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In India, 94% of women in the labor force are in the unorganized sector. Their work is generally unrecognized and they often receive no regular salary or workplace benefits. Women can be trapped in perpetual poverty.
“Poverty is a form of violence, with the consent of society,” says Reema Nanavaty, Secretary General of SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association), India’s largest women's trade union.
Now in its 45th year, SEWA boasts more than two million members across seven South Asian countries, working to help women organize and—if not equalize—then at least be recognized.
"A woman is always seen as somebody's wife or somebody's daughter . . . but she's never seen as a worker, even though she works for 18-20 hours in the day," Nanvaty tells me in this week's podcast. "Organizing brings her that identity as a worker . . . then her economic contribution gets recognized and counted."
The solution, Nanvaty says, is less about outlawing gender discrimination and more about recognizing and supporting the skills traditionally passed down through women as official and profitable forms of work: "The work of a weaver, the work of an artisan, the work of a cobbler or a garment worker, everything needs to be considered as work."
Social psychologists discovered in the 1950s that counter-attitudinal advocacy—e.g., paying people to express a repellant view, but not quite enough to fully rationalize it—is an effective form of persuasion. So I should preface this post by noting that I recently traveled to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on a free economy-class airline ticket to participate in a mock debate where I was assigned, together with Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, to argue the somewhat obnoxious position that international aid donors spend too much money on girls' schooling.
Luckily, I did not persuade anyone, including myself. There was even an audience poll before and after the debate to prove Lucy Lake of Camfed and Caroline Riseboro of Plan soundly defeated our team. But cognitive dissonance is a powerful drug. So while I still think it’s silly to argue we spend too much on girls' education, perhaps it’s reasonable to ask—as I did, not persuasively, in Dubai—whether a concern with gender equality and a cold hard look at recent data would lead anyone to put their marginal dollar into girls' schooling over, say, campaigning for gender quotas (which seem to work well in Indian politics, at least) or even subsidized childcare (which has boosted female labor force participation in Latin America).
A simple decomposition of the gender pay gap in 12 countries
Let’s start with the gender pay gap. The simple and unsurprising fact is that the gap in earnings power between men and women is enormous in many parts of the developing world, and—perhaps more surprisingly—almost none of this has to do with educational disadvantage.
Over the last several years the World Bank has launched a program, known as the STEP surveys, to collect detailed, comparable data on labor market outcomes including not just schooling but also skills. A number of things stand out from this data. (Note that the surveys only cover urban areas in each country.)
First, gender pay gaps are huge—and much bigger than often reported if we step back a bit. There is a tendency in documenting these numbers to rush ahead and focus on pay differentials conditional on being employed. Famously, American women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same hours worked. But particularly in the developing world, the biggest source of income gaps stems from lower rates of labor force participation. Looking at the unconditional gender gaps—i.e., including all the zeros for men and women without a cash income—in urban Ghana women only earn about two-thirds of what men earn. In Colombia it’s only half, and in Sri Lanka women earn less than a third of what men earn.
Second, education explains almost none of this. We can see this using a simple Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition. This simple, descriptive technique estimates the return to schooling in observational data, then given those returns, breaks the gender pay gap into the part that can be explained by education differences between the sexes and those which remain unexplained even if we equalized schooling.
The result in the case of the World Bank data is that in only one country (Laos) does girls’ schooling deficit explain a large share of the gender pay gap. In the other 11 countries it doesn’t. In half of the countries, women’s education actually exceeds men’s on average. And in five of the remaining six countries, education explains relatively little of the earnings gap.
The data and code Blinder-Oaxaca decompositions in the graph is available here (and thanks to Lee Crawfurd for sharing earlier STEP do-files).
Even where education is (nearly) equal, nearly nothing else is
Consider the case of India. As noted in an earlier post, the government’s recent Economic Survey calculated there are still 63 million missing women, and another 22 million "unwanted women" based on the tendency of families to keep having kids if they have a girl and stop once they have a boy. Gender discrimination is acute and deeply rooted.
In their adult lives, those girls—wanted or unwanted—are more than 50 percentage points less likely than their brothers to have a job, and if they do, they’ll earn about 22 percent less. The political sphere is often no better than the economic. Just 66 of India’s 543 national legislators in the Lok Sabha are women.
But rather than girls' schooling being an obvious target for change, education indicators are actually an oasis of relative gender parity in India’s social statistics. According to official statistics, girls’ primary and lower-secondary completion is already higher than boys, and gross tertiary enrollment is at parity. Independent data collected by the NGO Pratham in the ASER surveys finds that girls at age 13 are slightly (4 percent) less likely to be able to solve the hardest questions on a simple mathematics test. While in need of redress, this 4 percent mathematics gap can hardly explain the horrific economic and social disparities we see in other domains.
