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Petroleum Feeds Patriarchy

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, March 10, 2008

Climate change. Pollution. Financial expense.

Our gas-guzzling ways have long been associated with a variety of problems, but disturbing evidence now points to a new dimension of our love affair with petroleum: Oil consumption and high oil prices hurt the political, social and economic development of millions of women in oil-producing nations.

You read that right. The more gas you pump and the higher oil prices get, the more likely you are to harm women's empowerment.

The surprising finding, based on more than four decades of data from 169 countries, provides a novel explanation of why women in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates still do not have the right to vote. Oil wealth, not Islam, is the primary reason that these nations have regressive gender policies, said political scientist Michael Ross at the University of California at Los Angeles.

As implausible as the connection between oil wealth and gender rights might seem, Ross's work is based on a widely observed pattern: As oil prices soar to more than $100 a barrel, oil-producing countries get rich atop a tidal wave of foreign currency. The tsunami of cash strengthens their currencies and makes it cheaper for them to buy everything from textiles to cars from other nations, instead of manufacturing such goods at home.

As a result, the economies of oil-producing nations invariably have stunted manufacturing sectors while boosting construction and services sectors. This pattern is now so familiar that it has a name -- the "Dutch Disease" -- following the reshaping of the Dutch economy after natural gas discoveries set off a boom in the Netherlands.

Ross's insight is that this realignment punishes women, because low-wage manufacturing jobs -- especially in the textile industry -- have long been the entry point into the workforce for millions of poor women across the world. Oil booms cause these jobs to vanish. By contrast, the boom in construction helps men, because the industry is heavily male-dominated. Oil booms do create retail jobs, but in many countries these are also closed off to poor women, either because they are uneducated or because traditional mores frown on women interacting with strangers.

The loss of jobs has profound consequences on women's political engagement and power. Several studies show that across the world, leaving home and entering the workplace produces greater political awareness and participation among women. These, in turn, help produce egalitarian family and inheritance laws, and increased voting, economic and legal rights.

"Patriarchal norms are often very deeply embedded in society, and it takes a very powerful force to begin to break them up," Ross said. "Women's employment in these industries has historically been that powerful force, that foot in the door, that first rung on the ladder."

Ross's data show that when a nation's oil profits soar, the number of women in the workforce invariably declines the next year. In turn, this leads to reduced political clout. For every $1,280 increase in per capita oil profits, Ross shows there is a 2 percent decrease in the number of elected female leaders, an effect that is powerful because it grows cumulatively over time. Oil wealth -- and perhaps mineral wealth in general -- similarly explains many other social, economic and political disparities between men and women in nations ranging from Azerbaijan and Russia to Chile, Botswana and Nigeria.

Ross is not saying oil wealth is the only factor behind women's rights. Rich countries generally have more equality than poor countries, and the world as a whole is moving toward greater equality.

On average, Islamic countries have less gender equality than non-Islamic countries, but oil turns out to be a more important factor than religion in these countries. When Ross compared Muslim countries, he found that oil-poor Tunisia and Morocco had much higher percentages of female legislators compared with oil-rich Algeria. The richest oil producers generally had the most regressive gender laws on issues as diverse as voting rights and veils.

"Oil is a mixed blessing," said Ross, who published his study last month in the American Political Science Review. "It would be an exaggeration to say it is a curse, but it has unexpected and perverse effects, and one of those is to short-circuit the process that leads to greater gender equality."

Reducing economic opportunities for women in oil-producing nations has far-reaching consequences -- for one thing, a lack of jobs is associated with increased support for religious fundamentalism. In one analysis of 18 Muslim nations, political scientists Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer found that women who lacked financial independence and job opportunities were systematically more likely to support religious movements that hearkened back to an imagined golden age.

"Women who don't have good job opportunities create economic security for themselves by becoming better marriage-market candidates," said Blaydes, who works at Stanford University. "They try to show how pious they are because there is value for piety on the marriage market. When there is a large gap between men's and women's wages, you see higher support for fundamentalism cross-nationally."

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