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Descriptive norms can serve as a potential policy tool to guide individuals to comply with a social norm (Thaler & Sustein, 2008). The literature on descriptive norms is based on the theory that individual decision makers conform to social norms and descriptive norms lead to norm-consistent behaviour (Cialdini et al., 2006). However, research has indicated that descriptive norms are not always effective in guiding behaviour across all domains, and may even lead to increases in undesirable behaviour. This is often due to when the norm information threatens the representation and status of the members of specific groups, leading them to take actions to improve their group’s social identity.
Professors Maliheh Paryavi, Iris Bohnet (Harvard University, United States), and Alexandra van Geen (Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands) explored whether descriptive norms positively influence the hiring of women. In particular, the researchers examined whether social information influenced the gender composition of a group of people (“employees”) selected by others (“employers”) in a work context. Specifically, “employers” were asked to select the number female and male “employees” they next wanted to select for hire, after they were advised of the number of women hired so far during a recruitment process. The researchers then evaluated whether the employers were more likely to hire more of one gender when informed that others have done so as well – or whether in fact it caused backlash.
The researchers aimed to explore the effect of descriptive gender norm information on hiring decisions that involve male and female employees using a series of laboratory experiments.
The experimental design consisted of two stages.
Stage 1 (Control group): Data was collected through a series of laboratory experiments to understand typical hiring behaviour – and thus determine a baseline.
Stage 2 (Experimental group): The purpose of this stage was to study the impact of gender norms on the hiring decisions, as established in Stage 1, on another set of employers.
Findings and implications
When reviewing the control group findings, where no information on previous employer choices was provided, neither male nor female employers showed significant stereotypical hiring tendencies (i.e., hiring more men for math’s based tasks or women for verbal based tasks).
The researchers then reviewed the experimental framing conditions and found that:
Notably, there was no policy or quota system in place that might have influenced the research participants’ choices and therefore the study outcomes. This was a study of subtle influence. Positively, the “employers” in the control sessions employers did not start with gender-biased preferences, and hence there was little to ‘correct’. The findings regarding the influence of descriptive norms were intriguing, particularly the response from women (namely that they were uninfluenced by norm information or its frame) and the contrasting response from men (namely a pronounced reaction to norms that favoured women, while they were not affected by norm information that favoured men). This suggests both that normative cues require tailoring to their audiences, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, and that perceived self-interest/identity is a relevant factor.
Parul is a senior analyst specialising in tax in the financial services industry in Melbourne. She has experience providing taxation compliance and advisory services to the wealth and asset management sector, specialising in funds management (domestic and offshore), superannuation and Shariah compliant arrangements. Parul holds a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Business and is admitted to practice as an Australian lawyer.