Which Religion Is Bad for Women?
- By Lee Ann Cox
Take your pick. It might seem intuitive that the more religious a person is, the more likely he or she is to believe that men are more deserving of scarce jobs or a university education and that the primary role of women is motherhood. More remarkable, however, according to a new study published in World Development by University of Vermont economist Stephanie Seguino: no single religion stands out as being more distinctively patriarchal than other major religions. Protestants, Orthodox, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics are all likely to hold more unequal gender attitudes than the non-religious.
The research, which examined gender wellbeing in up to 76 countries, controlled for a number of factors, including income. Contrary to expectation, religiosity and gender inequality are not related to whether a country is rich or poor. The study also separated splinter groups from mainstream religions, so evangelical Christians, for example, do not impact the results for other Protestants.
Despite the persistence worldwide in wage discrimination between men and women with similar qualifications, economists have not been able to find a “smoking gun” to explain it, says Seguino, perhaps until now. “When you look at such a large range of countries and have such robust findings that religiosity consistently leads to worse outcomes for women,” she says, “ it’s striking.”
This phenomenon, which runs the gamut from individual attitudes to public policy, is not restricted to developing countries. Whatever the dominant religion, there is less spending on maternal health care, for instance, in countries that are more religious than those that are less religious. The United States, which is far more religious than places such as Sweden, is the only industrialized country without any paid maternity leave.
Even where discrimination may be overtly illegal, religion has a “stealth” effect on gender norms that affect women’s access to jobs, education, political leadership and public services. Seguino’s is not the first study to correlate religiosity with gender equality, but it goes a step beyond.
“What my study does uniquely,” she says, “is finds evidence that inequality has real effects on the economy. It’s not just attitudes but attitudes that translate into unequal access to resources.”
The implications for developing public policy, Seguino believes, are clear. First, funneling aid and social assistance through faith-based organizations should, at a minimum, be accompanied by an investigation of the impact of their practices on women. “The question is,” says Seguino, “are the institutions we are funding actually undermining our broader goals of promoting equity?”
Second, investments in women’s education, once believed to be the core issue limiting advancement, have not worked. The influence of the culture and its institutions, embedded with gender norms and stereotypes, is too ingrained.
More helpful interventions could include affordable childcare, affirmative action, presenting positive role models of working women -- normalizing in a variety of venues the idea that women can combine work with family.
Seguino, despite an equality gap she says is the widest we’ve seen since the 1930s, sounds hopeful. The organizing principle of her research is finding the macroeconomic policies that will facilitate rising gender -- and racial -- equality with rising living standards and economic growth. She feels she’s being heard. Seguino is frequently invited to speak at the United Nations and to policy organizations worldwide.
“They are very much interested in new thinking on how to move forward,” she says, “recognizing that the policies of the last 20 years have not borne fruit. I’ve given several talks (on this religion paper) and I don’t get pushback, I think because the study doesn’t condemn any one religion.”
It’s about understanding where the fundamental issues lie and then creatively addressing them.
“Once you identify that the problem of gender inequality has religious roots,” Seguino says, “then it suggests that public policy can be used to overcome cultural rigidities. Stereotypes are dynamic, not fixed.”