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.

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Child obesity, Latin America and a good reminder

A few weeks ago, Adam Ozimek and I of Modeled Behavior had a discussion in the comments section here about the soda ban in New York City and the debate around paternalism. When I was slow to respond, we continued over email, just proof that you’re never really going to end a debate with an economist.

Adam was kind enough to send me a link to a piece in the Atlantic, which I thought did a much better job of summing up the arguments against the soda ban and paternalism in general, which I had, up to that point, not seen as convincingly articulated. What I liked about the argument is that it alluded to culture and how creating laws that are both nonsensical and devoid of cultural understanding and social norms makes for really bad law. And this I can totally get behind.

With that in mind, I spent much of last week searching for recent programs in the developing world for adolescent girls. The scope of this new project is rather wide and includes programs aimed at increasing political and community participation by girls, delaying marriage and sexual debut, improving education, health status, and bargaining power, decreasing HIV and violence against women, and so much more. I was thumbing through websites on health and violence and found the program Agente F, partially sponsored by Telefonica, one of the major cell carriers in Latin America. It’s intended to teach kids about healthy eating habits and avoid obesity, which, apparently, is fast becoming a problem in Latin America. I didn’t know. I thought we were still dealing with hunger and poverty, but apparently I’m behind the times. I have been unable to ascertain how widely this program is used, or whether anyone has actually played the game, but it’s interesting in that it has a lot of institutional support, at any rate.

I consider myself somewhat adept at Latin American cultures, and some more than others, having lived and spent time in many Latin American countries. I tell people “buen provecho” when they’re eating and can sing happy birthday in Spanish, Portuguese and Venezuelan (it’s a different song). I know where it’s appropriate to wait in line and where you’ll never get your coffee if you don’t hustle your way to the counter. I can talk to you a little bit about Catholics and saints and am sure to take a shower immediately if I get wet in the rain (RIP, Tomas.). I’m not a native, by any means, and I surely make mistakes, but it’s not a completely foreign world to me.

So I was struck by how many of the questions on the Agente F game I was unable to answer. Not just the ones about how many bones are in the body or how many muscles. Those, I guessed on and mostly did fine. One question in particular asked what should you do to ensure a good night’s sleep? I said exercise, but the answer was take a cold shower before going to bed. I see the logic. Your body needs to cool down before going to bed, and it’s often hot in many Latin American countries, which can make it difficult to sleep, but I thought it was a very odd answer.

A few questions were in this vein. The answers seemed totally foreign to me and reminded me how important cultural context is in creating programs and legislation with the policy goals of influencing behavior and actions. Despite my experience living in Latin America, I’m not a native. I have no idea whether taking a cold shower before bed would sound like a reasonable thing to a Mexican or a Colombian; maybe it’s totally within the realm of reason. Heck, maybe it’s within the realm of reason for natives of the United States and I’ve totally missed the boat. Regardless, culture is an important element to take into consideration when designing programs and laws.

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 goddess is coming

Girls, we have been told, or at least some would like us to believe, are the key to development. There’s been a lot of talk about productivity differentials being resolved by decreasing discrimination in the US, but much of the world has yet to catch up in this manner. Girls, getting them to school, keeping them from getting pregnant and dying in childbirth early on, giving them skills to earn wages and get jobs. All these things, clearly, are important, but there’s also not much hard evidence regarding just how important.

This is pretty much all I think about these days (that and, what the heck am I going to do India in two weeks). At a ladies’ tea on Saturday (yes, I do teas; you expect me to write about economics or go cycling all the time?), a friend said she was sure the Goddess was coming. This is a very Boulder thing to say, but all the same, I had to agree. My head, of course goes to the much more terrestrial outcomes of things like: women are becoming more educated than their male peers, earning more money, taking on higher leadership roles, but it’s the same sentiment, I think.

Just musing for the moment, but here’s a link to the World Bank’s 2012 report on Gender Equality. It’s long, and is perhaps not as optimistic as my friend, but  points out some pretty exciting things, like “gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries,” and “over half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force over the last 30 years.” The website is also good and much more navigable if you don’t feel like reading the whole report.

Celebrating Title IX

I’m starting a paper on adolescent girls as a consultancy project this week with a dear friend and coauthor. I love working with her and I’m so excited to see where we can take this project. We’re evaluating a range of programs and research aimed at improving outcomes for girls. We’ve cast a wide net early on and have a list a mile long of subjects and projects, from how water infrastructure reduces risk of rape for refugees to how allocation of assets to mothers improves girls’ education levels. I’m excited for this project because it takes a rather comprehensive approach. As an economist, often I’m asked to identify effects from singular events (by how much longer did you go to school if your mother spent an extra year in school?) as opposed to larger, integrative solutions. Econometric rigor and cost-benefit analysis requires the former, but it’s also nice to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Title IX is one of those bigger picture pieces of legislation that has far-reaching, integrative effects, and today it turns 40. I never knew a world where there wasn’t a swim team or lacrosse team for me to play on, and I’m pretty grateful for that. Sometimes, it seems small in the face of problems like FGM, but I’m glad we’re far past that. Happy anniversary, Title IX!

Betsey Stevenson has two great papers on Title IX and girls’ participation in sports in the US. Here, the 2010 ReStat paper and here, the 2007 Contemporary Economic Policy Paper. The 2010 paper is also a really nice example of using natural experiments for causal identification.

If you have even more time, check out the rolling links on the National Women’s Law Center blog, where bloggers from all over are celebrating Title IX with stories of coming into their own through sports, advancement opportunities that arose from the legislation, memoirs of struggling for fair treatment, hopes for the future and more.

h/t @SandraFluke