Underestimating Equality: Perceived Norms and the Politics of Women's Rights

The last few decades have witnessed the accelerating adoption of women’s rights policies by governments of all kinds around the world, alongside continued local resistance and the emergence of backlash. As such advances have accelerated in recent decades, particularly across the Global South, understanding and addressing the gap between law and reality has become more urgent. Existing research on this gap has focused on the limitations of institutions and leaders and the constraints of individual attitudes.

This book highlights public pessimism about the extent to which other people support greater gender equality as an underappreciated reason why laws may fail to change realities on the ground. Around the world, people tend to underestimate support for gender equality (Bursztyn et al. 2023). The extent to which this is the case, however, varies. I argue that the politics of how women’s rights have expanded in much of the Global South play a role in the extent to which gender norms are misperceived. Common paths to reform—in response to targeted feminist activism and international pressure, and often by autocrats for instrumental reasons—do not credibly signal that broader public opinion has evolved, while they often also raise the salience of conservative opposition to women’s rights. I further argue that misperceived gender norms have substantial onward consequences for how women’s rights are implemented, how activism and policymaking evolve, and how individuals react to the prospect of women breaking taboos and entering traditionally male fields like politics.

The book draws on elite interviews, focus groups, and four original surveys with embedded experiments conducted in Morocco from 2018 to 2023 to show how perceptions of society’s conservatism on gender issues affect and are affected by the adoption and implementation of women’s rights reforms.

The project builds on my dissertation, “Perceived Norms and the Politics of Women’s Rights in Morocco,” which earned the Best Dissertation Award from the APSA Middle East and North African Politics Section in 2023 and an honorable mention for Best Fieldwork by the APSA Democracy and Autocracy Section in 2022. Core descriptive findings from the two original surveys in my dissertation and a portion of my theoretical argument appeared in Comparative Political Studies in 2023 in an article titled “Women’s Rights and Misperceived Gender Norms Under Authoritarianism.” The book expands upon this work with data from two additional original surveys of Moroccans, newly available data on perceived gender norms from contexts beyond Morocco, and qualitative case studies of women’s rights reforms and perceived gender norms in other cases.