Women and Men: Proper Roles
Does the growth in power of women result in less power for men? If women become more powerful and independent, does it have negative consequences for families, society or the culture? Many would answer strongly in the affirmative.
Let's put this theory to the test. If society suffers as women become more independent and equal to men, then we would expect that the more independent women are, the worse off society is. Similarly, the less independent women are, the better off society is. "Worse off" and "better off" can be measured in a number of ways including economic wellbeing, freedom, happiness, health outcomes, crime and safety, or social stability.
So is this prediction confirmed in the real world? Unfortunately for the hardcore traditionalists, it does not appear to be. It turns out that the nations with the highest respect for women's rights, and the most egalitarian social structures (including Norway, Sweden and Finland) actually tend to have the greatest amount of prosperity, health, social stability and even happiness.
By contrast, the cultures with the least respect for women's rights or freedom (such as Afghanistan and Iran) tend to have extremely low levels of economic prosperity. They also have moderate to low levels of social stability and health outcomes.
Women, Men, Wellbeing and the Data
The UN Human Development Index measures the wellbeing of countries across 3 major areas: (1) health and life expectancy, (2) knowledge and education, and (3) income and material wealth.
For 2009, the top 15 performers on the HDI were the following:
- United States
All of these countries, and a number of others, earned the rank of "Very High Human Development." (More information on the HDI can be found here.)
The Global Gender Gap Report 2010 ranks countries according to the empowerment of women. To determine this ranking, factors are considered such as: the ratio of female labor force participation to male; the ratio of female income to male income; female literacy and school enrollment, relative to male; female life expectancy relative to male; and the number of females in parliament and in government. These were the top 15 performers listed:
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- United Kingdom
(The United States comes in at 19).
One will note the correlation between the two lists. Countries that perform well on one measure tend to do well on the other. This also holds when one looks at the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) from the UN's Human Development Reports.
The lowest-ranking countries on both HDI and Gender Gap Report include Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Chad. Each of these countries were included in the rank of "Low Human Development"--the lowest measure. Other low-ranking countries on the Gender Gap Report that had the second-to-lowest rank of "Medium Human Development" on the HDI included Iran, Syria, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen.
(One notable exception to this rule is Lesotho, which ranks 8th on the Gender Gap Report, but only 156 out of 182 countries on the HDI.)
Women have the most power in the richest countries
Women's Rights: Why?
There are two primary reasons why countries that permit their female citizens the most freedom also have the richest and healthiest and most stable societies. The first is correlational: as societies become wealthier and freer, they tend to become more tolerant, peaceful and open, which results in more tolerance and openness for women's independence. So there is a direct correlation between freedom, economic opportunity and security on the one hand, and more rights and independence enjoyed by all citizens on the other.
The second major reason is causal: greater freedom and independence for women actually causes more prosperity and overall wellbeing for a society. A country that previously only permitted men to get a job outside the home, will immediately double its labor force by allowing women to do the same.
What about the Family?
Insofar as the traditional family depends on a mommy and a daddy working in specific roles, that family will suffer as mommy starts to do what daddy used to do. If both mommy and daddy are out working, who will take care of the kids? Who will maintain the house? These are the kinds of arguments made by traditionalists staunch in their belief that greater freedom and independence for women has a negative effect on society.
The first thing that needs to be remembered is that, if indeed it were the case that the family suffered as a result of greater female independence, then we would expect to see millions upon millions of dysfunctional homes and screwed up kids in places like Sweden, Germany, Holland and most areas of the US. In reality, what we find is that dysfunctional homes and screwed up kids are extraordinarily few in number. They are there, to be sure, but they are mostly insignificant in the scheme of things, and even negligible in some places. Clearly families are surviving even in the absence of the traditional model.
In addition, the traditionalist argument neglects to take account of the positive effects on the family and children that may result from women's independence. For example, mom may be happier and more fulfilled, and a happier mom means happier kids. A better educated mother can better plan her family and her decisions to have children, which is better for everyone involved. A second major source of income in the household means that if dad is laid off or chooses to pursue a new business opportunity, the family isn't sent into financial distress. A better-educated mother can make better purchasing decisions, which helps the whole family. And the list goes on.
The more we think about it, the more it seems a woman's "proper role" is going to school, getting a job and contributing to society. Not hanging out in the kitchen all day.
Using Microsoft Excel, I looked more closely at the correlation between prosperity and gender equality, using the rankings from the HDI, GEM and GGI.
After removing countries for which data was not available, there was a 17% positive correlation between a country's ranking on the HDI and its ranking on the GGI. That is a pretty good relationship as far as statistics go.
More impressively, there was a whopping 51% positive correlation between a country's ranking on the HDI and its ranking on the GEM (see below). Although not precise, this indicates that perhaps half of a country's human development is tied to its gender equality! So if a poor country is interested in becoming richer, perhaps the easiest thing for it to do is to get rid of legal and institutional impediments to women's empowerment, such as property rights and girls' education.