What We’re Reading

  • Joshua Foust delves into the Bradley Manning court-martial and reveals some fascinating insight into the proceedings, Wikileaks, and the man on trial. Foust’s final, depressing conclusion: “It says something about the world that such a tiny organization can create such disruption yet face so few consequences. In its wake, Wikileaks has left a trail of upended lives — including Bradley Manning’s. It will be sad to see such a troubled, fascinating young man be thrown into prison at the age of twenty-five, but that is the bed he made. It is approaching time for him to lie in it.”
  • Seyla Benhabib on Erdogan’s culture war against Turkish secularism and the growing illiberalism of Turkish democracy: “This moral micromanagement of people’s private lives comes amid an increasingly strident government assault on political and civil liberties. Turkey’s record on journalistic and artistic freedoms is abysmal; rights of assembly and protest are also increasingly restricted.”
  • Pakistan analyst Imtiaz Gul speaks of the difficulties ahead for Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, including normalizing relations with the U.S.
  • Women, family and academia: not an easy combination. “Our most important finding has been that family negatively affects women’s, but not men’s, early academic careers. Furthermore, academic women who advance through the faculty ranks have historically paid a considerable price for doing so, in the form of much lower rates of family formation, fertility, and higher rates of family dissolution. For men, however, the pattern has been either neutral or even net-positive.”
  • The season of inspiring commencement speeches is upon us. Ben Bernanke at Princeton.

Naming and Faming: Forbes’ Power Women

Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women for this year is out and Angela Merkel has come out on top again, for the 7th time in the last 8 years. I was struck by the number of American women on the list simply by glancing at it. When I went through the entire list of 100 women, I realized that an astounding 58 were American. Does this mean that other countries are not producing ‘powerful women’?

Well, let’s look at how Forbes decides who is a powerful woman. According to the magazine, 250 candidates are picked each year, out of which 100 are picked across 7 fields – billionaires, business, lifestyle (entertainment and fashion), media, nonprofits and NGOs, politics and technology. Three variables are then used to decide one’s overall rank as well the rank within the category to which she belongs: money, media presence and impact. While money and media presence are calculated using fairly standard metrics (see here), ‘impact’ is measured by the “extent of their reach across industries, cultures and countries, numbers of spheres of influence and people they affect, and how actively they wield their power.” The extremely poor operationalization (if one can even call it that) of this third crucial variable ‘impact’ might be the reason why the list is so US-centric. Or maybe I have some idealistic conception of what ‘impact’ means in that it should affect the lives of people around the world, especially women, positively. Otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to believe that someone like Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, or Jenna Lyons, Creative Director of J. Crew, is actually influencing a wide spectrum of society in any manner, let alone positive.

Missing Women, Missing Mechanisms

In 1990, Amartya Sen coined the term ‘missing women’ to denote the shortage of women contributing to the skewed sex ratios in Asia and Africa, where men outnumber women, in stark contrast to North America and Europe, where women outnumber men. Estimates of missing women were originally meant to represent some measure of the degree of gender discrimination. This discrimination was attributed to three main causes causes: sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and the comparative neglect of female health and nutrition during childhood, which led to their deaths early in life.

In 2010, Anderson and Ray, used the Sen-Coale counterfactual, which compares birth and death ratios of men and women in developing countries to similar populations in developed countries, in order to examine the ratio of these missing women across both age and diseases levels. They found a wide variation in the pattern of these missing women between India and China.

“A large percentage of the missing women in China are located before birth and in infancy. We estimate that around 37–45% of the missing women in China are due to prenatal factors alone. But the numbers for India are more evenly distributed across the different age groups.”

In a more recent work in 2012, they further explore the unlikely distribution of missing women across India, and find that

“… a total of more than two million women in India are missing in a given year….First, the majority of missing women, in India die in adulthood. Our estimates demonstrate that roughly 12% of missing women are found at birth, 25% die in childhood, 18% at the reproductive ages, and 45% die at older ages.”

They also find a great deal of variation in the distribution of missing women by age group across the states: Punjab is the only state where the majority of missing women are found at birth, while Haryana and Rajasthan are the only two states where a majority of these missing women are either never born or die in childhood.

