What Does Economic History Have to Say About Global Gender Inequality? Can Business Historians Make a Contribution as Well?

12 09 2016

Economic historians have recently been doing some fascinating research on comparative degrees of gender inequality and how they may have contributed to the famous Great Divergence. It occurs to me that qualitative business historians might be able to contribute to our understanding of this topic through case studies regarding historic female entrepreneurs in different cultural contexts.

The gender equality index from the Center for Global Economic History shows that while there has been a general improvement in the relative position of women in most countries during the past century, we have seen little in the way of convergence between countries. In other words, the world’s most patriarchal nations are not catching up with the most liberal ones, even though both sets of nations have moved in the direction of greater gender equality.

According to a new working paper from the Center for Global Economic History, this lack of convergence reflects the fact that gender inequality is both deeply rooted in the civilizations of different regions of the world.

Here is the paper abstract:

This paper develops an interrelated set of hypotheses about the links between gender relations, family systems and economic development in EurAsia. Firstly, we briefly discuss a number of ideas from the recent literature about the links between gender relations and economic development. Secondly, we suggest a measure of historic gender relations via the classification and measurement of historical family systems, and offer a set of maps of the institutions concerning marriage, inheritance and family formation that determine the degree of agency that women enjoyed at the micro level. Thirdly, we discuss the possible explanation of the genesis of the EurAsian pattern in family systems and gender relations as a by-product of the spread of agriculture and the process of ancient state formation that followed the Neolithic Revolution 10,000 years ago. Finally, we link these patterns in family systems and female agency to economic growth after 1500. We empirically demonstrate that high female agency was related to per capita GDP between 1800 and 2000. The ‘reversal of fortune’ that happened within EurAsia between 1000 and 2000, whereby the ancient centers of state formation and urbanization in the Middle East, India and China were overtaken by regions at the margin of the continent (Western Europe, Japan, Korea), can in our view be linked to this spatial pattern in gender relations and family systems found there (and reconstructed here).

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