The social norms factor: how gendered social norms influence how we empower women in market systems development

The idea that social factors influence economic behaviour is not new. Policy makers and practitioners are building more and more social analysis into their work. Yet most market systems and women’s economic empowerment programmes attempt to distil the messiness of human behaviour by focusing on individual actions and incentives based on ‘rational’ decision-making.

This research, led by MarketShare Associates, will show how understanding social norms can support programmes to better identify binding constraints, assess risks of sanction faced by women linked to behaviour change, plan for social norm change and support women to take advantage of these changes. The emphasis is on looking past individual behaviour change to develop a deeper understanding of collective and systemic changes.


The research, which builds on the research completed under the Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) Women’s Economic Empowerment learning agenda, aims to develop an understanding of how ‘informal rules’ and gendered social norms more specifically, dictate market behaviours and influence women’s empowerment in market systems development. The report documents what is working (or not) for understanding and assessing the role of social norms, and how such an understanding is integrated into programme design and implementation. More specifically, it will answer:

  • What are social norms and do they matter when seeking to empower women through market systems approaches?
  • How do market development projects currently identify and assess the social norms that affect women’s empowerment?
  • How do social norms influence women’s engagement in market systems and what strategies can be used to catalyse systemic empowerment?

MarketShare has completed secondary research focused on pulling together literature, reports and programme documents relevant to understanding how social norms impact women’s engagement in markets. This research helped the team to define social norms and better understand how they affect market behaviours. 

They also have carried out two in-depth case studies, one in Sierra Leone and one in Bangladesh, of two market systems programmes with strong women’s empowerment components. They have also interviewed a series of programmes leads to develop mini-cases from existing market systems programmes that focus on women’s economic empowerment, such as Market Development Facility in Timor-Leste or Financial Sector Deepening in Zambia among others. 


The report answers the questions above, highlighting the key implications for practitioners with examples from the series of case studies undertaken. It also develops guidance on how to assess women’s economic empowerment and social norms in programmes applying market systems approaches.