In a sense, everything in life is stacked against Indian girls except school. (And kudos to the activists who made that true.)
GapGender ratio of children without siblings
India Economic Survey (2018)
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
% enrolled, gross
World Bank, WDI
0%Math test at age 13
% who can do division
-4%Reading test at age 13
% who can read story
0%Labor force participation
World Bank, WDI
-52%Earnings conditional on employment
-22%Seats in the national parliament
By all means, let’s spend more on girls' schooling. It’s a great investment. But the reason women in Sri Lanka earn a third of men isn’t because they’re less educated. They’re not. Similarly, the reason there were more men named “Michael” at Davos this year than all women combined isn’t because there weren’t enough educated women to invite. And the reason fewer than one in five legislators in the developing world is a woman isn’t because there are no women qualified to serve. If donors spend money on girls' schooling programs thinking, “If only girls were more educated, they’d get equality” they’re fooling themselves, and implicitly accepting the status quo.
Thanks to Maryam Akmal and Divyanshi Wadhwa for excellent research assistance.
Globalization of the economic sort is often maligned. But then there is globalism: of norms, values, culture, and attitudes. Are norms and values, even “culture,” being globalized? Is the idea, for example, that women have equal rights, as in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), gaining ground as a universal norm? And might changing norms and values affect legal regimes and behavior (sometimes, maybe)?
The charts below show the results of questions posed to men and women in the (nationally representative) Demographic and Health Surveys starting in the early 2000s, which asked about what circumstances respondents believe might justify a husband beating his wife: when the wife burns the food? Argues with her husband? Goes out without telling him? Neglects the children? Refuses to have sex with him? Is too tired?
The first set of charts indicates the percentage of urban women interviewed who agreed that one or more of the reasons posed justifies wife-beating, for each of five regions and separately for Anglophone and francophone Africa. (We include only countries in which the questions were posed in at least two years. For rural women, the percentages are slightly higher and the trends very much the same, country by country.)
Figure 1. Percentage of respondents who agreed that one or more reasons justify wife-beating by husband.
In many countries surveyed, the absolute percentages of women are disturbingly high—except in Peru and Colombia, both upper middle income countries of Latin America where less than 5 percent of women see some justification for wife-beating. For the most recent survey years in other countries outside Latin America, levels range between 9.5 percent (the Philippines) and 89.5 percent (Guinea). In India and Bangladesh, it is hard to see a “good” downward trend from relatively high levels (see the chapter on meta-preference for sons in this latest economic report on the Indian economy). On the other hand, the trend is downward in Egypt and Jordan, in many countries of francophone Africa, and in most countries of Anglophone Africa.
There are anomalies (why is the percentage rising in Cambodia and Indonesia, while falling to a low level in low-income Benin? (Is it Benin’s democracy?) Why so high in Guinea (recent war? Ebola?) and why is it failing to fall in Sierra Leone (Ebola?), but falling in Liberia (Africa’s first female president for a decade?) Why is the percentage lower and more likely to be falling in Anglophone compared to francophone Africa? Is the difference real—something about colonial history or “culture”—or were the relevant questions framed or understood differently?
The next chart illustrates the difference between the percentage of urban women and men who said that there are one or more justifications for wife-beating (in the most recent year for each country and including countries with only one survey year with these questions). Except in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Kenya, the percentage of men who endorse at least one reason is lower. Why? Perhaps because some wives who are survivors of partner violence suffer confirmation bias. Perhaps men more than women try to answer the way they assume they ought to? (See Rachel Glennerster on the challenge of attitude and other questions meant to measure women’s agency or empowerment.)
Figure 2. Percentage of respondents who agreed that one or more reasons justify wife-beating by husband.
These questions, and additional ones on domestic violence, were only introduced into the DHS after the turn of the century. Why then? In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—and there is evidence of a subsequent positive and statistically robust (though uneven across countries) “CEDAW Effect” on women’s rights around the world. The Beijing Women's Conference (more formally known as The Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development, and Peace) was in 1995. Did global “jawing” in the late 20th century help inspire, with some lag, the introduction of these questions into the DHS system?
The questions are about attitudes, not behavior. But surely in the long run attitudes matter. Might the universal values reflected in CEDAW, discussed in Beijing, and codified in the Sustainable Development Goals explain some of the downward trend the charts show in many countries? Is recent news of sexual assaults on women—in Delhi on a public bus, by UN peacekeepers in the Congo, in Hollywood, USA—a sign that at the global level the norm is changing? Let us hope there is in fact a phenomenon we could call globalism of norms, and that changing norms are changing behavior. That would mean that sometimes-maligned globalism has been good for women in the most intimate and private part of their lives—and thus good for all of us.