PhD student in Economics at the University of British Columbia, and the Founder of Women in Econ/Policy. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender and social protection.

Prerna Kundu