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Missing Women: A Review of Underlying Causes and Policy Responses

One of the most egregious manifestations of gender bias is the phenomenon of “missing women.” The number of missing women is projected to increase to 150 million by 2035, as a result of prenatal sex selection and excess female mortality relative to men, and is reflected in male-biased sex ratios at all ages. The economics literature identifies several proximate causes of the deficit of females, including the widespread use of prenatal sex selection in many Asian countries, which has been fueled by the diffusion of ultrasound and other fetal sex-detection technology. The use of prenatal sex selection has become even more expansive with a decline in fertility, as parents with a preference for sons are less likely to achieve their desired sex composition of children at lower levels of fertility. Gender discrimination in investments in health and nutrition also leads to excess female mortality among children through multiple channels. The deeper causes of son preference lie in the socioeconomic and cultural norms embedded in patriarchal societies, and recent literature in economics seeks to quantify the impact of these norms and customs on the sex ratio. Particularly important are the norms of patrilineality, in which property and assets are passed through the male line, and patrilocality, in which elderly parents coreside with their sons, whereas their daughters move to live with their husbands’ families after marriage. Another strand of the literature explores the hypothesis that the devaluing of women has roots in historical agricultural systems: Societies that have made little use of women’s labor are today the ones with the largest female deficits. Finally, economic development is often associated with a decline in son preference, but, in practice, many correlates of development, such as women’s education, income, and work status, have little impact on the sex ratio unless accompanied by more extensive social transformations. A number of policies have been implemented by governments throughout the world to tackle this issue, including legislative bans on different forms of gender discrimination, financial incentives for families to compensate them for the perceived additional costs of having a daughter, and media and advocacy campaigns that seek to increase the inherent demand for daughters by shifting the norm of son preference. Quantitative evaluations of some of these policies find mixed results. Where policies are unable to address the root causes of son preference, they often simply deflect discrimination from the targeted margin to another margin, and in some cases, they even fail in their core objectives. On the other hand, the expansion of social safety nets has had a considerable impact in reducing the reliance of parents on their sons. Similarly, media and advocacy campaigns that aim to increase the perceived value of women have also shown promise, even if their progress appears slow. Analysis of the welfare consequences of such interventions suggests that governments must pay close attention to underlying sociocultural norms when designing policy.

School Choice and Accountability

School choice and accountability are both mechanisms initially designed to improve standards of education in publicly provided schools, although they have been introduced worldwide with alternative motivations such as to promote equality of access to “good” schools. Economists were active in the initial design of school choice and accountability systems, and continue to advise and provide evidence to school authorities to improve the functioning of the “quasi-market.” School choice, defined broadly, is any system in which parents’ preferences over schools are an input to their child’s allocation to school. Milton Friedman initially hypothesized that school choice would increase the diversity of education providers and improve schools’ productivity through competition. As in the healthcare sector and other public services, “quasi-markets” can respond to choice and competition by improving standards to attract consumers. Theoretical and empirical work have interrogated this prediction and provided conditions for this prediction to hold. Another reason is to promote equality of access to “good” schools and therefore improve social mobility. Rather than school places being rationed through market forces in the form of higher house prices, for example, school choice can promote equality of access to popular schools. Research has typically considered the role of school choice in increasing segregation between different groups of pupils, however, due to differences in parents’ preferences for school attributes and, in some cases, the complexity of the system. School accountability is defined as the public provision of school-performance information, on a regular basis, in the same format, and using independent metrics. Accountability has two functions: providing incentives for schools, and information for parents and central authorities. School choice and accountability are linked, in that accountability provides information to parents making school choices, and school choice multiplies the incentive effect of public accountability. Research has studied the effect of school accountability on pupils’ attainment and the implications for teachers as an intermediate mechanism.

The Effects of Parental Job Loss on Children’s Outcomes

Severe economic downturns are typically characterized by a high incidence of job losses. The available evidence suggests that job losers suffer short-run earning losses that persist in the long run, are more likely to remain unemployed, suffer negative health impacts, and experience an increased likelihood of divorce. Job losses have therefore the potential to generate spillover effects for other members of the household, including children. This comes about because most of the negative consequences of job loss have a direct effect on variables that enter both the production function of cognitive achievement and the health production function. Workers who lose their jobs are likely different from those who remain employed in ways that are unobserved to the researcher and that might, in turn, affect child outcomes. Omitted variable bias poses a challenge to obtaining causal estimates of parental job loss. The way the literature has tried to approximate the ideal experiment has mainly depended on whether the child outcome under analysis could be observed both before and after the shock (i.e., both before and after parental job loss), normally relying on job losses coming from plant closures or downsizes and/or individual fixed effects. A survey of the literature shows that father’s job losses seem to have a detrimental impact on outcomes measuring children’s health and school performance. The impact of mother’s job losses on these same outcomes is mixed (including negative, null, and positive impacts). The impact on more long-term outcomes is less clear, with very mixed findings when it comes to the effect of parental job loss on college enrollment, and small impacts on earnings. In many studies, though, average effects mask important differences across subgroups: the negative impact of parental job loss seems to be mostly concentrated on disadvantaged households.