29 March 2014


Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The starkest manifestation of the lack of gender equality is the phenomenon of “missing women,” a
term coined by Amartya Sen in a now classic article in the New York Review of Books (Sen, 1990), to
describe the observation that the proportion of women is lower than what would be expected if
women, in the developing world, were given equal medical care and food—if, in other words,
women were not discriminated against. It is estimated that there are now between 60 and 100 million
missing women in developing countries. Most of these missing women are not actively killed; they
die from cumulative neglect. They are continually treated differently than their brothers, which
increases their vulnerability. For each missing woman, there are many more women living under the
pall of vulnerability.
Women in developing countries lag behind men in many domains. In access to education: in low and
moderate income countries, for every 100 men in secondary schools and universities there are only
79 girls. In labor market opportunities: women are less likely to work, they earn less than men for
similar work, and are more likely to be in poverty even when they work. In political representation:
women constitute just 15.9 percent of the members of lower and upper houses of parliaments
(United Nations, 2005) In legal rights: women in many countries still lack independent rights to own
land, manage property, conduct business, or even travel without their husband's consent.
This essay addresses the interrelationships between economic development and gender
empowerment, defined as improving the ability of women to access the constituents of
development—in particular health, education, earning opportunities, rights, and political
participation. There is a reciprocal and intimate relationship between women’s empowerment and
economic development. In one direction, development alone can play a major role in driving down
inequality between men and women; in the other direction, continuing discrimination against women
can, as Amartya Sen has forcefully argued, hinder development. Empowerment can, in other words,
accelerate development.
Policy makers and social scientists have tended to focus on one or the other of these two
relationships. Those focusing on the first have argued that gender equality improves when poverty
declines. Policymakers should therefore focus on creating the conditions for economic growth and
prosperity, while seeking, of course, to maintain a level playing field for both genders, but without
adopting specific strategies targeted at improving the condition of women.
In contrast, many emphasize the second relationship, from empowerment to development. The
Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, for example, has argued that achieving gender
equality is a “prerequisite” to achieving the other Millennium Development Goals (MDG), including
eliminating poverty, reducing infant mortality, achieving universal education, and eliminating the
gender gap in education by 2015 (United Nations, 2005). In its report, “Engendering Development,”
the World Bank (2001) calls for policies to address gender imbalance in “rights, resources, and
voice,” and recommends that institutional structures be overhauled to promote equality, and that
specific measures, such as girl’s scholarships and quotas for women in parliament, be adopted. These
measures are justified, according to the report, not only because they promote equity, but because
they are necessary to accelerate development.
This essay reviews the evidence on both sides of the empowerment-development relationship. It first
shows that poverty and lack of opportunity breed inequality between men and women, so that when
economic development reduces poverty, the condition of women improves on two counts: first,
when poverty is reduced, the condition of everyone, including women, improves, and second, gender
inequality declines as poverty declines, so the condition of women improves more than that of men
with development. Economic development, however, is not enough to bring about complete equality
between men and women. Policy action is still necessary to achieve equality between genders. Such
policy action would be unambiguously justified if empowerment of women also stimulates further
development, starting a virtuous cycle. This essay argues that empowering women does indeed
change society’s choices in important ways, although the usual depiction of women as always making
the best decisions for long-term development is somewhat exaggerated. The conclusion here is a
more balanced, somewhat more pessimistic picture of the potential for women’s empowerment and
economic development to mutually reinforce each other than that offered by the more strident
voices on either side of the debate.
Can economic development cause women’s empowerment?
