Female empowerment, decisionmaking, and how to measure it

How we define women’s empowerment or autonomy using decisionmaking questions in the DHS surveys (and similar questions in other surveys) has always bothered me. I’m glad someone decided to look into it rigorously.

While there has been little evidence explicitly testing indicators and sources of bias in conventional intrahousehold decisionmaking, the literature does discuss a number of reoccurring limitations. The first is around the treatment of jointness in decisionmaking. Although questions are typically sensitive enough to identify whether a decision is made solely by the woman or jointly by the woman and someone else, how should we treat these distinctions? Whereas it is tempting to assume for all cases that an autonomous decision, relative to a joint decision, is the one in which the woman has more power, the rationale for that possible ranking must clearly be conditioned on household composition. In a household with several adult members, a woman is more likely to make joint decisions based on sharing of resources and responsibilities. In addition, in such cases, it is often difficult to understand in the presentation of indicators with whom the decision is being made jointly and how much that matters for rankings. The implications for women’s empowerment may be very different if the woman is making a decision jointly with her spouse or if she is making it jointly with her father, mother-in-law, or son. Further, in western societies, we often think that in the most equitable partnerships, decisions are discussed through open communication and made jointly. Therefore, it could be claimed that joint 5 decisions should be ranked equal to or preferred to sole decisions; however, the actual dynamic may vary case by case. The issue of jointness further interacts with the importance of the decisionmaking domain. For example, one woman may make a sole decision on a relatively less important domain (for example, daily food preparation) and another woman a joint decision on a relatively more important domain (for example, purchase of a house). In this case, how would we rank or interpret their decisionmaking power relative to each other?

From a new paper by Amber Peterman and colleagues on women’s decisionmaking indicators and their usefulness. (Emphasis added by me).

Fertility decline and missing women

Seema Jayachandran has a new NBER paper on fertility decline and the sex ratio in India. She shows that as total fertility declines, the male-to-female sex ratio increases. Key line from the abstract: “fertility decline can explain roughly half of the increase in the sex ratio that has occurred in India over the past thirty years.” This only works in combination with son preference, of course; she’s not positing that sex ratios would increase in the absence of son preference and methods to elicit desired within-family sex ratios. I don’t think the finding is particularly surprising, but it does suggest a quantity-quality tradeoff calculation is being made. To take the conclusions a little farther afield, maybe they also suggest that a reversal is possible if girls’ value is sufficiently increased. 

The full abstract is below and a link (gated) here:

India’s male-biased sex ratio has worsened over the past several decades. In combination with the increased availability of prenatal sex-diagnostic technology, the declining fertility rate is a hypothesized factor. Suppose a couple strongly wants to have at least one son. At the natural sex ratio, they are less likely to have a son the fewer children they have, so a smaller desired family size will increase the likelihood they manipulate the sex composition of their children. This paper empirically measures the relationship between desired fertility and the sex ratio. Standard survey questions on fertility preferences ask the respondent her desired number of children of each sex, but people who want larger families have systematically stronger son preference, which generates bias. This paper instead elicits desired sex composition at specified, randomly determined, levels of total fertility. These data allow one to isolate the causal effect of family size on the desired sex ratio. I find that the desired sex ratio increases sharply as the fertility rate falls; fertility decline can explain roughly half of the increase in the sex ratio that has occurred in India over the past thirty years. In addition, factors such as female education that lead to more progressive attitudes could counterintuitively cause a more male-skewed sex ratio because while they reduce the desired sex ratio at any given family size, they also reduce desired family size.

Teen pregnancy in Colorado

Because it’s garnering a significant amount of nationwide attention, I figured I’d come out of my quasi-retirement of late from blogging (really, I’ve just been bouncing around the country/world and super busy trying to get life started in a new place or three) to talk about the State of Colorado’s announcement that its teen contraception program led to a 40% drop in the teen pregnancy rate. Put another way, the teen birth rate dropped from 37 live births per 1,000 people in 2009, to 22 live births per 1,000 in 2012. This is a drop from significantly above the national average to significantly below, which is a huge accomplishment.

With those numbers, the teen pregnancy rate did indeed drop by 40%, the question is whether all of that is attributable to the program. Importantly, the press release notes:

Fertility rates among low-income women aged 15–24 were compared with expected trends. Abortion rates and births among high-risk women were tracked, and the numbers of infants receiving services through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) were examined.

However, a true comparison with expected trends would require subtracting out the expected drop in teen pregnancy rates by identifying a comparison group (this is called a difference-in-difference strategy or a randomized control trial if the program was rolled out randomly, which is probably was not). 

