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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

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Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Thursday, February 26, 2009

    Gender Ratios Around the World

    Sometimes unexpected statistics get me thinking and researching...and sometimes leads in unexpected directions.

    I've been looking at a (somewhat old) book called The State of Women in the World Atlas, by Joni Seager, published in 1997. Most of the information shown is pretty much as you'd expect: women aren't really fully equal anywhere in the world, though some places they are more equal than others.

    But there are some interesting statistics. Like 80% of women surveyed in Pakistan report having suffered domestic violence. That's the highest reported. Interestingly, Japan is pretty high as well at 59%.

    How about abortion policy. Current policy in the US is, by and large, abortion is legal on request, but Republicans want to limit this. What nations are they emulating in their proposed polcy changes? The relatively liberal Republicans who want to restrict choice except in the case of the health of the woman or if the fetus is impaired would be emulating nations like Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, to name a few. The moderate Republicans who advocate making abortion illegal except in the case of the health of the woman are advocating the same policy found in Venezuela, Iran, Lybia, Burma and Afghanistan, to name a few. Finally, those extremist Republicans who want ALL abortions banned, even in the case where the woman's health is threatened, are emulating the policies found in very, very few nations: Djibouti, Columbia, Egypt, Bhutan, Nepal, the Phillipines, Central African Republic, Chile, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

    But the numbers that caught my eye most was the gender ratio. This ratio is, theoretically, 50%. In reality, naturally slightly more girls are born than boys (51%). This ratio sometimes reverses due to maternal mortality. When I look nation by nation, almost all nations fall between 48%-53%.

    But three nations are very noticably outside this range: (1995)

    Saudi Arabia: 45% women
    Qatar: 35% women
    United Arab Emirates: 34%

    These are astonishing numbers. What is at work here?

    One possibility that occurred to me is the fact that in some nations the desire for boys is exaggerated, leading to biased abortion rates and infanticide of girls. This is also covered in the atlas. Now it is true that Qatar has a bias towards boys and a distorted gender ratio at birth (suggesting biased abortion). But Saudi Arabia and UAE do not, and the two nations MOST infamous for this kind of bias are China and South Korea (with India by now probably equally infamous).

    China is criticized a great deal by Republicans for their biased abortion rates, and, in fact, Republicans often use this as an excuse to make cuts in family planning funding (such cuts actually puts far more women and children's lives in danger). But what no one seems to mention is South Korea is worse. China and S. Korea both are similarly biased towards boys for 1st and 2nd births. In China there are 95 and 83 girls born for every 100 boys at the first and second births in a family respectively. In South Korea these numbers are 93 and 88 girls for every 100 boys. Remember, it should be 100 for every 100...or maybe more like 102 girls per 100 boys due to a slightly higher precentage of girls born. The difference between the normal 100/100 and the actual numbers for China and South Korea are presumably due to biased abortions where known girl fetuses are aborted simply because boys are desired. When it becomes dramatic are at the 3rd and 4th births in a family. In China there are 80 and 76 girls born for every 100 boys at the 3rd and 4th births respectively. A clear bias for aborting girls, justifying the criticism China gets for this. But South Korea is far more dramatic with just 59 and 50 girls born for every 100 boys at the 3rd and 4th births respectively. This means some half of all girl fetuses are being aborted in South Korean families having their 3rd or 4th child.

    Many nations, including China and South Korea, also have a higher rate of girls dying within the first few years of life. This is usually due to infanticide or neglect of girls.

    You would expect this kind of bias, whether relating to abortion, infanticide or neglect, to be reflected in the gender ratios. Interestingly, they are not. China has a gender ratio of 49% women. South Korea has a gender ratio of 50%. Both are within the normal. Furthermore, there is no evidence for this kind of gender bias (despite their rampant sexism) in Saudi Arabia or UAE and even in Qatar it is nowhere near as evident than in nations like China, India, Pakistan and South Korea, where gender ratios are within the world norm of 48-53% One reason for this may be a delay in how these biases are reflected in total gender ratios. Another reason why biases against having girls may not be reflected in the overall gender ratios is that often these biases, though still present, do not become strong until the 3rd or 4th child. In China the average number of children per woman is 1.9, and in South Korea it is 1.6. That means reaching 3rd and 4th births is rare, and probably ofen occurs when a family already has 2 girls. So whatever the criticisms of these kinds of biases, particularly when it results in infanticide or neglect, they do not strongly affect gender ratio.

    So what is going on in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE?

    I decided to look beyond this atlas to statistics of another kind: immigrant work force.

    In Qatar economic growth drives a strong population increase largely through immigration. The result is dramatic. From Zawya:

    ...the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that there are currently around 225,000 Qatari citizens, meaning that they now only represent about 16% of the total population, down from 25% four years ago. Most of the remainder are workers from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, who are employed predominately in construction and in the services sector, for example, as housekeepers or shop assistants. In addition, significant numbers of Westerners are employed in senior management positions in many of the country's larger companies.


    I haven't found exact numbers for the UAE, but everything I find shows that it also relies on a largely immigrant workforce. I am not sure if it is as dramatic as in Qatar with more than 80% of the population immigrant workers, but I suspect it is close.

    Saudi Arabia is also dramatic but not quite as dramatic as Qatar. In Saudi Arabia I find 2002 figures of some 6 million immigrant workers, while population figures suggest a total population of 27.6 million. That makes more than 20% of the population immigrant workers.

    Immigrant workers are overwhelmingly men. Of course some women immigrants come either along with men or to serve as domestic servants, childcare, sex workers, etc. But in an economy where demand for immigrant labor is high men are often disproportionately represented.

    I think here is the reason for the strange gender ratios in these three nations. They are among the most dependent in the world on foreign workers and probably a disproportionate number of these workers are men. Other nations also rely heavily on immigrant labor (like Kuwait) but it is possible they a.) aren't AS dependent on immigration and b.) more of those immigrants are women. Turning back to the atlas, in Kuwait 77% of the workforce are men. High but not overwhelming. In Qatar 93% of the workforce are men. In Saudi Arabia as well 93% of the workforce are men. And in the UAE 91% are men. Other nations have some 90% of the workforce being men (e.g. Lybia at 90%, Jordan at 89%...) but they aren't nearly as reliant on immigrants in their workforce. A combination of extremely high reliance on immigrant workers and an extremely high bias against women in the workforce are almost certainly the reason why Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE have such strange gender ratios. And, interestingly, nations with high abortion, infanticide or neglect rates of girls due to a bias for having boys don't seem to wind up with dramatically unusual gender ratios, though perhaps over a longer period of time they will.

    What about gender rations biased the OTHER way. I am not convinced that any nation has a gender ration dramatically towards women. In no nation is there a clear combination of factors that give far more women than men. However, I do notice something interesting when I look at all the nations where the percent of women is around 53-54% (the highest ratios of women to men). Here is the list of nations that in 1995 had the highest ratios of women (53-54%):

    Belarus
    Cape Verde
    Estonia
    Georgia
    Latvia
    Lithuania
    Russia

    With the exception of Cape Verde all these nations are former Soviet republics. I don't have an explanation here, but I suspect something interesting, though subtle, is behind this. Low birth rates and a higher emigration rate for men than women? Not sure. Some people have suggested to me that a high alcoholism rate among men in the former Soviet Republics might be the cause. The fact that none of the Muslim republics are on the list might support this. And why Cape Verde? Perhaps 53% is just the high end of normal and the large representation of former Soviet republis is coincidence? If I figure it out, I'll let you know.

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