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Can employment opportunities transform women’s work and family lives?

By Robert Jensen


In many developing countries, women often leave school, marry and start having children at a young age. For example, in India, less than half of girls aged 11-18 are enrolled in school. By age 18, nearly 60 percent of women are married and over a quarter have given birth. These outcomes are powerful indicators of the low social and economic progress of women, and may have consequences for poverty and income growth. It is therefore important to understand what factors can help improve these outcomes.

Most discussion emphasizes the need to address the underlying social or cultural underpinnings of women’s low status, or legal remedies such as raising the minimum age of school leaving or marriage. While such efforts are certainly important, we asked whether the labor market can play a role. In particular, if high-skill, well-paying jobs are available to women, will parents keep their daughters in school longer? And will young women then also delay marriage and childbearing in favor of working? Or are social norms about women’s roles or the stigma against women working outside of the home too great to be overcome simply by increasing the potential rewards in the labor market?

To test this hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment in northern India that was designed to in effect expand employment opportunities for women. The Business Outsource Processing (BPO) industry (e.g., call centers) has grown rapidly in India over the past decade, creating a large number of high skill, high pay jobs, particularly for women. However, because the sector was so new at the time of our study, awareness of these jobs was extremely limited, especially outside of urban areas.

From 2003 to 2006, we paid eight BPO recruiters to work in 80 randomly selected rural villages. The recruiters provided information about BPO jobs and free, intensive placement assistance to any interested woman. And because we assigned at random which villages got recruiters and which did not, we can infer that any differential change in outcomes for women in the two sets of villages must be due to the expanded labor force opportunities.

Alongside this intervention, we conducted a survey of 20 randomly selected households (regardless of whether they worked with the recruiters or got a BPO job) in each of the treatment and control villages, before and after the intervention. Importantly, the survey also tracked and gathered information on individuals who left home between the survey rounds, such as for work or marriage.

The intervention led to large and striking changes in women’s outcomes. Women aged 18−24 at follow-up in treatment villages were 4.6 percentage points more likely to work in a BPO job than women in control villages, and 2.4 percentage points more likely to work at all for pay outside the home. Women also expressed a greater desire to work throughout the life-course, representing a shift in aspirations towards work as a career with a longer-term attachment.

Source: 'Do Labor Market Opportunities Affect Young Women's Work and Family Decisions? Experimental Evidence from India,' Quarterly Journal of Economics.

The high education requirements for BPO jobs also led to increased schooling. Women 18−24 in treatment villages were more likely to enroll in computer or English language courses, indicating a willingness to invest towards getting a job or building a career when suitable opportunities are available. Girls 5-18 were five to six percentage points more likely to be enrolled in school in treatment villages, halving the male-female enrollment gap. Notably, the gains for girls were achieved without reductions for boys. This suggests that perhaps for at least some girls, it was low demand, rather than poverty or high fees, that kept them from school; parents were not investing in their daughters because they did not see a value to doing so. But when presented with clear and salient evidence of job opportunities, parents responded. In a second set of villages where recruiters helped both men and women get BPO jobs, girls gained by nearly the same amount, so it isn’t even necessary to stack the deck in favor of girls.

Finally, the increases in women’s employment and schooling were accompanied by significant delays in marriage and childbearing. Women 18−24 from treatment villages were five to six percentage points less likely to get married or to have given birth over the three years of our study. And although we cannot assess the long-term impact on fertility, women report wanting to have 0.35 fewer children in their lifetime, a potential indicator of significant demographic change.

Our results show that greater employment opportunities can lead to dramatic gains in women’s outcomes. Of course, we would not claim that this is the only means to achieving education, marriage and fertility change. However, our results imply that policies that promote women’s opportunities can improve these outcomes. This is particularly significant because most policies emphasize social or cultural influences or factors.

Read about the entire study and its results in “Do Labor Market Opportunities Affect Young Women’s Work and Family Decisions? Experimental Evidence from India” in this month’s Quarterly Journal of Economics for free online for a limited time.

Robert Jensen is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. He is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and a fellow of the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD). He received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University and prior to joining UCLA was a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

His research focuses on the microeconomics of international poverty and economic development, including topics such as gender, health, education, fertility, and the role of markets and private enterprise in promoting economic development. He has conducted and/or currently has ongoing survey projects in China, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nepal and India. He has also served as an adviser to the International Labor Organization and the World Bank on a variety of topics including strategies to eradicate child labor and the design of social welfare programs. He is an associate editor of Economic Development and Cultural Change, the Journal of Development Economics and the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

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