Poverty and lack of opportunity breed inequality between men and women. Gender inequality is
often greater among the poor, both within and across countries. For example, a study of 41 countries
found that, in most countries, the ratio of boys to girls enrolled in secondary school is larger for the
poorest 40 percent than for the richest 20 percent of the population (World Bank, 2001). Although
gaps remain large, gender equality has, however, increased over time in low and middle-income
countries in many important dimensions as those countries have developed. As access to primary
school increases worldwide, girls are rapidly catching up to boys, although 57 percent of the 115
million children who remain out of primary school are still girls. In addition, the number of women
enrolled in secondary school, for every 100 men, has risen from 40 in 1970 to 79 in 2005. The
participation of women in the labor market has grown by 15 percent in East Asia and Latin America
between 1971 and 1995, a rate faster than for men, and the gender gap in wages has narrowed as
well. The life expectancy of women has increased by 15-20 years in developing countries over the
same period (World Bank, 2001), while male life expectancy did not improve as much.
Is it the case that as countries develop, women’s empowerment will follow naturally, and there is
therefore no need for specific policies targeted at improving the condition of women? Is it sufficient
to fight poverty and to create the conditions for economic growth in poor countries? Recent research
suggests that economic growth, by reducing poverty and increasing opportunity, can indeed have an
important positive impact on gender equality.
Relaxing the grip of poverty through economic development
The first way by which economic development reduces inequality is by relaxing the constraints poor
households face, thus reducing the frequency at which they are placed in the position to make life or
death choices.
Even in the countries where the preference for boys is strongest, it is hard to find evidence that girls
receive less care than boys under normal circumstances. It is, of course, very difficult to observe
whether, for example, girls are given less to eat than boys, since households under observation are
likely to change their behavior. Also, when asked to keep diaries of how much each member
consumes over a given period, households may misreport the portions given to boys and girls. Angus
Deaton (1989, 1997) proposed a very ingenious way to use household consumption data to indirectly
estimate whether girls are given less to eat than boys. He noted that when a child is born, the
household, in effect, becomes poorer, since there is now one more person to feed—one who will
remain unproductive for a long while. This means that the adult members of the household need to
cut down on their own consumption to make room for the new expenditures. Observing the extent
to which the household consumption of “adult goods,” such as cigarettes, alcohol, or adult clothing
drops when a child is born, provides us with an indirect estimate of the “cost” of the child. If
families expend fewer resources on girls, for example, if girls are given less to eat than boys, then the
adults will cut their consumption of adult goods by a smaller amount when they have an extra girl
than when they have an extra boy. Yet, both in Cote d’Ivoire, where Deaton first conducted the
research, and in India, there is no evidence that households reduce consumption of adult goods less
for a girl than for a boy.
This is not to say that girls are not treated differently than boys. The differential treatment is
observed when either children or parents face extreme circumstances. India, where Deaton found no
difference in the expenditures on boys and girls has, one of the biggest discrepancies in genderspecific
mortality rates. One reason for this is that girls are treated differently when ill: for example, a
study found that in the poor neighborhoods of New Delhi, girls are more than twice as likely to die
of diarrhea (Khanna et al., 2003). If poor households are less likely to spend money on a girl’s illness
than on a boy’s illness, then improved access to health services, through either health insurance for
the entire family or free medical care for the poor, would disproportionately help girls, even if
parents do not change their behavior towards them.
Differential treatment of girls and boys also becomes acute when the household itself is facing a
crisis. In India, the excessive mortality rate of girls, relative to boys, spikes during droughts. When
they cannot afford to feed everyone, families disproportionately sacrifice the welfare of girls (Rose,
1999). Research conducted in rural Tanzania shows explicitly how the vulnerability of women
increases when households face a crisis. When the harvest is bad, due to droughts or floods, and
food is scarce, the murder of “witches” (almost always old women) is twice as likely to occur as in
normal years (Miguel, 2004). If crises throw poor households into circumstances in which they are
more likely to discriminate against vulnerable women, then increasing the ability of poor households
to weather crises would disproportionately help women.
