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Does Women’s Inequality Get Worse Before it Gets Better?

October 28, 2009

Photo: Rita Banerji, Flickr

Photo: Rita Banerji, Flickr

As a student of economics and a development practitioner, I had always assumed that economic development, measured by rising per capita incomes, implied greater gender equality. I had made this assumption because, as Figure 1 below illustrates, there is a strong positive linear relationship between per capita country GDP and the Status of Women, as measured by the Gender-Related Development Index constructed by the United Nations to evaluate the achievement of women in terms of life expectancy, education, and access to income.

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Such evidence seems to confirm the hypothesis that economic development improves the status of women by encouraging investment in their education and health and by providing employment opportunities outside the home and farm. Since the absolute status of women increases with rising incomes, it is safe to assume that women’s equality relative to men also increases – right? Well, as it turns out, perhaps not.

I started thinking more about this subject after I read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Tina Rosenberg this past August. Titled “The Daughter Deficit,” it outlines the well-known phenomenon in India of “missing girls” in the population. As the story goes, parents’ cultural and economic preferences for boys leads them to selectively abort female fetuses, which throws off natural birth ratios (usually 52 females for every 48 males). Besides the obvious discrimination against women, such imbalanced birth ratios have severe social and economic consequences. Because there aren’t enough women in the population for men to marry, there can be intense competition for mates. Such competition can increase poverty and violence by prompting women to demand well-off mates, thereby leaving out economically poorer men from the marriage pool. Indeed, in China, where there are 30 million “missing girls” of marrying age, families sometimes pay exorbitant “bride prices” to find mates for their sons, nearly bankrupting families. In India, some families kidnap or “import” poor women from Bangladesh for their sons.

The problem of “missing girls” has largely been assumed to be strongly correlated with poverty. The assumption is that poor, rural families want boys for both family status and social security in old age. As incomes and education levels rise, particularly for women, this preference would disappear. However, as Rosenberg points out, citing the work of anthropologist Monica Das Gupta, this assumption is false. Das Gupta found that girls are actually more likely to be missing in rich, urban areas of India and China than in poor, rural ones. Evidently, even richer, more educated women, with presumably more power in their families, have a preference for boys. And the preference is persistent for long periods. South Korea, which reached developed country status in the 1990s, is only now seeing the normalization of its birth ratio to natural levels.

So, what’s going on? Reading Rosenberg’s article, I immediately thought of the Kuznets Curve. Theorized by economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s, the Kuznets Curve holds that economic inequality actually increases for a time during the early stages of economic growth until it reaches some income threshold. Thereafter, economic inequality begins decreasing with growth. Illustrated in Figure 2, Kuznets proposed that the transition from a rural to industrial economy increases inequality as urban industrial wages outpace rural farm wages. However, at some point, the prosperity generated by industrialization translates into mass education, increased investment, and more government social programs that help close the inequality gap over time.

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So, how does this relate to gender inequality? Well, just like overall inequality, things could be getting worse before they get better. That is, in early stages of development, things may actually get somewhat worse for women because there is a gap between economic opportunities on the one hand and cultural, social, political, and legal norms on the other. But is there any evidence for this? It turns out there is.

A recent paper by Joshua Eastin and Aseem Prakash, political science researchers at the University of Washington, shows evidence for a kind of Gender Kuznets Curve. As Figure 3 from their paper shows, using data from 146 developing countries from 1982-2005, there is actually a curvilinear relationship between income and gender inequality (as measured by the female to male ratio in primary schools). At levels of per capita income between $0 and $4,000, equality actually improves for women, as higher levels of income predict more girls attending school. Conversely, between approximately $4,000 and $8,000, inequality increases, as rising levels of income predict fewer girls attending school. However, at incomes above $8,000 per capita, rising incomes once again predict increasing equality. The researchers show this outcome for six different measures of women’s equality.

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This surprising result points to a phenomenon in which, even as expanded economic opportunities help increase women’s equality in the initial stages of growth, social, cultural, and political norms “push back,” causing a decline after the initial gains. Women may find that there are limited advancement opportunities or that they still have fewer legal rights – or, indeed, that societal pressure to have boys rather than girls still persists.

These findings have broad implications for development practitioners and policymakers. Although rising incomes do have a significantly positive impact on women’s equality in the long run, cultural and institutional norms may limit this change in the short and medium terms. This implies that focusing on reducing inequality solely through economic growth approaches or solely through rights-based empowerment are both short-sighted. Instead, it is important for development practitioners and policymakers to have a deep understanding of how the complicated relationship between gender inequality and economic growth plays out in the context of any particular country. This will help encourage not just more equitable growth but more equitable societies.

Nina Merchant is the Assistant Director for The Asia Foundation’s economic reform and development programs. She can be reached at nmerchant@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Nina Merchant-Vega

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