Robert Jensen, professor of economics and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, gave a Levitt Center- sponsored talk on April 21 about the gender bias in developing countries. In particular, he focused on the economic and cultural implications of preferences toward male children in India.
Jensen first became interested in the topic while working in India. He realized that there seemed to be a disproportionately small number of girls compared to boys. In fact, when he looked at census data, he found that there were 47 million fewer women than probability said there should be. This phenomenon, which Harvard economist Amartya Sen describes as “missing women,” is not unique to India. In the late 1990’s when Jensen compiled this information, there were about 125.8 million fewer women than there should have been, which he projected would have increased to about 150 million women today.
For some perspective, Jensen noted that the 150 million missing women represent “more than the total number of women in the U.S. today,” and “more than all military and civilian deaths in all wars of the 20th century combined.” Aside from the obvious human rights concerns that these “missing women” raise, they’re also linked to increased sex trafficking, elevated crime rates and social unrest. Thus the implications of these “missing women” extend far beyond the micro level (individual rights), and into the macro level (general welfare and stability).
Jensen noted that there are both immediate and underlying causes for these gender biases. At the most surface level, the population disparities can be linked to infanticide, excess female mortality (due to lower levels of medical treatment and poorer nutrition in girls), and sex-selective abortion.
While these surface level causes certainly impact the gender disparity, Jensen also identified two major underlying causes: history and economics. He noted that the level of gender bias is markedly more prominent in Northern India than in Southern India. This difference could be attributed to the overwhelming European influence in the north. For instance, Europeans introduced northern India to the caste system, which never existed in southern India.
As for the economic argument, Jensen noted that wheat dominates northern agriculture, whereas rice dominates southern agriculture. Whereas rice is relatively easy to plant, grow and harvest, wheat requires a great level of physical strength at every stage of planting and harvest. Thus women are devalued in the northern region because they can contribute less to the agricultural industry.
While Jensen’s own studies, as well as others, have confirmed the link between women’s economic valuations and cultural perceptions, Jensen acknowledged that there’s still a lot of research to be done on the causes and solutions of this issue. He urged the audience members to “wander,” observe the world and to “try to make a difference, whether big or small.”