Time to nudge Middle Eastern societies toward gender equality

Time to nudge Middle Eastern societies toward gender equality

In 2017, American economist and behavioral science theorist Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to behavioral economics. Thaler was an adviser on the creation of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (more commonly known as the “nudge unit”) at the heart of Whitehall, launched by David Cameron in the earliest days of his premiership in 2010. While the unit was initially focused on public health issues such as obesity, alcohol intake and organ donation, its scope has since widened substantially to cover everything from pensions and taxes to mobile phone theft, and even achieving greater gender equality in workplaces. 

How does “nudge” work in practice? In her book “What Works: Gender Equality by Design,” behavioral economist Iris Bohnet opens with a shocking example. In the 1970s, only 5 percent of musicians performing in the top five orchestras in the US were women. Today, women make up more than 35 percent of the most celebrated orchestras. This was not a result of a national campaign to get more women in the industry or a scholarship fund exclusively for women hoping to enrol in Juilliard. It was simply a result of the introduction of blind auditions. Asking musicians to perform behind a screen instantly raised the likelihood that a female musician would advance by 50 percent, leading to a significant increase in the number of women hired. This, and many other examples of interventions based on behavioral economics, makes me think of the ways we can apply similar interventions in the Middle East, where discrimination against women still holds strong. 

There is no denying that, over the past few decades in the Middle East and around the world, the case for gender equality has made great progress. Women hold more positions of power, are moving toward equal pay across many industries and countries, and are able to voice the challenges they face in the workplace and society at large. Yet attitudes and biases toward women and their capabilities unfortunately remain deeply rooted. While many politicians and executives seem (at least in theory) to understand the importance of gender equality, both from a moral and a business imperative, many of the traditional policies implemented to advance gender equality and eliminate all forms of discrimination against women have been proven to have little impact. 

Ingrained gender bias will not disappear overnight, so we need to 'nudge' Middle East societies toward female empowerment and away from both conscious and unconscious biases.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

In the context of the Middle East, women have increasingly become the targets of all forms of bullying due to actions that men constantly take without a second thought. The reactions to certain events — whether positive societal moves such as the lifting of the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia, or mundane personal choices such as the decisions of some women to unveil — left many speechless. The attacks came pouring in from men old and young, sporting long or short hair, wearing a goatee or a full beard, studying abroad or working as a preacher. The choices women make every day break all their rules and unite the most unlikely groups of men. Social media platforms are filled with men who still hold discriminatory views of what women should and should not do and wear, where they should and should not go or work, and how they should generally behave. 

This leads to the conclusion that, in the case of gender equality, policy and regulation, changes are not enough. This is an issue that requires a subtle intervention, one that would slowly brew and reap results over time. What we need, then, is to “nudge” our societies toward female empowerment and away from both conscious and unconscious biases. 

Around the world, governments are dedicating more resources toward experimentation, and are collaborating with behavioral economists and social science researchers at every stage of the policy-making process. In the Middle East, it is imperative that we dedicate the necessary resources to understanding the complex social fabric of our societies and how best to tackle the persistent gender issues that continue to plague them. 

Many of the region’s countries are young and developing at a rapid pace, particularly when it comes to pushing the boundaries in support of female empowerment. Coupling this development with solid knowledge about the different segments of society will not only ensure their buy-in, but could potentially have significantly positive economic and social impacts. If we are to achieve holistic and sustainable gender equality in our societies, behavioral scientists should sit on every gender parity council and on every policy design team focusing on female empowerment. 

In the UK alone, tens of universities offer behavioral economics degrees, helping prepare more experts in this important field. If we are to have behavioral scientists present at the different stages of policy-making, we must first invest in expanding our knowledge about the specifics of behavioral economics and gender biases in the context of our region. Leading universities and higher education institutions must offer contextual behavioral economics as a discipline in order for us to tackle the issue of discrimination against women at its root, and achieve better results from any related policy. Not only should universities help inject the market with more behavioral economists, but they should invest in specialized research centers that can work hand-in-hand with governments to design effective policies based on solid evidence and proven methods. 

In the Middle East, gender biases are instilled quite early on in the minds of both girls and boys, and are intricately woven in the social fabric of the region. Untangling these biases must start by carefully studying how they got there in the first place, and what the best non-formal approaches to addressing them are. The powerful discriminatory social system that currently exists was put into place by people who still derive power and authority from it, mostly for purely self-serving purposes. They have created and used many tools over the decades to do so, but now we must use the nudge theory to disable them and support government efforts to achieve equality for all.


  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif 
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