By Roberta Kwok

Around the world, gender bias means that women tend to earn lower wages and hold fewer high-ranking positions than men do. Showing that women are as capable as men might seem as simple as comparing the performance of men and women at a particular task. But Mushfiq Mobarak, a professor of economics at Yale SOM, points out that an individual’s work doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

“Sometimes their performance itself is dependent on other people in society,” he says. For example, if a woman’s supervisor, colleagues, or clients pay less attention to what she says, her work output will suffer.

Mobarak and his collaborators documented an example of this phenomenon in a different setting: farming villages in Malawi. The researchers conducted an experiment to disseminate new agricultural techniques to farmers. In some communities, villagers were encouraged to choose primarily women to teach the techniques, while in others, they tended to choose men.

Teachers in the female-communicator villages seemed to learn the material just as well as those in the male-communicator villages, and they put as much effort into training others. But their peers tended to pay less attention to the teachers in female-communicator villages, and had relatively fewer conversations with them about farming. And the villagers held worse perceptions of those teachers’ farming ability.

“Other farmers are less likely to respond to the women’s efforts,” Mobarak says.

Farming villages are far removed from corporate offices. But the study demonstrates a bias that could be having an impact in other settings. After all, whether women are teaching agricultural techniques, arguing legal cases, or developing software products, their performance ultimately depends at least partly on how others receive them.

“Nobody works in isolation,” Mobarak says.


Read the study: “Gender Gaps in Technology Diffusion”

The study grew out of an attempt to address low crop yields in Africa. In other parts of the world, agricultural productivity has risen, thanks to techniques such as fertilizer usage or new seed varieties. But in Africa, “productivity has stayed both low and very stagnant,” Mobarak says.

Policymakers have tried to boost yields by sending agricultural extension officers to rural areas to teach farmers new techniques. But in Malawi, finding enough people to fill these positions has been difficult. And villagers may disregard the opinions of outsiders.

Mobarak collaborated with Ariel BenYishay at the College of William & Mary and Maria Jones and Florence Kondylis at the World Bank on a new strategy. The team reasoned that farmers might pay more attention to someone from their own village than a government officer. So the researchers devised a plan: In each community, one to five villagers would be trained in a new planting or composting technique. Then these communicators would teach the technique to others in their village.

As part of the experiment, the team wanted to study which communicators were most effective. One obvious factor to examine was gender, because women run about half the farms in Malawi. For example, perhaps women communicators would perform better at passing on information to other women. Or maybe farmers wouldn’t hear women’s messages because they disregarded their expertise or didn’t interact with them much.

So the researchers conducted a study with 143 villages in Malawi, split into three groups, from 2009 to 2011. In the control group, no one received any training. In the second group, villagers could choose their communicators without gender restrictions, and they usually picked men. In the third group, people were told that the majority of communicators should be women. (For simplicity, the latter two groups are called “male-communicator villages” and “female-communicator villages,” respectively.)

In reality, some villages in the third group did not comply with the gender guidelines. Still, more than half of them did follow instructions, substantially boosting the number of women communicators. For example, in villages that chose just one communicator, 61% of the female-communicator villages picked a woman, while none of the male-communicator villages did.

When women teach farming techniques, others “pay less attention, in spite of the fact that the objective indicators of performance in our data show that female communicators knew just as much, if not more.”

Then the researchers compared the three groups’ outcomes. First, they evaluated how well communicators learned the farming techniques. They found no significant differences between those in the male-communicator and female-communicator villages on knowledge test scores. Nor were there clear differences in the communicators’ adoption of the techniques on their own farms. If anything, those in female-communicator villages performed slightly better on both measures.

However, gaps emerged when the team surveyed other farmers. In the female-communicator villages, other women farmers seemed to know less about the new techniques than they did in male-communicator villages. And fewer of them started using the techniques.

The differences weren’t due to lack of effort. On average, the percentage of communicators who held training events was similar in male-communicator and female-communicator villages. But farmers in female-communicator villages were five percentage points less likely to attend those events. “Other people don’t show up as much,” Mobarak says. “They pay less attention, in spite of the fact that the objective indicators of performance in our data show that female communicators knew just as much, if not more.”

In general, people did interact with communicators in female-communicator villages. But they didn’t talk to them as much about agriculture, perhaps because they didn’t consider farming to be an important part of women’s identity. And they tended to think that communicators in female-communicator villages weren’t as skilled at farming as those in male-communicator villages.

One possibility was that the women were simply bad at teaching. If that were the case, farms should fare worse in the female-communicator villages. But again, the researchers found no significant differences in crop yields or failure rates between male-communicator and female-communicator villages.

The study illustrates one of the array of biases that can prevent women from reaching their potential—and the complexity of eradicating bias in the evaluation of performance. In a blog post, Mobarak and Kondylis argue that comparing men’s accomplishments to women’s “is misleading when women face biases in the way they are perceived in the workplace. Success requires women to interact with others in society, where they are subject to discrimination.” For example, if a woman offers great ideas in a meeting but her colleagues don’t listen, her track record of success will appear worse.

“How they interact with you, how they react to you, how they treat you actually affects your measured performance,” Mobarak says.