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The Educational Gender Kuznets Curve!!

Updated: Aug 24

Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East all underwent 'an educational gender Kuznets curve'.


Simon Kuznets proposed that income inequality follows an inverted-U trajectory over the course of a country's economic development. When GDP per capita is low, inequality likewise tends to be low; and as income rises, so does inequality. But then inequality peaks and starts falling again as countries grow even further. Since then, a Kuznets Curve has been observed or asserted for many other variables, including female labour force participation.


Gender gaps in schooling also appear to follow a Kuznets Curve pattern. In 1890, gender gaps were very low in developing countries since hardly anyone was educated. As more schools were constructed over the early twentieth century families prioritised their sons' education. More educated men value education. They seek more educated wives and invest in their daughters' schooling. This trend is accelerated by rising household incomes, growing economic returns, and school construction. So educational gender gaps first rose and are now falling.


Here are my comments on a FASCINATING new paper by Jörg Baten, Michiel de Haas, Elisabeth Kempter and Felix Meier zu Selhausen. I'll discuss their four surprising findings and why Sub-Saharan Africa's current position in Figure 1 is not due to greater sexism but higher poverty.

Regional Variation


The shape of the curve varies by region. This reflects the importance of non-income factors, like culture.


Sub-Saharan Africa was - at the beginning of the 20th century - relatively egalitarian. It was also the least educated world region. Colonialism set SSA on a new trajectory: rising gender gaps in schooling.


SSA's gender gaps were never as large as MENA's or South Asia's, since boys' education remained relatively low. The peak of SSA's Kuznets curve was lower than elsewhere. But while other regions quickly achieved gender parity in education Sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind.


Gender inequalities worsened under colonialism


Baten et al show that the gender gap in schooling worsened during colonialism.


I wonder, was this a consequence of colonialism or just part of ongoing economic development and the educational gender Kuznets curve?


Their data does not allow us to disentangle causation. But we know from wider research that colonial administrators favoured men – in education, agricultural training, waged work, and bureaucracies. (See Akyeampong and Fofack 2014 and my work on Northern Rhodesia).


Men's advantage in the labour market fuelled gender inequalities in education. Colonial authorities encouraged cash crops and directed agricultural extension towards men. In places with both cash crops and railroad (i.e. market) access, boys were favoured in education.


Four surprising findings:


  1. Colonial missionary presence (both Catholic and Protestant) strongly reduced gender inequalities in schooling. These effects persist today.

  2. Men's predominance in crop systems does not exacerbate gender bias in schooling. Even where women are important in hoe agriculture, they are no more likely to advance in education, at least not in SSA. Conversely, Alesina et al's argue that gender divisions of labour in agriculture shape contemporary gender norms.

  3. Muslim-majority districts did NOT have worse gender inequality than others during the colonial period. Compared to other poor places with low education, gender inequalities were no worse under Islam.

  4. The practice of bride price, matriliny and the absence of polygamy are not associated with gender gaps in schooling.

This may sound bemusing and befuddling! How do we square Alesina et al's finding that the absence of the plough raises women's status and labour force participation with Baten et al's result that this has no impact on educational inequalities? Why is there no Islam effect? How is it that matriliny (strongly associated with other indicators of female status) has no bearing on girls' schooling? I'm not remotely puzzled.


The more I research the Great Gender Divergence (my forthcoming book), the more I realise that girls' education is a luxury good. Parents readily invest in girls education when their incomes rise, beyond a certain threshold. So we should not be surprised that it has a weak relationship with culture or other indicators of female status and autonomy. One thing is confuddling though.. Muslim-majority districts did not have relatively worse inequality under colonialism, but they do post-colonialism. Why is that? I don't know.


Also, please DO NOT interpret (1) as showing that missionaries enhanced women's status. They just increased the supply of education, while simultaneously promoting patriarchy. In Uganda, girls were educated in Protestant missionaries but discriminated against in colonial wage labour markets. In Northern Rhodesia, missionaries sought to impose insoluble, monogamous marriage by denying divorce to Church-members. By contrast, in the pre-colonial period, female divorcees were welcomed back by their matrikin. In Nigeria, the Presbyterian Church undermined women's political authority, as well as matriliny and matrilocality. They tried to mould autonomous Igbo women into 'good Christian wives' - as Mbah details in his wonderful new book, 'Emergent Masculinities: Gendered Power and Social Change in the Biafran Atlantic Age'.


Why are educational inequalities so large in Sub-Saharan Africa?


I suggest that SSSA's low world ranking is not due to greater sexism but higher poverty. Fertility remains high for families trapped in labour-intensive horticulture and saturated informal economies, where there are low returns to schooling and low opportunity costs of child-bearing. These impoverished families cannot heavily invest in all their children. They face 'Sophie’s Choice'.


Poverty also impedes girls’ educational progress. Many wed early, bear many children, become burdened by care-giving, and struggle to accumulate the capital, knowledge, and networks to challenge dominant men. Rising household wealth and public policy (e.g. free education) relax these constraints. Growth enables higher investment in girls, and closes gender gaps in education. Moreover, as male education increases so does demand for female education. Educated men seek more educated wives and invest in their daughters' schooling. This generates the downward slope in the educational gender Kuznets curve.


As I see it, Sub-Saharan Africa has tremendous intrinsic potential for progress on gender equality, especially in the south. It just needs more growth.

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