Why we educate women

The World Bank’s Development Impact Blog has recently been hosting guest posts from job market candidates in economics and a few days ago, Berk Ozler, a regular contributor, decided to synthesize some of the lessons from their papers and one by Rob Jensen (forthcoming in the QJE). With a brief mention of the fact that some are working papers, and certainly subject to change, Ozler concludes that we’ve been going about increasing women’s educational attainment in the developing world in the wrong way. Backward, he calls it. Instead of making it easier for women to go to school by providing school uniforms or scholarships or meals, we should be concentrating on changing women’s opportunities to work. If women see the possibility of work or higher wages or more openings, then they will likely demand more education for themselves or for their female children.

From a purely incentive-based approach, it makes perfect sense. If female children are likely to bring in earnings, particularly if they might be comparable to or even higher than their brothers, then parents have an incentive to educate female children. Higher earnings perhaps mean better marriage matches, but most certainly mean better insurance for parents as they age. Women with their own incomes can choose to take care of their parents.

From a feminist perspective, however, it’s a bit problematic. Such analysis implicitly values waged work over non-waged work, a problem inherent in many economics questions, most apparent in how we measure GDP. We know that increasing women’s education levels is valuable in and of itself, regardless of whether those women go on to work. More education for women means later marriage, lower fertility, reduced HIV/AIDS transmission, reduced FGM, and more.

It’s reasonable to think that regardless of how we set up the incentives–either by showcasing opportunity or reducing the immediate costs of schooling–all of these things will happen. And certainly job creation and the encouragement of seeking new opportunities to work is desirable. But if we choose to focus all of our resources on showcasing opportunity (particularly when it may set up unrealistic or very difficult to achieve expectations. note I haven’t read the Jensen paper yet), then we reinforce the idea that “women’s work”, or work in the home, is worth less than waged work.

In a world where a woman becomes educated in hopes of finding work, but doesn’t, how does that affect her ability to make household decisions? To leave an abusive spouse? To educate her own children, male and female, equally? Jensen’s paper seems to imply the very promise of women’s wages is enough to change bargaining power, but I wonder if that will stick. Does failure to find work, for whatever reason when it is understood to be the sole goal of attaining more schooling, affect women’s status?

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