Government policies imposing gender equality can indirectly encourage women to embrace competition and potentially lead to further reductions in gender inequality in the labour market. This is the implication of new research by Jane Zhang, published in the January 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.

By considering the impact of reforms on ethnic groups in Southwest China, the study shows that government policy can shape cultural norms in a way that reduces the gender gap in competitive behaviour. According to the author, competitiveness can help to explain inequality in the job market, where women may be reluctant to apply for positions or seek promotion, even when they have the same choices as men.

The study focuses on three ethnic groups in China: the Han, Yi and Mosuo, each of which were affected differently by large scale Communist gender egalitarian reforms in the 1950s.

The institutional reforms drastically changed women’s lives in terms of marriage, education, work and fertility, leading to lasting changes in gender roles in China. But the reforms were targeted at the majority Han ethnic group and largely exempted minority groups, such as the Yi and Mosuo, for political expediency. Although exempt, the Mosuo have their own longstanding egalitarian traditions.

The study finds no gender gap in competitiveness among the Han. In contrast, the Yi had a significant gender gap of 24%, with Yi women less inclined to be competitive than Han women. In comparison, Han and Mosuo women were similarly competitive.

Traditionally in Han and Yi societies, women were subordinate to men in all stages of life. In the pre-reform period, they were both subsistence farming economies with virtually universal illiteracy and where the age of marriage and the number of children were broadly similar in both societies.

Today, according to the research, Han women are less likely to marry before the age of 20, have higher rates of literacy and are more likely to work off-farm compared with the Yi women.

An analysis among the Yi of agricultural and non-agricultural households shows that the gender gap is driven entirely by the exempted households, where women are 40.5% less competitive than men. Han and Yi men are equally competitive, indicating that the institutional reforms did not appear to influence male competitive inclination.

The author compares these three groups within a single high school, taking account of demographics, socioeconomic status and academic performance. By doing so, she is able to isolate the effects of institutional change on the gender gap in competitiveness between the Han and Yi groups. She uses the Mosuo as a benchmark for female competitiveness in a culture that has developed its own gender egalitarian institutions to compare Han and Mosuo women.

The study concludes that these results suggest that top down gender egalitarian policies can have the indirect effect of encouraging women to embrace competition. This can potentially lead to further reductions in gender inequality in the labour market.

'Culture, institutions and the gender gap in competitive inclination: evidence from the communist experiment in China' by Y. Jane Zhang published in the January 2019 edition of The Economic Journal.

Y. Jane Zhang

Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology