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Economic Development and Gender Equality: Is There a Gender Kuznets Curve?

  • Joshua Eastin (a1) and Aseem Prakash (a2)

Abstract

This research note examines the relationship between economic development and gender equality. Drawing on the concept of the Kuznets curve, the authors hypothesize that the relationship between economic development and gender inequality is curvilinear (S shaped), with three distinct stages. In the first stage, economic development improves gender equality because it enables greater female labor-force participation. An independent income stream increases women's intrahousehold bargaining power. The opportunity to develop human capital confers greater political and social recognition. In the second stage, labor-force stratification and gender discrimination encourage divergent male/female income trajectories, which decrease the opportunity costs of female labor-force withdrawal and lend traction to social resistance against burgeoning gender norms. Consequently, there is a deceleration in initial equality gains. In the final stage, gender equality again improves, as greater educational participation and technological advancement provide new employment opportunities for women, increase the opportunity costs of staying home, and encourage the evolution of new social institutions and norms that overcome prior discriminatory practices. The authors find support for this argument in statistical tests of the relationship between economic development and gender equality on a panel of 146 developing countries for the period 1980–2005. They employ four indicators that reflect distinct dimensions of women's political, social, and economic status. They find economic development positively influences gender equality when per capita incomes are below $8,000–$10,000. These equality gains level off or decline slightly in the second stage, from $8,000–10,000 to about $25,000–$30,000. Beyond this level, economic development is again associated with improvements in gender equality. The key implication is that the effect of economic development on gender equality is contingent on the level of development. Policymakers and social activists should develop policy correctives to ensure that economic development confers improvements in gender equality across phases of development.

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* A previous version of this article was presented at the 2009 annual conference of the International Studies Association. We thank Susan Sell, Rebecca Szper, and Mike Ward for comments. Brad Epperly and Kristan Seibel provided invaluable technical assistance. Joshua Eastin acknowledges financial support from the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, University of Washington. Aseem Prakash acknowledges financial support from the Center for International Business Education and Research, University of Washington.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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