The above results show us that commonly considered explanations such as sex-selective abortion or female infanticide cannot explain the age distribution of these missing women. This is certainly true in India and may hold for other countries with similar distributions of missing women as well. It is not as if the woes of adult women are completely ignored (see Chen and Dreze (1992) and Kochar (1999) ), but contrary to conventional wisdom, it turns out that excess female mortality in adulthood is as serious of a problem as missing girls who are never born or die prematurely in childhood.

So what are some possible mechanisms for the existence of so many ‘missing women’ in adulthood? More importantly, is the number high due to differentiated access to healthcare leading to higher maternal mortality and other diseases or due to overt social basis of gender discrimination leading to dowry death and bride-burning? Bloch and Rao (2002) document how women who pay less dowry are more likely to be victims of marital violence. More research is needed to tease apart these mechanisms and understand the reasons behind the surprisingly large number of ‘missing women’ in adulthood. From a policy perspective, at time when new legislation against sexual violence is being debated in India, it is also important to have a broader conversation about the kinds of discrimination being faced by adult women in order to find the most effective ways to address it.

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Assessing the Effect of Gender Quotas on Politics

Last week, Natalia Bueno drew our attention to gender quotas in politics, pointing out that while the number of women candidates in elections to the local and federal chambers in Brazil was increasing, the proportion of women actually getting elected was not witnessing a commensurate increase; in fact, it was mostly stable over time. Regardless of whether a quota is for a certain percentage of women that must contest elections, or for a certain percentage of women that must actually hold legislative seats, Natalia raises an important question at the end of her post – is such affirmative action even effective? Like Brazil, India has also been struggling to implement reforms that encourage representation of women in government. While a 1992 amendment to the Indian constitution made it mandatory for 33% of elected seats at the local level (village panchayats) to be filled with women, the bill for implementing this reform at the national level has still not been passed. In light of the debate on women’s issues that has been sparked off by the recent gang-rape in Delhi, a number of proposals are now back into consideration, including the Women’s Reservation Bill, which mandates that 33% of all seats in the lower house of the Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies be reserved for women. But does guaranteeing a certain number of elected seats for women yield their group any benefits?

Government Participation by Women (womenstats.org)

In terms of effectiveness of gender quotas and representation, what exactly are we aiming for? Observers draw a distinction between descriptive representation,  the similarity between the representative and the represented in terms of race/ethnicity/gender, symbolic representation, the subjective feeling of “fair” represented, and substantive representation. This third kind is particularly important as it implies that the legislators actually enact policy which reflects the concerns of the constituents.

Looking at the effects of descriptive representation, Barnes and Burchard, using the Afro-Barometer survey for 20 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, show that increased representation of women in the political sphere is positively related the political engagement of women at the mass level. Political engagement here is measured in a variety of ways – talking about politics, participating in demonstrations, interest in politics, contacting a member of Parliament and contacting a party leader. More importantly, they argue that true gender parity in representation is not even necessary to achieve a commensurate parity in political engagement – as the percentage of women in the legislature increases from 25 to 35%, the difference between male and female turnout in voting during elections virtually disappears.

However, such descriptive representation does not necessarily translate into symbolic or substantive representation. This is a concern in many developing countries such as India and Brazil, where women candidates may often be wives or relatives of male candidates in politics and, therefore, may do little to advance the interests of the constituents who they are supposed to represent.  Evidence of symbolic representation however, can also be found in some contexts. Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova have found that increased representation of women in local councils in India has gradually contributed to an increased reporting of crime against women. In substantive terms, Chattopadhyay and Duflo using the reservation rule mentioned above, find that female leaders invest money in public goods considered more important to women than men, which in this case were drinking water and roads.

The above examples show us that the effectiveness of gender quotas is conditional on many factors and the kind of representation that we choose to focus on. Besides examining the effects of these gender quotas, it would also be interesting to analyze if exposure to power and the formal workings of politics builds capabilities for these female leaders. In other words, what are the effects of these quotas on its direct beneficiaries?

Representation by law? Gender quotas in Brazil’s elections

On January 1st, 2013, 7,646 women took office as members of the local legislatures in more than five thousand municipalities in Brazil. 665 women were also elected as mayors in these municipalities, marking the largest number of women to enter local office in Brazil’s history.

