A Historical Perspective on Gender Inequality and Development in the World Economy, c. 1850-2000

Selin Dilli

Research output: ThesisThesis fully external


The main objective of this dissertation is to add a historical perspective to the debate on the link between gender inequality and development. To do so, the dissertation first documents global gender differences in life expectancy and sex ratios (to cover health status); in average years of schooling, labour force participation, inheritance rights and marriage age (to cover socioeconomic status); and in parliamentary seats and suffrage (to cover political rights) over the last century. These indicators show thatthe position of women has improved substantially throughout the world over the last century. For instance, two centuries ago, women everywhere were denied political rights and access to the political arena, whereas today this legal restriction has been removed everywhere. While women could inherit property only in a handful of Western European countries at the turn of the twentieth century, today gender egalitarian inheritance practices are the norm in many corners of the world, except in a number of MENA and Sub-Saharan African countries. A composite indicator of gender equality taking these dimensions into account together shows strong progress in reducing gender inequality in the past 60 years in most regions.Only in East Asia and in Eastern Europe has this decline stalled in the 1980s.However, this progress has been too limited to speak of a gender equal world. Despite improvement, women are still disadvantaged, for instance, with regards to labour force and political participation, and in extreme cases are even denied the right to live. A number of explanations are relevant to understand progress towards gender equality. Economic development partly explains later marriage ages, higher levels of education and improvements in life expectancy of women in which global progress started to become visible from the 1970s onwards. Next to economic development, international forces such as CEDAW and the United Nations help explain the timing of these improvements in women’s position. However, the economic development thesis fails to give a full account for the trends in female labour force participation and political representation of women. Instead, historical institutions, in particular the legal systems countries have adapted in the past and family systems, seem to be relevant in explaining why economic development does not per se translate into higher gender equality. The findings, therefore, highlight the importance of incorporating a historical perspective to develop better strategies for policy makers to eliminate gender inequalities persisting today. The second part of the dissertation shows that eliminating the institutional arrangements that discriminate against women has consequences for the democratic and economic development of societies as well. For instance, societies in which women have less decision making power in the household are characterized by a higher level of fertility, and lower levels of educational attainment, less democratic institutions and lower economic development. Overall, the findings of the dissertation support the view that empowering women is ‘smart economics’ in the long run.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
Award date22-Dec-2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes

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