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).

Inheritance law and suicide in India

I started to send this out as a series of tweets, but decided it was worth something a bit longer. I haven’t had much time to blog over the last 9 months, but perhaps this summer will get me writing again…

A new Anderson & Genicot paper finds that codifying inheritance rights to property for women in India lead to increased suicide rates for both men and women. The paper is based on an intrahousehold bargaining framework and rests on the mechanism whereby if women are seemingly arbitrarily given more power in relationships via more access to capital, that might cause stress and thus lead to suicide by men. It also might be that as men inherit smaller shares of their parents’ assets, it is essentially an unexpected shock and could cause financial stress that could lead to suicide. There is precedent for this interpretation in the literature, particularly in sociology.

For women, the argument to me is less clear. The inherited property, though perhaps causing additional marital discord or stress, is also 1) an increase in potential income–which should theoretically decrease overall stress levels, and 2) a better outside option, leaving women more free to leave a relationship. If either of these hold, they should actually lead to a decrease in the suicide rate.

Also, suicide rates are not just going up for married men and women. The WHO recently announced that suicide is the biggest killer of adolescent girls worldwide. Even though adolescent girls can inherit property in India (from what I can tell, there is no bar based on age of majority), they’re probably not the largest group of inheritors. So, do we believe that suicide rates for adolescent girls are totally unrelated to suicide rates for older women and men? I doubt it, especially given a large body of work that posits that suicide rates may be influenced by media coverage of suicide (for example). That suicide is driven by the inheritance law requires us to believe they are mostly unrelated. Or that girls are so stressed about the idea of one day owning and running a farm that they check out early.

While the empirical work appears to be very strong in the Anderson and Genicot paper, I’m not sold on the theoretical mechanism. Moving towards gender equality in places with strong traditional gender roles and norms is likely to put stress on many individuals. Reallocation of profits and assets will also understandably cause unexpected wealth shocks for both men and women and could lead to marital discord, but it could also lead to stronger, more independent women. Further, higher rates of suicide among groups that are likely unaffected by the law change suggest something unobserved is affecting suicide rates.

New Yorker Archive heaven

There have been times in my life when I would devour a New Yorker from start to finish as soon as it hit my mailbox. They make great airplane companions, too, but sadly, now is not one of those times. The demands of work and travel and moving all over the place this summer mean my copy goes straight from my parents’ mailbox to their coffee table. Yes, I don’t even currently have an address to which to send them.

Even in times when I haven’t been able to read it a lot, archive access is one of my favorite parts about my New Yorker subscription. Since they opened their archives (back to 2007) through the end of the summer, so many publications and writers have come up with awesome lists of what you should read before they close them. There’s a great aggregation here of all of these lists, (with links!) for everything from food writing to stories about Boston!

My own list is not nearly so long, but it’s probably worth mentioning a few awesome pieces about women, gender, and female labor force participation, because I can.

  1. Shopgirls by Katherine Zoepf
  2. The Sex Amendment by Louis Menand
  3. Birthright by Jill Lepore
  4. A Woman’s Place by Ken Auletta
  5. Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy

Reading women in 2014

Eight months or so ago, I was reading a book that had been recommended by a friend. It had been written by a white American male, likely in his mid- to late-forties, and was seriously depressing me. It was whiny, narcissistic, vain, boring, and even more frustratingly, almost entirely the same voice, character, and even plot lines as a book I’d just finished.

I don’t even remember what it was, but I put it down and didn’t pick up a book again for a few months. I had a few subsequent conversations with friends about how I wanted to read more women writers, but it didn’t go very far until I happened to read two novels by women while on vacation and came home from Zimbabwe to the #readwomen2014 discussion on twitter.

I found the idea immensely refreshing, and after a few days of thinking, decided to make 2014 my year of reading women. A chat on Saturday with Alyssa Pelish (who occasionally writes for Slate’s Lexicon Valley, among her many other talents) only reinforced my resolve to participate. As a scholar who spends a lot of time focused on gender and women and how to reduce violence and discrimination against women and girls, it felt kind of incredible that I would let such a large part of my leisure time be dominated by male voices. I realize I can’t entirely eliminate male voices from my reading list. One, I’d never get any work done, and two, I’d know very little about what’s going on in the world.

