In Conversation

Altering social norms with Yale economist Rohini Pande

Pande — whose work aims to serve people left behind by booming economies and technological breakthroughs — recently returned to Yale after 13 years at Harvard.
Rohini Pande

(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Whether Yale economist Rohini Pande is designing public policies aimed at reducing air pollution or expanding women’s employment opportunities, her general goal is the same: Serving people left behind amid booming economies and technological breakthroughs.

Pande returned to Yale last summer after 13 years at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she led research aimed at working with policymakers to assist the poor and vulnerable. (She had taught at Yale 2003-2006.) Today she is Yale’s Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics and director of Yale’s Economic Growth Center — one of the oldest institutions in the United States dedicated to studying economic growth in the developing world.

Pande spoke with YaleNews about challenging restrictive social norms, harnessing digital technology to increase women’s access to health care and employment in India — and economics as an agent of social justice.

Interview condensed and edited.

What are your research interests?

One of my primary focuses has been studying how to design and evaluate public policies that seek to assist groups that don’t often benefit from economic growth.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about women’s participation in the labor force, focusing on India, where, if anything, women’s participation in the workforce has significantly declined as the country’s economy has grown. It is at levels below what is seen in most countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.

I’m thinking about how to design policy interventions in this setting that can help women find employment and control their financial resources when they are working. But I think a bigger question is whether such interventions can also alter social norms. These are places where social norms restrict women’s mobility, even prohibiting them from leaving the house alone, which means they cannot participate in the economy without permission.

As India becomes wealthier, digital technology has started to transform its public policy. I’ve been studying how to leverage these two factors to develop policies that would bring women into the labor force and allow them to challenge restrictive social norms.

What’s something you’re currently working on?

I’m working on a study that explores the effects of providing women access to direct deposit into individual bank accounts. How does that capability, combined with training, affect women’s financial independence and their capacity to work? We performed a large field evaluation in India in collaboration with government partners and found that the intervention increased women’s participation in the workforce.

What is equally important, if not more so, is that it changed people’s beliefs about the appropriate role of women in society. The intervention altered how husbands perceive the social costs of having a working wife. Very often Indian husbands fear that they’ll face social costs because people accuse them of being unable to provide for their households. We saw these norms change over three years, which I think is very promising.

You also have an ongoing project in India to encourage women to use smartphones. What motivated the project?

In absolute numbers, India is the largest market for mobile phones and Facebook, but it also has the largest gender gaps for both. In most countries across the globe, men and women are equally likely to use Facebook. In India, there is something like a 30% gap in usage of Facebook and mobile phones between men and women. Social norms are a primary driver of this gap, particularly for adolescent girls. There is a concern that providing them access to mobile phones and social media will affect their marriage options and subject them to harassment online. As smartphones and other digital technology become increasingly important to contemporary life, we must find ways to prevent and reduce gender gaps. We are testing interventions to encourage women to keep and use the phones.

What are the interventions?

We are working with the state of Chhattisgarh, which did a large rollout of internet-enabled smartphones targeting women. We have two voluntary programs in which women can enroll: One involves weekly calls about health or social security issues, informing them, for example, about government-provided prenatal care or maternity benefits. They are informational calls. We are also doing “poll calls,” in which we ask the women for information, such as whether they were able to access prenatal care facilities and what constraints they encountered. We incentivize those calls, so if they are willing to answer a set of questions, we return to their village and provide them useful things, such as a set of cooking utensils.

We’re looking at whether social norms change as the proportion of women enrolled in the program increases. If 80% of women in a village are using the phone and discussing the health-related information they learn through the program, then it may change people’s perceptions about the appropriateness of smartphones for women.

In 2018, Yale established the Tobin Center for Economic Policy to advance evidence-based research on public policy. It also is launching the Jackson School of Global Affairs to tackle policy issues of global importance. Where does the Economic Growth Center fit into Yale’s policy-research landscape?

I’ve arrived at a time when the center is very well set up to provide academic rigor, which is critically important, thanks to the work of my predecessor, Mark Rosenzweig. There is a big push toward evidence-based policy both in the policy and development economic communities, but we need to make sure we’re asking the right research questions — ones that enhance the theoretical understanding of changes in economic development and align with what policymakers are willing and able to address. Very often, policies that have been tested and shown to work get scrapped because they are too expensive to roll out across a wide population. We need policymakers to provide the fiscal resources needed to move forward successfully. We should be helping them understand the tradeoffs involved so we can design and implement successful interventions.

It’s very easy to sit in your office and decide that something is the most pressing issue of the day. But given the day-to-day reality of politics and the demands facing policymakers, their preferences may be very different than those of researchers.

I also hope that the Economic Growth Center can provide a wide umbrella and a supportive environment for faculty members, who often have very distinct research interests. We need to draw out commonalities so we can work together and start thinking about what distinguishes the Yale research group from our peer institutions.

Your research also focuses on policy interventions with an environmental impact. What are you working on in this area?

I’ve been thinking about how to design and implement effective regulations for environmental and climate-change policies in places with weak institutions. I’m currently working with my Yale colleague Nicholas Ryan, who is affiliated with the Economic Growth Center, and colleagues at the University of Chicago to evaluate the world’s first particulate matter admissions trading program, which has been established in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Particulate pollution — soot, smoke, and other solid and liquid particles — is generally caused by burning fossil fuels and is a very serious health hazard. We estimated that reducing pollution in India to international standards would increase life expectancy for 660 million people by 3.2 years on average for a total of over 2 billion life years.

Gujarat is a critically polluted area. Most of the plants there exceed emissions limits. Working with the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, a government entity, we’ve established a market-based system. There is a cap on particulate emissions within a given area, and industries within that area can buy and sell permits in order to stay below the cap. It is similar to the policy used to reduce acid rain in the United States in the 1990s.

What is the benefit of a market-based approach?

The market-based system — as opposed to just having regulations saying you can’t emit more than X amount — gives industries greater flexibility. If you have an old plant and it would be too expensive to install scrubbers to reduce particulate emissions, you can trade permits with a newer plant that can reduce its emissions more cheaply. Over time, as you bring down the cap, the number of clean plants will increase.

One key aspect of setting up a cap and trade system is obtaining good information about emissions. In the case of particulate matter, this means installing machinery that can monitor the amount of particulate pollution the smokestacks are emitting. That was a huge task, which took three years to complete. It’s an enormous project but we think it could be widely replicated and significantly improve air quality.

 What do you find most satisfying about your work?

An aspect of the job that I truly love is that it gives me time to think. That is something I value very highly: the freedom to read and think. A lot of the satisfaction in teaching comes from seeing students engaging and thinking about something in ways they hadn’t before, especially when it involves issues of social justice. The presumption is that you have to go to other fields to seek solutions to social justice issues. I enjoy seeing students recognize that economics can add something to those discussions.

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