These two examples suggest that just reducing the grip of poverty on these households or helping
them to deal with crises, could improve the welfare of women of all ages. Indeed, in India, Rose
(1999) also showed that households that can buffer their consumption in a bad year—those, for
example, with assets to sell—do not show the dramatic increase in relative mortality of girls during
droughts. This first suggests that providing households with insurance against risk may reduce both
child mortality and the mortality gap between boys and girls, and second, that households that are a
little richer are less likely to be thrown into desperation by bad rainfall. Reducing poverty, it seems,
even without targeting women, will disproportionately help women. Pension remittances in South
Africa offer suggestive evidence of how a non-targeted transfer can improve the plight of women. At
the end of apartheid, in the early 1990s, old-age pension programs, previously limited to whites, were
expanded to cover South Africans of all races. Since the introduction of the program, witch killings
in rural Northern Province have dropped dramatically (Singer, 2000). It is, of course, difficult to
definitively establish causality given the many other political and social changes that occurred in
South Africa during the same period.
Economic development reduces poverty. It increases the ability—distinct from will—of households
to withstand crises and the ability of governments to insure their poorest citizens against sickness and
hunger. Thus, by reducing the vulnerability of poor households to risk, economic development, even
without specifically targeting women, disproportionately helps them.
Giving women hope by expanding their opportunities
The fact that women have fewer opportunities in the labor market may contribute to their unequal
treatment in the household. If women do not work outside the home, there may be a perception that
they do not need to be as strong and healthy and that they do not need a formal education.
Interviews of parents in five states in north India conducted for the Public Report on Basic
Education (PROBE) in India (The PROBE Team, 1999), found that as high as 10 percent of them
believed that it was not important for girls to be educated—only up to 1 percent believed the same
for boys. Fifty-seven percent wanted their sons to study “as far as possible,” while only 28 percent
wanted the same for their daughters. Many parents believe that educating girls is not necessary, since
girls are only expected to marry and take care of their households.
If part of the motivation for educating children is to enhance their employment opportunities, then
improving the opportunities available to women in the labor market, as economic development does,
would provide a strong catalyst for the treatment of women to change for the better. Two recent
studies, one in China and one in India, show that increased opportunities for women in the labor
market do indeed translate into better outcomes for women. The introduction of the Household
Production Responsibility System as part of post-Mao agricultural reforms in rural China allowed
farming households to grow cash crops instead of staple cereals. This led to a substantial boost in the
production of tea in areas that were suitable for growing it. Given their smaller stature, particularly in
terms of their height and the size of their hands, women have a comparative advantage over men in
the production of tea. In regions unsuitable for growing tea, the production of cash crops
disproportionately produced by men rather than women increased following the reform. Qian (2005)
shows that the number of missing women, which is particularly high in China, decreased in tea
producing regions compared to other regions. For the same increase in total household income, an
increase in female income of 7 US dollars per month (10 percent) translates into a 1 percentage point
increase in the survival rate for girls. It is striking that this is true even in China, where it is generally
believed that cultural factors and the “one-child” policy are very strong determinants of the
preference for boys.
The entry of India into the world economy provides another example of economic development
leading to improved gender equality, even reversing the fortunes of boys and girls. Munshi and
Rosenzweig (2004) study the choice of language instruction in Mumbai over several decades. In
universities, instruction is in English, but in primary and secondary schools, parents can choose
either English or the local language, Marathi, as the medium of instruction for their child. When
India liberalized its economy in the 1990s, and its software and service industries grew, the economic
returns to education in English increased dramatically. The new sectors, such as outsourced
telemarketing, also provided labor market opportunities for women who had traditionally been shut
out of the labor market, leading to a rapid increase in English-based education for both boys and
girls. Among the lower castes, the increase was much faster for girls than for boys: the proportion of
lower-caste girls instructed in English almost caught up to that of upper-caste girls, but for the boys,
the increase was not any faster compared to other castes. Among the lower castes, girls are now more
likely to be educated in English than boys are. The reason is that members of low-caste households
have traditionally relied on the caste network to find jobs, and choosing instruction in English for the
child was construed as an attempt to break out from the foray of the caste. This spirit persists to
some extent, locking boys into education in Marathi and then less lucrative jobs. This constraint does
not apply to girls, who traditionally did not participate in the labor market. In other words, girls have
no tradition of relying on the caste (old-boy) network and are free from the group expectations that
bind the boys. Girls can be educated in English and therefore be in a better position to take
advantage of marketplace opportunities as they arise. A quiet revolution is happening, even if the
households are not fully aware of the consequences of their individual choices.