Maybe the latter wouldn’t be so bad…

The #readwomen2014 conversation has produced several fascinating viewpoints both for and against such an exercise. I have a short list of reasons why I’m choosing to engage. For me, it’s about adding new voices, new experiences, new perspectives, and specifically female ones. I could probably embark on a similar experiment to only read writers of color–and perhaps next year I will–but right now, I want female voices and perspectives. On a larger, grander scale, I hope that buying books by women means that I talk about them more, that they get read more, and thus published more, and thus talked about more. I recognize some of the futility of that stance, and that choosing to ignore both other underrepresented groups and men might mean that I miss some good things, but I’m okay with it. A year is not that long and I’m confident I’ll find lots of good books. I have a great list of novels and authors going, mostly thanks to Alyssa and Katina Rogers, but ideas and suggestions are most welcome.

Wish me luck! I’m starting February with Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell.

Also, if you have a minute, take Alyssa’s survey on prepositions.

Development Bloat

Marc F. Bellemare has a piece in Foreign Affairs today on development bloat, or how myriad causes and niche agencies and mission creep are harming the ultimate goal of development, to increase and stabilize incomes for the poor around the world. His argument is that funneling money to secondary needs diverts resources from meeting the basic ones, the ones that,if met, would ultimately lift everyone out of poverty.

Many of the things promoted nowadays by development — breastfeeding, the use of cookstoves, gender equality, environmental sustainability, an independent media, Internet access, and so on — fall into place naturally once people have met their basic needs, such as clean water, plentiful and nutritious food, and found a steady source of income. In other words, many conditions targeted by idealistic development goals arose in wealthier countries as byproducts of higher incomes, and trying to provide them at the same time as more fundamental things puts the cart before the horse.

It’s an excellent, important read and though I’m with Marc on most of his points, gender equality doesn’t belong on this list. Stabilizing incomes is necessary and great and ultimately the goal, but if half of your population (or often more than half of your population) is systematically denied access to those basic needs, it doesn’t matter that much that they’re being “met” on a national- or community-level.

In an extensive review of the literature, Esther Duflo shows that development itself, or higher incomes, does not necessarily lead to gender equality. If it’s something we care about, and I believe that we should, then a dedicated policy infrastructure devoted to improving outcomes for women and girls is necessary to ensure that development works for everyone.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

CDC intimate violence report by gender and sexual orientation

For what appears to the be the first time, the CDC has released a report on intimate partner violence separated out by sexual orientation. As most national level surveys that address domestic violence include very limited samples of out LGBT populations, this is pretty huge. After a quick read, the report seems to confirm what we already knew, that lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to have been stalked and experienced rape or physical violence by an intimate partner. While 35% of heterosexual women report one or more of these, 43.8% of lesbian women and 61.1% of bisexual women report the violations. Heterosexual and bisexual women reported mostly male perpetrators (98.7% and 89.5%), while lesbian women reported mostly (67.4%) female perpetrators.

Bisexual men also reported higher levels than heterosexual men of lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, but gay men had the lowest rate. The numbers might surprise you. 29% of heterosexual men report such violations, while 35.0% of heterosexual women did, with the vast majority of both reporting that the offender was of the opposite sex.

It’s important to note that the takeaway message from these findings is not that men and women batter at the same rate. These statistics are well in line with survey results from national level longitudinal studies such as the National Survey on Families and Households in spirit, if not in absolute percentages (underreporting on such surveys is expected). Extensive work on surveys like this repeatedly emphasize that incidence and report of violence are not the same as power and control. While relatively similar numbers of men (~25%) and women (>30%) report light to moderate physical violence, far more women (23.6% of hetersoexual women to 29.4% of lesbian women) than men (13.9%-16.4%)report severe physical violence, including half of bisexual women.


These statistics underscore the disproportionately large role that men play in perpetrating violence, even while it obscures the larger reasons behind it. They also show those in the LGBT community are at much greater risk for violence and stalking by intimate partner, be it a man or a woman, and hopefully calls attention to the need for the House of Representatives to pass VAWA in the form passed with a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate.

