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Affirmative Action: Changing Stereotypes

In a new article for Vox, Karla Hoff, a senior research economist at the World Bank, presents an argument for affirmative action.  Hoff argues that stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, and affirmative action represents an important tool for changing stereotypes and correcting inequality in the long-term:

For economists to ignore the factors that affect how we process information as part of the interpretation of economic change would be as wrong as to ignore the evolution of technology itself. Ideology shapes what we see and how well we perform. Ideology can give rise to “equilibrium fictions.” In our framework, changes in power, technology, and contacts with the outside world matter not just directly but because they can lead to changes in ideology. 

Hoff highlights a natural experiment in India that changed perceptions of female leadership over the course of ten years:

In 1993, India adopted gender quotas for village governments, with the quotas assigned to randomly selected villages. In villages with little or no experience of quotas, men evaluate the competence of female leaders compared to male leaders in a biased way, and a higher percentage of boys than girls are in school and are able to read and write. Yet exposure for almost ten years to local women leaders eliminates the bias in men’s perceptions and erases the gender gap in educational outcomes. All the evidence (Beaman et al. 2009, 2012) suggests that the material gains to girls and women as a result of the affirmative action policy are explained by changes in the way females are perceived by others and perceive themselves, rather than by any changes in opportunities.