All these examples show that gender-blind policies that improve the economic welfare of households
can improve gender equality, and that diversifying the economy and increasing women’s options in
the labor market can cause households to adjust their behavior, moving them towards gender
Is that how it works, then: as countries develop, empowerment of women will follow naturally? Is
there a reason to design policies specifically targeted towards improving the condition of women? Or
is it sufficient for improving women’s condition to fight poverty and to create the conditions for
economic growth in poor countries? In a word, will economic development be enough?
Will economic development be enough?
There is evidence that growth will not be enough to overcome discrimination in the home and in a
number of domains. Sex ratios remain skewed in favor of boys. In China, despite rapid economic
growth (and the reforms described above), the sex ratio at birth has worsened continuously since
1970, with an acceleration in the 1990s from about 53 percent of boys among all (reported) births to
about 57 percent of boys among all (reported) births. Within Asia, the sex ratio at birth in South
Korea and Taiwan, both rich countries, is similar to that in China and India. The gap between girls
and boys is closing for primary and secondary schooling, but for tertiary education, the ratio of
females to males has not improved overall, even though participation has risen for both boys and
girls. In the labor market, even in developed countries, women who are equally qualified continue to
earn less than men at all levels of qualification. Legal rights, particularly property rights, of women
remain different from that of men in many countries. Compared to economic opportunities,
education, and legal rights, the gender gap in political participation has narrowed the least between
1995 and 2005. As of January 2005, only 17 countries in the world had met the target (set by the UN
Economic and Social Council in 1990) of having 30 percent or more women in national legislative
seats; the proportion of seats held by women in single or lower houses of parliament was only 15.9
percent globally, up from 13.5 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 1987 (United Nations, 2005).
The persistent difference in sex ratios at birth illustrates the fact that economic development, and the
availability of new technologies, can have perverse effects on gender equality if it decreases the cost
of discriminating against girls. High differences in reported sex ratios at birth between girls and boys
are the result of unreported birth—infanticide—and increasingly, from sex-selective abortion. Sexselective
abortion shows how the wider availability of new technologies and the increased well-being
of households resulting from economic development have led to an increase in a particularly
egregious form of discrimination. This is not limited to China: the 2001 census in India revealed a
reversal of the trend in the sex ratios, particularly in the most prosperous states in the north of India.
Economic calculus plays a role here as well. An advertisement for an amniocentesis center in
Mumbai reads, “Better pay Rs 500 now than Rs 50,000 later.” The Rs 50,000 refers to the dowry that
the parents would need to pay when a girl is married. With the cost of sex identification and abortion
becoming so low with new technologies, many more parents may prefer to abort girls rather than to
raise and marry them. Even if increased opportunities for women reduce the dowry, there is little
chance that they will bring it to such a low enough level so as to make it worthwhile to let a girl live
in the face of such a low cost for abortion.
The disparity in earnings at all levels of qualification illustrates the persisting bias against women.
Ample research by psychologists shows that in developed countries, there is a widespread “implicit”
bias, shared by both men and women, associating men with career and the sciences and women with
family and liberal arts (see, for example, Greenwald et al., 2002). This bias has persisted despite the
widespread participation of women in these academic disciplines and the labor markets in these
countries. These biases affect women’s rewards for participating in the labor market or for getting a
higher education both directly and indirectly, by persuading them that they are not cut out for
particular jobs, or just not as good as men. Psychologists have shown this effect, known as
“stereotype threat,” to be very powerful. When female and male students, recognized for being good
at math, are given a difficult math test in college, women do worse than men. When they are given
the same test after being told, “ You may have heard that girls are less good than boys at math, but
this is not true for this particular test,” however, female students do just as well as males (Spencer et
al., 1999)! The explanation for this phenomenon is that girls have accepted and internalized the bias
that they are not as good at math, and they give up when the going gets tough. When they are told
that this “fact” does not apply to that particular test, they know to continue to try hard. As long as
these biases persist, gender equality will be hindered even if the technological conditions for an even
playing field are met.
