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See Inside June 2005

Leveling the Playing Field

Economic development helps women pull even with men

Conventional wisdom has long held that attitudes toward the role of women in agricultural societies are much more conservative than those in economically advanced societies, such as western Europe and the U.S. Political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Pippa Norris of Harvard University have now put this assumption to the test. They analyzed data from the World Values Survey, an ongoing study of attitudes that gauges reactions to various statements such as whether a university education is more important for a boy than a girl and whether women must have children to be fulfilled in life. The researchers constructed a 0-to-100 scale to measure attitudes toward gender equality in 61 countries.

The chart depicts the scale for selected countries and shows that attitudes toward gender equality become increasingly more liberal as societies progress from one economic stage to the next. In agricultural societies, fertility is all-important because of high infant and child mortality. Anything that interferes with childbearing--such as divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and jobs for women outside the home--is therefore strongly discouraged. With industrialization, infant and child mortality decline markedly, lessening the pressure on women to reproduce. Women enter the paid labor force in large numbers, typically in factory, clerical and retail jobs, and at the same time become more literate and better educated. They begin to participate in representative government.

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