Compulsory education and girls in China

A new paper (gated) by a gaggle of economists (is this a new trend? I’ve never seen so many papers with five or six names on them than as of late), shows that compulsory schooling in China helped raise average educational attainment, and did a particularly good job of getting girls to stay in school. Girls stayed in school an average of 1.17 years longer, and boys an extra 0.4 years. I’ve yet to really get into this paper, but they use what looks like a neat instrument to identify the effect causally. The compulsory education policy was implemented at different times, so different regions were subject to the policy at different times.

The abstract:

As China transforms from a socialist planned economy to a market-oriented economy, its returns to education are expected to rise to meet those found in middle-income established market economies. This study employs a plausible instrument for education: the China Compulsory Education Law of 1986. We use differences among provinces in the dates of effective implementation of the compulsory education law to show that the law raised overall educational attainment in China by about 0.8 years of schooling. We then use this instrumental variable to control for the endogeneity of education and estimate the returns to an additional year of schooling in 1997-2006. Results imply that the overall returns to education are approximately 20 percent per year on average in contemporary China, fairly consistent with returns found in most industrialized economies. Returns differ among subpopulations; they increase after controlling for endogeneity of education.

“The Returns to Education in China: Evidence from the 1986 Compulsory Education Law.”
Hai Fang, Karen N. Eggleston, John A. Rizzo, Scott Rozelle, and Richard J. Zeckhauser
NBER Working Paper No. 18189, June 2012

The Gender Wage Gap

Heidi Hartmann talks about the different ways we measure the gender wage gap today on the Institute for Women’s Policy Research Blog. It’s a bit dense, but really informative. Near the end, she makes a strong case for examining the determinants of the wage gap, rather than questioning whether it exists. In particular, she points out a subtle, but important point regarding what I like to dichotomize as outright versus institutionalized discrimination.

Several comprehensive literature reviews that have been published in peer reviewed scholarly journals conclude that about 25 to 40 percent of the wage gap remains unexplained. But most of these studies do not assess whether some of the differences observed between women and men that might help explain the gender wage gap, like college major, are themselves the result of discrimination or of limited choice sets faced by women and men. In a world where most social workers are women and most engineers are men, few women and men may consider training for occupations that are nontraditional for their gender.

Girls and young women go into fields that pay less. It’s also hard to go into a field dominated by men. It’s not that women can’t perform in these fields, but it’s not particularly easy. I’m in one, and without the help of many amazing mentors (male and female), and female role models, I wouldn’t be here. We owe it to girls to figure out why. Case in point. And here is some good, related reading. And here’s Feministing today on the pay gap in medicine.

h/t Mark Price

A weak (or at least relatively weaker) recovery for women

As the job numbers for 2012 keep coming out, economists and pundits are heralding a recovery. Employment is increasing, the unemployment rate is falling, and monthly revisions to those numbers give even greater cause for optimism.

Economist Betsey Stevenson was quick to note about last month’s numbers that job leavers were overtaking layoffs. Even regular people (who don’t watch these numbers like a hawk and compete to be the first to tweet them) are becoming more optimistic. It takes guts to leave a job you don’t like; it’s a lot easier to do if you think there is another one down the line.

But just like the recession hit groups unevenly, so too is the recovery having differential effects. Notably, women aren’t going back to work as quickly as men. The Pew Research Center came out with a report today on minority groups. The whole thing is worth a read, but notably:

Men experienced greater setbacks in the recession, losing twice as many jobs as women from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. In the recovery, however, men have gained four times as many jobs as women. The weakness of the recovery for women is underscored by the fact that they represent the only group among those examined in this report for whom employment growth lagged behind population growth from 2009 to 2011.

So, naturally, the question becomes why? Are women slower to return to work because there are fewer jobs available to them? Are they choosing to stay unemployed to remain at home with their families? Are they more picky about what jobs they should take having achieved some modicum of success before the recession?

I think it would be interesting to compare numbers for women in general and numbers for men with only a high school education–the group which is generally cited as having fared worst in the recession.

Update: Casey Mulligan of UChicago goes into the marriage aspect of the recession part of this phenomenon a bit more deeply over on the NYT Economix blog.