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How the science of human behaviour can help legislatures advance gender equality through financial oversight

Image credit: International IDEA

The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women must be at the heart of our effort to strengthen democracy worldwide. Through behaviorally informed interventions, we can help small changes in the way legislatures oversee the use of public funds make a big difference in gender equality in the long run. 

In 2020, International IDEA partnered with BEworks, a leading global behavior change company, to better understand the psychological challenge of integrating gender considerations into legislative financial oversight. Having piloted the behavioral approach in the context of the national parliament in Myanmar, our experience highlights the approach’s potential to influence the behavior of members of parliament in support of integrating a gender perspective into parliamentary oversight of the national budget.


The behavioural approach to gender integration

The behavioural approach is grounded in the growing field of behavioural economics that seeks to make sense of how and why people make judgement and decisions the way they do in the real world. The approach underscores the notion that people often make choices on the basis of only limited information and without the capacity, time, or resources to thoroughly analyse alternative choices. Also, it stresses the power of social influences on our internal thought processes and our own behaviour. One of the essential ideas behind the behavioural approach is that while our behaviour is often shaped by our intentions, attitudes, or beliefs, there are cognitive barriers that prevent us from following through with our intentions to perform a particular behaviour. 

There is now a wealth of research that suggests gender responsive budgeting, a practice of integrating gender considerations into the key stages of the national budget cycle, including formulation, approval, execution, and control and audit, can help enhance gender equality in a country. Because a government budget not only allocates public resources among competing priorities but also serves as a policy instrument for achieving economic development in the country, the executive branch’s leadership is critically important in promoting gender responsive budgeting. Equally important is that the legislative branch provides gender sensitive financial oversight, reviewing the impacts of government budget on gender equality and women’s empowerment and holding the executive accountable for its actions.

However, one of the recurring challenges facing many countries is how to ensure legislatures actually play an active role in overseeing national budgets in a gender sensitive manner. From a behavioural perspective, the challenge is twofold: one is to cultivate the interest and intention of legislatures to integrate a gender perspective into their oversight work in the budget cycle; and the other is to address cognitive barriers and behavioural constraints and make sure their interest and intention get actually translated into specific actions for gender integration into their oversight work. Ultimately, the integration of a gender perspective into financial oversight requires behavioural change among the elected representatives in legislatures.    


Psychological barriers to gender integration 

Based on our field research in Myanmar, including an analysis of the behavioural challenge, a diagnosis on the parliamentary budget process, a survey with members of parliament and support staff, and a review of the scientific literature, we gained deep insights into the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours of members of parliament regarding gender integration into financial oversight. Then, a team of behavioural scientists used data and findings from the field research to develop a list of psychological barriers they found to be at play for Myanmar’s parliament when faced with the idea of gender integration into their oversight work. The identification of these psychological barriers then informed the design and development of our strategic interventions in support of gender sensitive parliamentary financial oversight in Myanmar.

The potential psychological barriers can be grouped into the three behavioural contexts in which they would likely arise—when someone is explaining or justifying the current state of affairs, considering changes to the current state, and making decisions as a group. One of the potential barriers is associated with the “inherence heuristic”—our tendency to explain phenomena using inherent features of the phenomena itself. This means that members of parliament may justify the fact that they don’t consistently consider gender issues and implications in their financial oversight with the belief that gender discrimination is non-existent in Myanmar.  

Also, gender integration was a change from how parliamentary financial oversight was provided. Thus, people’s “status quo bias”—the tendency to prefer the maintenance of the current state of affairs—would cause friction to adopt gender integration. Furthermore, the “confirmation bias”—the human tendency to look for evidence in line with an existing view or belief—would keep members of parliament from critically assessing information that is contradictory to their beliefs that gender discrimination and gender inequality are not an issue in the country.

Finally, legislators’ decisions to integrate a gender perspective and consider the impacts of the government budget on gender equality will be made as a group. This means that the variety of biases and problems that surface during group decision making (e.g. “groupthink”—the tendency to fail to make an optimal decision due to the desire for harmony or conformity within a group) were likely to keep members of parliament from suggesting a change that goes against the status quo which they believe others support.


Behaviourly informed interventions

To overcome these psychological barriers and help gender integration into parliamentary financial oversight, several strategic ideas were developed based on innovation, scientific backing, feasibility, and size of expected impact. A general theme throughout the developed strategic ideas was to leverage the "foot-in-the-door effect” which occurs when someone has agreed to any action, no matter how small, which then makes them get more substantially involved than they did before. This helps to reduce friction and avoid resistance when subsequent actions are proposed. The first three strategic ideas below are aimed at driving acceptance and buy-in among members of parliament. The last idea is aimed at driving action and maintenance of the new behaviours.

  1. Align legislatures’ tendency to see family as the most important value to Myanmar people with the idea of considering gender effects of government budget. This strategy can increase acceptance and buy-in for gender consideration among members of parliament by leveraging a sense of consistency in the face of changing the status quo;
  1. “Frame” gender consideration as a means of showing constituents that members of parliament work hard for the well-being of all their constituents, including both men and women. This strategy can increase acceptance and buy-in for gender consideration among members of parliament by leveraging pride and the desire to behave consistently with how they see themselves;
  1. Embed workshops, seminars, and training on gender issues within broader topics of “good practices”. This strategy can increase acceptance and buy-in for gender consideration among members of parliament by reducing friction and aligning with their goals, interests, and preferences; and 
  1. Provide members of parliament with feedback on their performance in considering gender issues in their oversight work and their contribution to improving constituents’ well-being. This strategy will drive continuous evaluation of gender effects by reinforcing the new behaviour and making the value more tangible.

It was International IDEA’s plan to test these strategic ideas in 2021 as part of its support to parliamentary financial oversight in Myanmar. However, the political developments in the country since February 2021 have not allowed to see how the implementation of these ideas actually affects the behavior of members of parliament in integrating a gender perspective into their oversight work and reviewing the impacts of government budget on gender equality. Thus, important learning has not taken place.


The potential of the behavioural approach

Promoting gender responsive budgeting and pursuing gender equality are long-term processes that must be thought of as an integral part of building a healthy, stable democracy. The prospects for the institutionalization of gender responsive budgeting are improved if legislatures and other decision-makers embrace the ideas, values, and practices of integrating gender considerations into the national budget cycle. Making gender integration work requires changing the way legislatures behave.

While any solution from elsewhere needs to be carefully tailored to the local context, our experience in Myanmar suggests that the behavioural approach has the potential to help legislatures beyond Myanmar, make our global support for gender sensitive parliamentary oversight more effective, and move the needle towards achieving gender equality.  

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About the authors

Motoki Hayakawa
Responsable de programa y gestión financiera pública
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