An old Spanish proverb goes like this: “To tell a woman everything she may not do is to tell her what she can do.” Women have been taking that to heart, going from being property to owning property.
But are they rare exceptions or part of an increasing new normal? And are they flourishing in free market societies or countries where the government is powerful enough to enact such legislation beneficial to women?
At a recent economics conference in Las Vegas, Rosemarie Fike (a doctoral student in economics at Florida State University) looked into those questions, examining the relationship between gender disparities in economic rights and the role of the free market in that country’s economics. Her research involved examining the OECD data on women, as well as questions on the World Values Survey about gender issues.
“Some of the survey questions were ‘when jobs are scarce, should men get priority in remaining jobs?” Fike told the audience. “They had questions about women in the workforce, as opposed to raising a family, as well as questions about women and their access to land, loans, inheritance, property, and even the ability to move around freely.”
Such research echoes a study done by Ana Isabel Eiras, a Senior Policy Analyst for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation. Using data on economic freedom, and United Nations Human Development Indicators reflecting gender empowerment, Eiras found that the more economic freedom (and less of a role for government), the higher the country scored on the gender empowerment numbers.
It’s not always some sexist government that is responsible for the outcome. “While the status for women has improved overall, women in all corners of the world still suffer from gross injustices. In many developing countries that have laws to ‘protect’ women, there is little enforcement,” write Charlotte Florance and Ana Quintana, also with the Heritage Foundation. “Even if a law criminalizes largely gender-specific issues such as discrimination or rape, weak institutions and undemocratic governance leave women unable to control their own lives.”
Fike’s work shows us that even economic freedom measures can be misleading unless they account for built-in biases against women. “When we incorporate these gender factors, we get a different conception of a country’s real commitment to freedom, for all,” she argued in her talk.
Several countries scored well in economic freedom measures, but not as well on the gender attitudes toward women in the workforce, owning property, and controlling their own economic destiny, from the Middle East and North Africa, to Sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia, should have their scores revised lower on economic freedom measures.
A country which provides a strong “free market” environment, but only for men, may not be really providing a free market. And a government and society free to reduce one group’s freedom is likely to make other exceptions to freedom as well, eventually undermining the country’s commitment to economic liberty.