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Too many men: How a penal colony past keeps up the glass ceiling

August 15, 2014

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​New research links gender inequality to cultural persistence

Australia's heritage as a convict colony may seem remote to many of its citizens, but it has a strong connection to significant gender and economic factors that exist today, according to new research by economists Pauline Grosjean ​and Rose Khattar at UNSW Australia Business School.

It’s not just the title of their study – It's Raining Men! Hallelujah? – that is attention grabbing. According to the authors, the lack of women in the early days of colonial settlement has a continuing effect on gender earnings.

Data collected from regions around Australia where convict and free settler populations in the 19th century meant men substantially outnumbered women – originally by six men to every woman

 – shows that even now there are fewer women in professional and management roles in these areas. And the women who do work earn, on average, A$1500 a year less than those in parts of Australia without a historical gender imbalance. 

“One thing that may explain this is that people have more conservative attitudes to female work [in these areas],” Grosjean says. 

“This effect that we found on the proportion of women employed as professionals is more for married women. There might be some attitudes both men and women have that frame more conservative gender roles.”

Cultural persistence

Many studies have shown that when there are fewer women in a population, they often have more bargaining power and tend to select wealthier partners, and work less. And the available paid work in the early colonial era tended to favour male labourers.

Rolling forward 150 years, there are virtually equal numbers of men and women in these areas and much wider access to job opportunities. But some of the attitudes have not disappeared, the findings show.

Grosjean notes that gender imbalance is a prevalent topic around the world, with very unbalanced populations in places such as China, India, and the Caucasus. The effect of cultural persistence is also well documented internationally, but it seems to have come as a surprise to many Australians.

Although cultures do change, Grosjean says there are things that are deep rooted, and some kinds of events, particularly disruption in the past, have a strong impact. And it’s very difficult to come in later and change the norms no matter how society has changed.
“The kind of economies we have now are very different to the economies we are looking at in the 19th century. [Back then] there were few opportunities for good work and not pleasant jobs and a gender wage gap,” Grosjean says. 

“What this [new study] shows, and people don’t really think about this when they think of gender imbalance, is that over the next centuries many think everything will come back to equilibrium – [that] it will become more valuable to start having girls. What we are saying is everything may not come back to normal because of a legacy in the culture.”

And the impact on employment patterns revealed by the research is not marginal. A historical gender imbalance explains 5% to 10% of the variation in the number of women employed in professional jobs, which is left unexplained by other factors. 

And that, Grojean says, is really quite a significant figure.

'I’ve worked on a number of papers that showed the persistence of culture – it gets transferred from one generation to the next'


Historical legacy

​The link between colonial history and contemporary culture was not surprising to Grosjean:

“There is a lot of literature highlighting the effect of historical events. Areas that had a lot of pogroms in the era of the Black Plague were the same areas that [had a large proportion of citizens] who voted for the Nazis. I’ve worked on a number of papers that showed the persistence of culture – it gets transferred from one generation to the next.”

The Australian reaction to the research has been intense surprise and perhaps a little disbelief. Overseas the response has been more enthusiastic.

“People in the US and Europe are not surprised at all, they know history has an effect… in the US they live with the legacy of slavery every day. Here, people say it’s not possible, it’s so surprising,” Grosjean says.

There’s almost a sense that Australian society “fell from the sky”, she notes. But it’s not a clean slate and while time has some effect, it does not wipe away all of the historical legacy.

Interestingly, the findings really only hold for people of Anglo-Saxon Australian descent – migrants don’t adopt this norm, Grosjean says.

She is quick to point out that the paper was not aiming to make value judgments about gender roles. And while the research found women forgo a significant part of income, there was also a result that they were happiest in their relationships, she adds.

“It seems like I am pointing at male or female behaviour. It’s not my point – it’s to simply show what is happening. At the beginning I was very agnostic and realised it was a very risky project. The historical data didn’t exist. The data hunt was really difficult and we had to practically hand-collect the data and the maps of the colonial census,” Grosjean says.

Attitudes and behaviour

Although the research was not designed to make value judgments, Grosjean has been struck by the differences in Australian gender attitudes and behaviour compared with France, where she grew up, and the US.

“Moving to Australia and observing the cultural differences with the rest of the world, [I saw] gender is very segregated here, especially with young people – you don’t have cross-gender relationships, girls tend to hang out with girls. I think also the sort of things that were said about [former prime minister] Julia Gillard were rather shocking.”

The findings are based on data collected from around the country, with a broad catchment of the population.

“It’s not all cities, but [includes] quite urbanised areas, from remote areas to the centre of Sydney. These areas are quite homogenous and we see the same effect [on gender roles] today. And 60% of the people in Australia live in these areas.”

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