Culture & Society

Ideas of India: The Great Gender Divergence

One of the big things that economists care about across centuries is the divergence: Why are some countries rich and other countries poor? This is the big question Adam Smith posed. Then there have been variations of this question based on region, based on religion.

But there’s very little discussion on the divergence within a household. The person who’s literally sleeping next door, or actually sleeping in the bed next to you, may have a vastly different set of economic opportunities, labor force participation, education, income, voice in the family and pretty much life expectancy, pretty much every metric that we care about in progress.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the great gender divergence, which is also your main area of research, and you’re working on a book on it. My first question is, why should we care about gender divergence?

First, we as a society benefit from learning from women’s ideas, intellect, technology, discoveries, expressions. Absolutely. Secondly, women themselves, if they’re trapped, if they’re secluded, if they’re surveilled, if they’re policed, they can’t live a full life in the way that men can. If it’s men going out into the street, men debating the laws of the land, men enjoying leisure time, men gathering in the cafe, men relaxing, men unwinding, men being free to roam and go about and feel comfortable and confident . . .

Kavita Krishnan has a wonderful book on “Fearless Freedom,” and she talks about Indian women feeling trapped like a caged bird. It’s about freedom and autonomy and liberation to express yourself and enjoy new things—and freedom not just for women but for men, for men to enjoy caregiving roles without worrying they’ll be condemned and policed. There are social benefits for us all.

Gender and Urbanization

In your research, and this is your research in both Zambia and Cambodia, you’ve shown how urbanization and the process of urbanization fosters greater gender equality. How should we think about rural-urban differences in India based on what you’ve learned in Zambia and Cambodia? Are these insights easily transposable, or is it very contextual and the story is quite different in India?

It’s totally contextual. It’s very different. In Zambia and Cambodia, there are fairly weak constraints on female mobility. In Cambodia, when factories open up, women flock to the cities to make money, to support their families, to demonstrate filial piety. When they go to the city, say, earn their own income and they live in these row rooms, maybe the neighbor is telling them something. They see that their neighbor is doing the washing-up with her husband. They get an idea; they start pestering their husbands to share the washing up as well. Maybe they go on a tuk-tuk, they see new sights, they explore new horizons.

You see, there’s massive rupture and shift in gender ideologies. Through iterative experimentation, people become emboldened to challenge traditional patriarchal practices. That is the story of cities catalyzing gender equality.

Now, the important thing is that culture mediates the rate at which female labor supply increases in response to economic opportunities. Now, Indian cities are quite different for three main reasons. One is, you have a strong traditional preference for female seclusion, and that means that female labor supply weakly responds to economic demand.

The second factor is that, unlike Cambodia, manufacturing is less labor intensive and occupies a smaller sector of India’s total economy. There is less labor demand in Indian cities. That means that poor Dalit women in the villages, they don’t have so many exit options because there aren’t so many big factories where they could escape to.

Another unique factor of India’s structural transformation is there is a very high share of informal employment outside agriculture. Many, many people rely on working in their own enterprise. They’re working in a small family firm, and they don’t have unemployment insurance. They don’t have protections; they don’t have Social Security. They remain heavily dependent on their caste and kin networks for everything, for mutual assurance, for bank loans, for helping them out in any kind of trouble.

That’s why in Indian cities, particularly the smaller cities, people tend to live close to their caste and rely on their caste networks. As long as people rely on their caste networks for economic support in times of crisis, then they need to conform to traditional ideas of propriety, and that includes female seclusion.

For those reasons—female seclusion, less labor demand and urban informality—the city doesn’t have that rupturous effect. Ambedkar once said that the village is the den of ignorance and localism and communalism. Many of those traditional patriarchal institutions have been transported to Indian cities because of the unique nature of its structural transformation.