The World Bank just announced a new initiative (the Africa Gender Innovation Lab) to support innovative ideas to promote gender equality. I like this idea a lot – as I’ve pointed out before, a lot of ideas about the role of gender inequities in developing Africa, and what to do about them, are pretty uninformed and old-fashioned. Identifying where the key problems really lie, and what to do about them, is key if we’re going to make actual progress on gender relations, just like every social issue.
Markus Goldstein’s post announcing the initiative also alludes one reason why everyone – even sexists – should support gender equality in Africa. A lot of research has found that female farmers have lower crop yields than men. One could imagine a situation in which this is an efficient outcome: maybe there are increasing returns to labor over the relevant range of effort, and there’s some reason women can’t put in as many hours (e.g. they are forced to spend more time on childcare). This would still be a very unjust outcome, but at least it wouldn’t be wasteful. And I don’t think this story is my unique, hypothetical invention – variants underpin the back-slapping attitude among the privileged in societies around the world: “things are unfair but that’s what makes the world go round.”
The problem with this argument is that there’s no evidence that’s what’s really going on. Chris Udry’s classic paper on gender and agricultural production studies an area in Burkina Faso where men and women from the same household control separate plots of land. Women’s land is less productive, but labor and in particular fertilizer use are heavily concentrated on male-owned land. Households could get 6% boost to total crop production by evening things out. The main reason this happens is because men control the use of fertilizer and don’t share it with their wives. In a counterfactual world where women had more bargaining power, we’d expect to see not just more equity but more total production: sexism is inefficient.
Moreover, this result is very general – it derives not from some special aspect of agriculture in Burkina Faso but from the law of diminishing returns. If a society allocates inputs based on arbitrary, discriminatory rules, this will in general lead to not just unfairness but worse economic outcomes. Suppose our education system funded schools in a way that was driven by race, and favored whites.* $1000 in education spending in a white neighborhood where most kids finish high school doesn’t go nearly as far as $1000 spent in a poor black neighborhood with a high dropout rate. Over the long run, such a policy will reduce economic growth and hurt society as a whole.