Research / BFI Working PaperJun 20, 2018

Misperceived Social Norms: Female Labor Force Participation in Saudi Arabia

Through the custom of guardianship, husbands typically have the final word on their wives’ labor supply decisions in Saudi Arabia, a country with very low female labor force participation (FLFP). We provide incentivized evidence (both from an experimental sample in Riyadh and from a national sample) that the vast majority of young married men in Saudi Arabia privately support FLFP outside of home from a normative perspective, while they substantially underestimate the level of support for FLFP by other similar men-even men from their same social setting, such as their neighbors. We then show that randomly correcting these beliefs about others increases married men’s willingness to let their wives join the labor force (as measured by their costly sign-up for a job-matching service for their wives). Finally, we find that this decision maps onto real outcomes: four months after the main intervention, the wives of men in our original sample whose beliefs about acceptability of FLFP were corrected are more likely to have applied and interviewed for a job outside of home. Together, our evidence indicates a potentially important source of labor market frictions, where job search is underprovided due to misperceived social norms.

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