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Breaking down barriers to women’s employment

King Center Postdoctoral Fellow Madeline McKelway studied how an intervention designed to increase women’s self confidence in rural India affected their likelihood of employment.
Gender and Equity

Madeline McKelway was in the process of studying intra-household constraints to women’s employment in rural India as part of her PhD economics research when she began to wonder if—in addition to the social and normative barriers women face, such as lack of support from their husbands or in-laws—women are less likely to take jobs outside the home for psychological reasons.

Madeline Mckelway
Maddie McKelway

To examine that question, she designed an experiment involving more than 1,000 women in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India, a country where only 20 percent of women work outside the home (compared to 46 percent in other low- and middle-income countries). Partnering with a company seeking to hire and retain women as carpet weavers, she studied whether an intervention designed to raise women’s generalized self-efficacy (GSE)—a belief in an ability to reach one’s goals—would increase labor force participation. She also showed the women and some of the women’s families a video promotion about the carpet weaving opportunity.

Working outside the home “could be life changing for these households—it could mean a child gets to go to school or gets better nutrition,” McKelway explains. “So it was puzzling to me why women in these households weren’t taking up this employment opportunity.”

McKelway, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Stanford King Center on Global Development, first became interested in development economics as a high school student in Virginia. She signed up for an international baccalaureate economics class taught by a former World Bank consultant thinking she would learn more about the stock market. Instead, the class was all about development.

McKelway was hooked.

“I had always really liked math,” she says. “And I liked the idea that you could apply that kind of formal and rigorous line of reasoning to social variables.”

As an undergraduate student at Duke University, McKelway studied economics and global health. That’s why, as a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the chance to study how psychological factors might affect women’s employment in India was exciting.

So far she has described her findings in two draft papers and a piece for Vox Dev; the results, she says, are “fascinating.”

Signups for the carpet weaving employment program increased by nearly five percent among women who received the psychosocial intervention designed to raise their GSE; those women were also more likely to accept other jobs outside their homes up to six months after the experiment began. Women who watched the promotional video but did not receive the intervention experienced similar results. Interestingly however, women who received the psychosocial intervention and whose family members watched the promotional video were less likely to accept employment. McKelway speculates that, in that scenario, women’s increased GSE led them to advocate against something their husbands and in-laws wanted them to do.

“Perhaps by making family members more enthusiastic about the financial value of the program, the promotion made women expect to have less control over their earnings if they participated,” she writes in one of the draft papers, Women’s Agency and Women’s Employment: How Women’s Sense of Agency Affects Their Labor Supply.

In all cases, however, women’s employment in the long run (13 months after the experiment began) was not affected by either the intervention or the video promotion. Household constraints—chores or husbands’ views about women’s roles—became incompatible with working outside the home over a sustained period of time.

The results show potential. One tangible outcome of McKelway’s research was a shift in company policy. Previously, the carpet manufacturer would only hire women between the ages of 18 and 30. But McKelway’s findings showed that older women were more likely to feel able to work outside the home, perhaps because their children were no longer young or the demands and expectations of their husbands and families had eased. When McKelway explained that trend, the company allowed her to enroll women up to the age of 40 at sites where she was conducting her research.

Now, McKelway is in the early stages of a related study with the carpet manufacturer, trying to identify and mitigate obstacles to work attendance and retention among women.

“We’re trying to understand what potential barriers there might be so that we can work with the company to design interventions to help reduce those barriers,” she says.

During her King Center fellowship, which took place almost entirely remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McKelway was also able to start new research with her former advisers from MIT—Frank Schilbach and Nobel Prize winners Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee—into the effects of old-age pensions in India, the economic effects of loneliness and depression among the elderly, and COVID-19 vaccinations among an older population. Each of those studies is ongoing. On the vaccination front, McKelway’s team is comparing how three interventions influence people’s decision and ability to get vaccinated—direct phone calls, joint appointments pairing an elder with another eligible adult, and the use of individuals known to be good at spreading information in a community (known as “gossips”) to encourage vaccination.

Throughout her year at Stanford, McKelway received advice and guidance from King Center faculty affiliates, including Faculty Director Pascaline Dupas. The pair also participated together in a gender equity research group on campus.

“Pascaline has given fantastic advice on my research, in one-on-one meetings, when I’ve presented in various working groups, and by reading paper drafts,” McKelway says. “Many other faculty affiliates have done the same.”

The year-long King Center fellowship also allowed McKelway to hire a research assistant to help her collect expert predictions on one of her papers and gave her time to write and revise her drafts on women in the workplace.

“Having a pause between graduate school and starting to teach to focus on your research is so valuable,” she says. “And even though I wasn't able to interact with the King Center community in person for most of the year, it was great to be able to engage with the center and the Stanford economics department.”

McKelway, who started as an assistant professor of economics at Dartmouth College in July, says “trying to find causality” and using economic theories and concepts to understand the world appeals to her. She also hopes her work makes a difference.

“Broadly, the goal of my work is to understand how to encourage women to get into the labor force and to empower women more generally,” she says.