Turning around the war on girls

A new book about the infamous “missing women” by Mara Hvistendahl is gathering quite a storm, at least if you look at it from the perspective the Wall St. Journal (subscription required, my apologies if you can’t read the article), twitter, and my inbox. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the book itself yet, as I haven’t read it (don’t worry, I will!), but there is a lot of fodder provided by the book review’s author, Jonathan V. Last, and the literature in economics.

The question of missing girls as a result of sex-selection is not a new topic, by any means. Amartya Sen, a revered development economist and Nobel Prize winner, sounded the alarm more than 20 years ago now with an essay in the New York Times claiming that 100 million women were missing in the world, mostly in India and China, countries known to show strong son preference. He showed this by pointing out that while in the US and Europe, we see women outnumbering men, this does not hold true in much of the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and the ratios are becoming worse. He doesn’t get much into the evolutionary science that guides the numbers, but he reminds us that boys outnumber girls at birth, but girls babies are more likely to survive, leaving countries like the US (where son preference is present, but perhaps not enough to encourage sex-selective abortion or infanticide) with a few extra women per one hundred men. Despite the fact that girls seem to be a bit hardier than boys, many developing countries–particularly in Asia and particularly those with a history of government-backed population reduction initiatives–are experiencing an outsize number of male births and an increasingly imbalanced sex ratio in older cohorts. Instead of a few extra men for every one hundred women, we start to see 110, 115 or more men for every one hundred women.

Emily Oster made waves and a career when she (erroneously, it seems) claimed that Hepatitis B, not sex-selective abortion, infanticide, femicide, or the systematic discrimination against girl children, was the root cause for much of the case of the missing women. (Note to budding PhD economists, write your job market paper on a really controversial topic). Women who had contracted Hepatitis B, the story went, were more likely to give birth to boys, thus skewing the ratio of boys to girls. Her arguments have been shown to be rife with problems in a number of papers and the question of missing girls remains a hot topic in economics. Last year, a colleague attended a conference in which her session was only for papers on “Sex-selective abortion in India.” For reference, most sessions at large conferences bring together diverse papers for sessions on “Topics in Education” or “Monetary Policy”. Rarely do we see four papers on the same subject.

Without reading Mara’s book, what’s interesting right now is that there should be natural economic consequences, right? A skewed sex imbalance means that women are suddenly a scarce resource and we should see that scarcity leads to higher prices in the market. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into desirable outcomes when we look at the big picture, and it does not necessarily mean that women are suddenly more valued (culturally), just more valuable (financially, opportunity-cost wise). In the marriage market, we might expect to see dowry payments dropping, or even reversed, where men are paying a bride price instead. We should see increased wage rates for work that women tend to do. The lack of women available to do “women’s work”, should push other individuals–either children, men or older women–into that work. Older women working is probably not sustainable. While putting more children to work is certainly not a desirable development goal, it might end up being the eventual outcome for communities with strong social norms against men doing women’s work. To some extent, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of all these scenarios playing out in various communities.

An extreme sex imbalance also creates a serious problem with regard to who can get married and may even lead to increased violence. In the case that women now have more bargaining power in a relationship because they can earn more money, they are perhaps more likely to delay marriage. In the case where women don’t have more bargaining power and cultural norms dictate marrying them off anyway, we might see younger women getting married to older men (perhaps men who have gained enough standing to ‘earn’ one of the scarce wives), which reduces the pool of marriageable women for men of their age. Regardless of which scenario (or an alternate one) plays out, the lack of women entering the marriage market has the ability to create, in all these different ways, a group of young, directionless men who are more apt to engage in criminal, or merely unsavory, activities or take out their aggression on women.

One email I received concerning the book suggested that we should try to change cultural attitudes about the value of women in these societies. Perhaps, she suggested, we could provide cash payments to women who give birth to children or other incentives. It’s an interesting idea, but one that could easily backfire.

Before we can talk about incentivizing the birth of female children, we have to figure out whether the sex imbalance is hurting or helping women, whether it is hurting or helping societies and what exactly would happen to those girl babies if they were born. As for hurting or helping, I think the general consensus is that it’s hurting, but I don’t know that we know that much about the outcomes associated with sex imbalances, yet, and it may be different in different places. Sex imbalances are still, I believe, much more skewed in younger populations than older ones, so we’re still not seeing the full effect on the marriage and labor markets of the lack of brides and female workers. Even if they are in place, there’s certainly not a consensus on what they are.

If we’re going to pay people to have girls, that raises all sorts of policy issues. On the one hand, though perhaps unlikely, it does run the risk of tipping the imbalance in the other direction. It may be that we have to wait for cultural norms to play themselves out to see a natural increase in the value of girl babies as dowry payments decline. Alternatively , there is evidence that social norms marketing sorts of programs have indeed altered some social norms and could have an effect on the value of girls, which may be more useful than paying parents.

The saddest part of just paying parents to have the girl children is that we might see more infanticide and general neglect of girls. Much of sex-selective abortion has been shown to be a substitute for infanticide and neglect of girl babies. Though certainly not relevant in every case, this also not a situation in which we can restrict abortion in order to repopulate the world with women. Cultural norms and attitudes are what economists would call ‘sticky’ and how best to change them, if we even should change them (there’s another benevolent dictator argument to be had here), or let them run their course, is a complicated question. It’s certainly one for which we don’t have all the answers.


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