Likewise, while a number of factors continue to hinder the parliamentary representation of women—
the type of electoral system present in a country, the role and discipline of the political parties, the
lack of previous political experience of women—the widespread perception that women are not
competent leaders is probably the strongest barrier to greater participation of women in policy
making. It persists in developed countries as well: a series of experiments conducted by psychologists
have shown that, holding performance constant, women leaders are evaluated more negatively than
male leaders. These studies typically either provide written description of leadership situations,
varying the sex of the leader, or use trained actors to lead, allowing the experimenters to control the
degree of success the leader achieves (Swim et al., 1989). The surveys find the bias is most
pronounced when the leadership role is typically considered a male role.
There is no comparable evidence in developing countries, but there are many reasons to think that
these biases would be even stronger. Indeed, strong evidence from India shows that citizens tend to
give lower performance marks to female leaders than to male leaders. Since 1993, one-third of the
seats and presidencies of the rural village councils in India have been reserved for women. Topalova
and Duflo (2004) analyze a data set with both objective and subjective information about the
women’s actions as policymakers. The objective data comes from technical audits of the number and
quality of public goods available in the villages, and it shows that women provide more public goods
and at better quality than men do. Moreover, on average, women take significantly fewer bribes than
men—villagers are 1.5 percentage points less likely to pay bribes for obtaining service or to the police
when the village leader is a woman. Even so, the subjective data, on villagers’ satisfaction with their
leaders, shows that villagers are less satisfied with the performance of female presidents in providing
all services. Overall, villagers are 2 percentage points less satisfied with public goods when the
president is a woman. This is true even for drinking water, for which the quantity and quality is
objectively better in councils led by women. Surprisingly, the detractors include both men and
women, and they blame the female presidents for the service levels of goods that the council does
not even provide. It seems that there is a significant cultural barrier to recognizing women as
competent policy makers.
Evidence such as this provides support for the idea of “reservations” or quotas for women in
policymaking positions, since even when women do a better job, because perceptions are biased,
their achievements are not recognized by the electorate. Therefore, in the absence of affirmative
action of some sort, it would be very difficult for women to break into politics. Indeed, in most of
the 17 countries where the target of 30 percent of women in parliament has been achieved, some
kind of affirmative action measure was in place. If one wants to achieve balanced gender
representation rapidly, it seems clear that affirmative action will be needed.
More generally, growth alone will probably not be enough to bring about equality between women
and men in the foreseeable future: in the chance to be born, in the chance to survive childhood, in
education beyond primary school, in the labor market, and in political participation, the gap will
Yet, the gains from policies that target women come, to some extent, at the expense of men. This
much is evident in politics. Any position that a woman gets through a quota is a position that a man
does not get. The tradeoffs are not always as explicit, but can be very stark indeed. For example,
specific measures to improve access of girls to school, such as scholarships for girls or latrines in
school, are an expensive way to get more girls into schools. Given that enrollment is already high,
many scholarships go to girls who would have gone to school anyway, making the cost per additional
girl induced to go to school very high. This means that within the very limited budget of most
developing countries, the transfers to girls come, at the direct expenses of boys. The money spent on
scholarships is not spent on other things that may help both boys and girls, such as hiring new
Thus, policies that explicitly favor women need to be justified, not just in terms of being necessary to
bring about gender equality, but in terms of gender equality itself being desirable and worth the cost
it implies. The second part of this essay explores the common justification that the tradeoff between
the interests of various people seen in the short-run is transitory; in the long-run, there is no tradeoff
between helping women more and helping everyone, because increasing the share of resources going
to women will increase the amount of resources so much that everyone will be better off.

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