On the Long-Run Consequences of Male Biased Sex Ratios

Pauline Grosjean (University of New South Wales) is a newly elected member of SIOE's board. The following essay introduces her to SIOE.org's readers.

By Pauline Grosjean

When I moved to Australia 5 years ago, I was struck by a particular phenomenon. It became clear very quickly that gender relations were somewhat different in Australia, when compared to France where I am from; to the US where I had lived for 4 years; and even from the U.K. (of which Australia is a former ‘colony’ after all), where I had lived for 2 years. In Australia, I found much more than in any of these countries, that men hang out with men, and women with women. I had just taken up a senior lectureship at UNSW in Sydney and I chose to live by the beach - a surf beach with such a reputation for a macho culture that it was made into a movie (“The Bra Boys”. Yes. Not: “The Bra Girls” - probably another genre altogether). However, what I saw every day was men – fathers - spending a lot of time and taking very good care of their children on that famous beach, very often on their own, at all times of day. Not exactly what I expected from a macho culture.

The paradox was resolved after my co-author and I collected historical data, as well as modern day opinion and labour force participation data, to study the long run consequences of male biased sex ratios. There was many more men than women in Australia, since the start of colonisation in 1790, up until rather recently (the 1950’s). The gender imbalance was the result of the British policy of convict deportation to Australia. Men vastly outnumbered women among convicts. Between 1787 and 1868, 132,308 men and 24,960 women were transported to Australia - more than five males for every female convict. Even among free migrants, men vastly outnumbered women, as it was mostly men who sought economic opportunities in Australia, which consisted chiefly of agriculture and, later, after the discovery of gold in the 1850s, mining.

What we find in a series of papers and in a chapter forthcoming in a fascinating Vox CPER E-book on the long economic and political shadow of history, is that today, 150 years after we measured the historical sex ratio, and even though sex ratios are at parity, people still have more conservative attitudes towards women working. In addition, women still work fewer hours in areas that were more male-biased in the past. However, we do not observe that women spend more time on household chores, or taking care of children. If anything, consistent with my casual observation at the beach, women spend less time on these tasks and consume more leisure. The results that women work less and consume more leisure as a result of a male biased sex ratio are consistent with the theoretical prediction of bargaining models of intra-household decision-making. When the number of men exceed the number of women, women have a stronger bargaining position in the marriage market and they can extract more rents and consume more leisure. However, our results suggest that these effects have persisted – well after the imbalance itself ended. This has important long-term implications for countries that face a gender imbalance today.

All is not well in the Lucky Country however, since we also observe that as a probable consequence of the reduction in female labour supply and of the conservative attitudes held, women are still less likely to reach high-ranking occupations. Overall, the outcome that women consume more leisure, but face limited opportunities in the workplace, may be welfare-improving for some – but not necessarily all – women. see here for links to papers and to a chapter forthcoming in a fascinating Vox CPER E-book on the long economic and political shadow of history.