The economic consequences of gender
Until recently, there had been very little analysis of women’s role in the economy. Two centuries ago, MaryWollstonecraft published her proto-feminist A Vindication of the Rights ofWomen, and in 1869 John StuartMill, inspired by his wifeHarriet, wrote The Subjection ofWomen in support of female suffrage. But newevidence is emerging of the cultural barriers to women’s economic advancement, which must be addressed if the world is to attain its goal of gender equality.
Early contributions to the economics of gender focused on the division of labor within households. Ideas drawn from trade theory— such as specialization and comparative advantage— were used to explain why in the developed world men tended to work outside home and women within it.
This division of labor had important ramifications for women. As Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker proposed in A Treatise in the Family, it influenced who would gain an education and develop professional skills. Technological changes that lightened the burden of housework, coupled with changing attitudes toward women in the workplace, now allow many more women to acquire an education and the relevant skills to pursue careers. Indeed, in the United States, there are now more women than men studying at universities.
Why, then, do gender differences in economic outcomes persist? Economists have recently identified a fundamental reason in a phenomenon that remains pervasive: the gap in autonomy (or bargaining power) between women and men. The immediate effects of autonomy (or lack thereof) are felt within the household— for example, in how the family budget is spent— and this is determined largely by how well either partner is likely to fare should the relationship end.
A woman’s bargaining power will therefore be influenced by such factors as the type of job she has, her level of earnings and assets, the strength of her family ties, social attitudes toward divorce, laws governing the ensuing division of property, and the effectiveness of anti-discrimination legislation.
When women’s bargaining power increases, the benefits to them, and to society, can be huge. Apart from being a desirable end in itself, female empowerment leads to lower birth rates and child mortality, better education for children, higher female participation in the labor market and politics (and, with it, better representation of women’s concerns), and the alleviation of poverty, especially in developing countries.
Moreover, raising women’s cultural and economic status can help tackle the problem of what another Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen once called “missing women”. These are the women who would have been alive were it not for sex-selective abortions and gender discrimination in the provision of nutrition and medical attention.
Today, assumptions about gender (such as innate differences in abilities) have become intellectually untenable, while rigorous statistical analyses have identified the prime causes of gender differences in economic outcomes. But an important, and perhaps less explored, factor that determines women’s autonomy and economic well-being is non-economic.
For example, in a recent study, Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn examined levels of female participation in the US labor market among first- and second-generation immigrants from regions that historically used the plow in agriculture. The plow is significant, because operating it requires upper-body strength, which limits women’s suitability for farm work. The authors found that even today, women originating from regions that historically used the plow were less likely to be employed than women whose forebears did not.
The finding suggests that in plow-using societies, patriarchal values circumscribed female mobility, and allowed men— as a result of their greater economic contribution— to undermine women’s autonomy. Remarkably, these values, shaped many centuries ago, when certain physical attributes might have been important, have survived in modern societies, in which such attributes have become largely irrelevant.
Indeed, given that most jobs in developed economies require little or no physical strength, cultural values that discourage women from working outside home are rightly regarded as archaic, serving only to undermine women’s economic and political freedoms. The research therefore appears to support the postmodern feminist viewthat women are constrained by unexamined socially constructed notions.
But despite Simone de Beauvoir’s claim in The Second Sex that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” being true, biology and evolutionary psychology are still relevant. Myriad human interactions produce institutions, norms, organizations and practices that perpetuate a sexual hierarchy of well-being. Though the study of economics and gender has been transformed in recent years, the profound impact of culture demonstrates that we still have much to learn. The author is a professor of economics at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia, Canada. His latest book is Why GenderMatters in Economics. Project Syndicate