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May 17, 2005

Does economic development lead to gender equality?


Answer: sort of.

Look at the figure above, summarizing atttitudes toward gender in three type of societies: agricultural, industrial, and postindustrial.

Women do seem to do better in general with increased development but there are notable outliers.

Japanese women, for example, lag far behind those of Peru.

The data summarize work by U.S. political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris and are featured in an article just published in the June issue of Scientific American.

It follows.

    Leveling the Playing Field

    Economic development helps women pull even with men

    Conventional wisdom has long held that attitudes toward the role of women in agricultural societies are much more conservative than those in economically advanced societies, such as western Europe and the U.S.

    Political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Pippa Norris of Harvard University have now put this assumption to the test.

    They analyzed data from the World Values Survey, an ongoing study of attitudes that gauges reactions to various statements such as whether a university education is more important for a boy than a girl and whether women must have children to be fulfilled in life.

    The researchers constructed a 0-to-100 scale to measure attitudes toward gender equality in 61 countries.

    The chart depicts the scale for selected countries and shows that attitudes toward gender equality become increasingly more liberal as societies progress from one economic stage to the next.

    In agricultural societies, fertility is all-important because of high infant and child mortality.

    Anything that interferes with childbearing—such as divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and jobs for women outside the home—is therefore strongly discouraged.

    With industrialization, infant and child mortality decline markedly, lessening the pressure on women to reproduce.

    Women enter the paid labor force in large numbers, typically in factory, clerical and retail jobs, and at the same time become more literate and better educated.

    They begin to participate in representative government.

    In postindustrial societies women have a substantial share of management and professional jobs.

    Fertility falls, late marriage becomes more acceptable, and the traditional two-parent nuclear family erodes.

    But even in these societies, women still lag far behind men in political participation.

    In every society women hold slightly more liberal views than men.

    The difference in economic stage does not fully account for the disparities among societies.

    Religion, political tradition, education and other characteristics exert powerful influences.

    In Islamic nations, for example, women tend to have less of an economic role than in those with a Christian tradition, which may explain at least part of the difference in scores between agricultural societies such as Peru and Bangladesh.

    Japan’s Confucian heritage may help explain why its views are more conservative compared with those of other postindustrial societies.

    Attitudes toward gender in postindustrial societies will most likely continue to liberalize as groups espousing more traditional views—older people, the less educated and women not in the paid workforce—decline in economic importance.

    What is not clear is how more liberal thinking will affect people’s everyday lives.

    Some evidence suggests that marriages in postindustrial societies are becoming more problematic because of the changing role of women.

    According to a study reported in 2000, Americans who married between 1981 and 1997 experienced significantly more discord than those who married between 1964 and 1980.

May 17, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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