The eco­nomic con­se­quences of gen­der

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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

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