Rachael Pierotti: Understanding ideas that lead to inequality

By Susan Rosegrant
June 2013

Rachael Pierotti is the winner of the 2011-2012 Marshall Weinberg Research Fellowship.

Rachael Pierotti got a lot of experience managing projects in Africa during the five years she worked at Chemonics International, a large contractor for USAID. One, in particular, was her “baby.” For the project, the Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, groups in six countries worked either to change laws affecting women or to increase awareness of existing rights.

In Benin, a small country just west of Nigeria and one of the two sites Pierotti oversaw most closely, the efforts were extensive. The USAID team provided support to lawmakers to draft and pass a law prohibiting sexual harassment. They printed and displayed thousands of posters providing information on the country’s laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance. They designed booklets with information on women’s rights and handed them out at town hall meetings across the country. They even filmed a skit to illustrate the new anti-sexual harassment law and hired a mobile projection van to drive to cities and villages across Benin and project the movie on a portable screen.

These efforts may have made a big difference. Then again, maybe they didn’t. “All we know is that we reached X number of people, but we didn’t study the impact,” Pierotti says. “We did a lot of programming. We paid for a lot of programming. But we didn’t have a great sense of what worked and what didn’t.”

Pierotti’s frustration at what she saw as “a lack of evidence and a lack of research” ultimately led her to leave her job and come to the University of Michigan to pursue a doctorate in sociology. “I wanted to be able to still work in the field of development, but I wanted to do more of the research,” she says.

To her deep satisfaction, she has been able to continue working in the two areas that mean most to her: sub-Saharan Africa and women’s rights. Witness Pierotti’s recent research on attitudes towards domestic violence. After analyzing Demographic and Health Survey data from 26 low- and middle-income countries, Pierotti found there had been a profound drop since the early 2000s in the percentage of people who believe husbands are justified in hitting or beating their wives. Half of the countries studied were in sub-Saharan Africa.
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One of the most surprising aspects of her findings, Pierotti says, was that in many countries women were more likely than men to approve of such violence. Although she hasn’t had a chance to test why this might be so, Pierotti guesses that some respondents’ answers were influenced by a desire to please the survey interviewer. “Women may feel a social pressure to be ‘good’ wives and mothers and to respect their husbands as the head of the household, and to demonstrate that to others, including in answers to survey questions,” she says.

As for the husbands? “Maybe in reality they do beat their wives, but they feel social pressure to say, ‘No, it’s not okay.’”

Pierotti has spent the last three summers in Tanzania, Malawi, and Kenya doing research and deepening her connections with the research communities there. Some of that travel was made possible by the Marshall Weinberg Research Fellowship grant she received in 2011. “For the work that I do, it’s important that I spend as much time as I can in sub-Saharan Africa,” Pierotti says. “It’s expensive to get there, so this grant made a big difference.”

The three papers that make up her dissertation, planned for next year, will look at different aspects of how gender attitudes are related to population health and demographic outcomes. “There are a lot of things sociologists would call structural that perpetuate inequality, like girls don’t stay in school as long as boys do, and so their life chances are not as good,” Pierotti says. “But I think ideas also matter for perpetuating inequality. If you think that girls are not as valuable as boys, that can also have detrimental effects.”

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