Why Women’s Control of Wealth is Important for Pandemic Recovery

Cultural norms related to inheritance determine which gender has access to wealth and makes decisions about it.

4 min read
Why Women’s Control of Wealth is Important for Pandemic Recovery

As the second wave of COVID-19 turns its destruction from urban to rural India, one state stands out for its exceptional handling of the global pandemic – Kerala. Its death rate of less than 0.4 percent is among the lowest in India despite its extremely mobile population.

A piece of its state infrastructure is particularly notable – Kudumbashree, meaning, “prosperity of the family.” Structured around Self Help Groups, it aims to place women at the centre of local economic and political development. Indeed, women have organised core aspects of COVID-19 management across Kerala – manufacturing masks, creating communal kitchens, and building resources to purchase oxygen cylinders. Women’s direct access to wealth propels this progress.

So, what should we expect as the coronavirus pandemic decreases women’s wealth: At least US $800 billion globally in 2020 alone? This is problematic for many reasons.

In particular, it means less female political representation and fewer female policy priorities realised, as our new study, “Culture, Capital and the Political Economy Gender Gap” in The Journal of Politics shows.


The Political Economy Gender Gap

The “political economy gender gap” is two-fold: Women are underrepresented in politics, and also have different policy preferences than men. Women tend to favour redistribution, insurance, and social security, for example.

Women’s lower rates of political engagement mean that their preferences are less likely to translate into political action.

Familiar explanations for the gender gap focus either on cultural conventions or on women’s relative lack of resources.

But there is a key factor that links these two – norms about control over wealth.

Cultural norms determine who inherits and makes decisions about family finances. This affects who has the resources required for political action.

We investigate the relationship between cultural norms and political representation by leveraging a unique disjuncture within patriarchy in Meghalaya. It is home to the matrilineal Khasi, Garo, and Jaintiya tribes, which transfer wealth and property from mothers to daughters. Living side-by-side are patrilineal communities that pass wealth from fathers to sons.

To study the impact of cultural norms on gender-specific political attitudes and behavior, we conducted a large face-to-face survey with embedded experiments in addition to extensive qualitative research.

Our research shows that lineage norms – which drive who gets to make decisions about wealth and how – are key determinants of the political economy gender gap.


How Wealth-Control Norms Affect Gender And Politics

We first tested the claim that political engagement should vary based on whether lineage norms empower a given gender to own wealth.

Political participation is costly, requiring time and resources. We therefore expected that women in matrilineal communities would demonstrate the same advantage in political engagement as men in patrilineal groups.

Indeed, we found men are politically more empowered in patrilineal groups (as in most societies). But when women have economic power, in matrilineal tribes, female political engagement far outstrips that of men.

Do lineage norms help explain the gender gap in policy preferences about redistribution?

We conducted an experiment in which we varied whether expressing support for the welfare state would entail a personal cost for the subject or not. We expected that individuals would be less likely to support welfare policies if it required renouncing wealth they control.

We found that men’s and women’s preferences diverge in patrilineal groups.

Because men own and manage wealth, they are sensitive to the cost of welfare state policies. Lacking access to wealth, women prefer redistribution at any cost. By contrast, because both genders in matrilineal groups manage wealth, they have similar incentives to maximise net familial wealth, and thus develop similar policy preferences.

Next, we conducted a behavioural experiment to determine whether respondents were willing to take costly action – filling out and sending a postcard – to express their preferences about redistributive policies.

In patrilineal groups, we found the typical gender gap: Introducing an explicit cost made men, but not women, more likely to express opposition to welfare policies. In contrast, among matrilineal groups women, but not men, became more likely to “participate” to express opposition to costly welfare state policies.

How Decision-Making Differs in Matrilineal and Patrilineal Societies

Preferences about redistribution converge in matrilineal societies because only there must men and women cooperate to spend the family’s financial resources, we conjectured.

To test this claim, we asked respondents about how decision-making should work in a family where we experimentally varied whether the wife or husband was the breadwinner.

Our results were striking. In matrilineal cultures, both genders were less likely to see the husband as the final decision-maker for household wealth allocation when the breadwinner was female.

Respondents increasingly supported women’s decision-making power as her economic contribution grew. But this did not hold in patrilineal groups. Here, men were seen as final decision makers regardless of breadwinner gender.

Importantly, therefore, norms structured household financial decision-making authority.

Together our findings underline how men and women in patrilineal communities have different preferences about state-led welfare policies, and individual capacity to advance preferences, as cultural norms do not encourage them to jointly own and manage family wealth.

Implications of Women’s Political Under-representation

Our study indicates that increasing women's economic opportunities won’t change political representation without addressing the social norms that prevent them from controlling wealth.

Improving economic inclusion is vital, but social norms need to facilitate and encourage wealth ownership and control for women.

Kerala’s success in dealing with the pandemic might be related to the relative female economic autonomy that is engrained in its society, not least because of its erstwhile cultural history of matriliny.

Yet across most of India, women’s economic exclusion – exacerbated by COVID-19 – limits social resilience.

Just as COVID-19 places the successful initiatives of elected women leaders at the heart of India’s rare contemporary achievements, we cannot afford to let the pandemic’s reduction in socially sanctioned female control over wealth push women outside of politics.

(Rachel Brulé is a professor at Boston University, and Nikhar Gaikwad is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Columbia University. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. The research on which this article is based is available on the website of the Journal of Politics, here.)

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