Is this latest achievement part of the trend started two years ago, when on January 1st, 2011, Dilma Rousseff took office as President of the country? After all, in 2010, not only did Brazil elect its first female president, Marina Silva also gained the largest vote share of any third-runner for the presidency since re-democratization in 1989. Or, are these numbers the direct effect of the gender quota law enacted in 2009? This law requires that a minimum of 30%, of women be on party lists for proportional elections (local, state, and federal legislators). This 2009 law, applied for the first time in the 2012 elections, made a similar 1997 gender quota law more effective by forcing parties to actually enlist women to their tickets.

Examining only the absolute number of elected women in Brazil can be misleading, however. Indeed, careful examination suggests that the proportion of elected women has only risen slightly despite the more effective enforcement of the quota law.


The graphs above tell us part of the story. We can see that the proportion of elected women still remains significantly less than elected men. The first graph indicates that  even though the number of female candidates for local chambers has risen sharply (due to the enforcement of the quota law), the proportion of elected local female legislators is still very small.  Similarly, the proportion of elected state and federal deputies is remarkably stable even through there has been a rise in the number of candidates in the 2010 elections, as shown in the second graph. Given that the gender quota does not affect majoritarian elections, it is a bit surprising that the proportion of elected female mayors has been rising more rapidly than the proportion of elected female local legislators.

One possible explanation for the under-performance of women in elections for local chambers is the lack of resources and support provided by the parties, which recruit women simply in order to formally reach the threshold demanded by the law. This is a difficult hypothesis to test but the graphs above shed some light on it. For instance, the number of female candidates who identified as “housewives” increased in the 2012 elections. This may reflect the greater influence the Electoral Justice had on parties to obey the gender quota law, leading parties to enroll female candidates who were related to existing male candidates.

The gender quota law provides a necessary first step towards equal gender representation. Nevertheless, making sure women have spots on party lists does not guarantee that they will have the resources or access to other factors necessary to get elected.  Like other types of affirmative action, quotas tackle issues of inequality by guaranteeing access of underprivileged groups to the arenas in which they are systematically under-represented (these arenas could be the realm of elections, universities or jobs, among others). Yet, whether this type of affirmative action proves ultimately effective hinges upon empirical and normative assessments.

Discrimination despite Development: Women’s Position in India

Although the causes remain unclear, India, considered by most a progressive and tolerant nation, is witnessing a sudden spate of violent crimes against women. Earlier in June, a survey of 370 gender specialists found India to be the worst place to be a woman among all the G-20 countries (a list that also includes Saudi Arabia). Just last week, an 18-year-old in Assam, a state in northeastern India, was molested by a mob of 20 men. While people standing around clearly had enough time to record a video, no one bothered to call the police. Public apathy notwithstanding, official inaction has also contributed to a steadily deteriorating situation. A few months back, police in Gurgaon advised women against venturing out after 8 pm. In February, the government of West Bengal reacted to the gang-rape of a young woman by accusing the victim of having ‘loose morals’ and being part of a conspiracy that would discredit the Chief Minister of the state.

It is not only violent crimes that are commonplace, other kinds of (non-violent) crimes—commonly referred to as “eve-teasing”—are a part of many women’s daily existence while out at work or on public transport, and include being subjected to sexually suggestive remarks and unwanted physical contact. The expression of discomfort by many women led the Delhi Metro to designate separate, women-only carriages on the train. However, as many have rightly claimed, separation of the sexes is not something that increases tolerance. An anonymous blog post by a woman highlights how her ride in the Delhi metro turned nasty when she did not board the ladies’ carriage of the train and instead traveled in the general compartment.

Indeed, it does seem that crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011. The biggest leaps occurred in cases under “the dowry prohibition act,” which classifies the act of giving or take dowry, as well as violent acts towards a woman after marriage in order to demand material goods from her family as a criminal act (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year), and of rape (up 9.2%).

India Crime Rates. Source: Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova (2011).

These disturbing trends raise the question of why crime against women has being rising in India. This is all the more puzzling given the overall decrease in other kinds of crime (see figure).

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