The Denver Post article, probably in the interest of journalistic integrity, interviewed some people about the findings, but in my opinion, not anyone with the ability to really evaluate the claim. Teen pregnancy rates have been falling in the US, as have overall birth rates, and likely would have fallen in Colorado regardless of whether these individuals received the program or not. From 2011 to 2012, the US teen birth rate fell by 6% alone. The question is whether they fell by more than they otherwise would have if the program had not been put in place. Or would they have increased?

While it seems that the state did some analysis to net out this effect from their press release, the 40% figure probably overstates the true effect of the program. It could also understate the true effect. If teenage sexual activity was also increasing among those groups targeted by the program, the expected pregnancy rate would have been higher, resulting in a larger difference. In all likelihood, the program did likely reduce the teen pregnancy rate, but I don’t think we know exactly by how much.

In related news, I’ve got a great new research idea; I just need some data on a teen contraceptive program in Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper, I’m looking at you.

Women and work and the stalling of a drive toward equality

Phillip Cohen of the Family Inequality blog has a piece in the Sunday NYTimes about women’s labor force participation over the past half-century. I’d quote from it, but there are too many things. I say just go read it.

He also mentions Sarah Damaske‘s new book, For the Family?: How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work,
which I promptly ordered (and think you should, too).

Traditional gender roles and marriage quality

This is the second paper I’ve come across recently that attempts to link gender dynamics and understanding of gender roles by heterosexual couples to relationship quality or longevity.

This study examined the implications of gender attitudes and spouses’ divisions of household labor, time with children, and parental knowl- edge for their trajectories of love in a sample of 146 African American couples. Multilevel modeling in the context of an accelerated longitudinal design accommodated 3 annual waves of data. The results revealed that traditionality in husbands’ gender attitudes was linked to lower levels of love. Furthermore, divisions of household labor and parental knowledge moderated changes in love such that couples with more egalitarian divisions exhibited higher and more stable patterns of love, whereas more traditional couples exhibited significant declines in love over time. Finally, greater similarity between spouses’ time with their children was linked to higher levels of marital love. The authors highlight the implications of gender dynamics for marital harmony among African American couples and discuss ways that this work may be applied and extended in practice and future research.

Link is here (gated). Stanik, McHale and Crouter. 2013. Gender Dynamics Predict Changes in Marital Love Among African American Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family 75.

On Iran’s “Erotic Revolution”

Data are always a mischievous thing and even more so when they out of a religious autocracy. In the US, it’s commonly said that women underreport their sexual partners when asked by one to two, so you can only imagine how such a question might go over in Iran.

It hasn’t, but Foreign Policy says that other data that are more readily available point to a sexual revolution in Iran that includes sex before marriage, earlier sexual debut, and increased use of contraceptives.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

The article is long on speculation and short on facts, mostly because they’re not available, but many data points do point to some interesting demographic changes that could signal a cultural shift in the perception of sex outside of marriage, the value of marriage and childbearing, and more.

What’s not entirely clear is why. The article gives suggests that the current generation of young people is reacting to the lack of emergence of a utopian society and that having sex outside of marriage is part of the small rebellions they are engaging against the regime.

It’s a tidy theory, but it likely obscures the story. First, demographic shifts take time to happen. Iranians didn’t wake up in 2013 and decide to stop having children. Even if they did, we wouldn’t see the changes in national averages yet. This evolved over a few decades. Secondly, there is ample evidence that young Iranian women were fairly progressive in their attitudes regarding female independence, sexuality, and empowerment before the Revolution, so it is more likely that the children of those women who underwent their own sexual revolution in the 70s are coming of age and making decisions that reflect the attitudes projected in their own homes, if not in an official or public sense.

I’d also venture to say that it might be possible that some progressive or secular Iranians are choosing not to have children because they don’t want them to grow up under the regime they have experienced. That’s more in line with the explanation offered by FP, but it’s also pure speculation.

Reading to girls

An Atlantic piece today outlines some current research that is very much in line with my own.

The researchers found a gender difference in what they call “teaching activities” that build cognitive skills in children as young as nine months old. Girls, not boys, in all three countries received more time from parents on three activities: reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers. Baker and Milligan scrutinized data for first-born children, to control for differences arising when parents slack off after baby number two or three arrives. They also examined parents’ time spent with boy-girl twins and again found boys receiving less time than girls on the three teaching activities.

I’ve found a small, but statistically significant difference in the amount of time parents spend reading to girls at ages one, three, and five as part of a paper focused on relationship quality and investments in children.

They’ve got a very economist-y explanation for the behavior: “It is just more costly to provide a unit of reading to a boy than to a girl because the boy doesn’t sit still, you know, doesn’t pay attention,” Michael Baker told NPR (on his research with Kevin Milligan).

Costs are not just about money, people.