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War, migration, and other upheavals can distort a society’s gender ratio. A new study finds that the consequences of an imbalanced society can linger generations later, even once the proportions of men and women have equalized.
To study the long-term consequences of a skewed sex ratio, the ideal environment would be a culturally homogenous population established in an isolated physical setting, populated from the get-go with, say, more men than women. Fortunately, we have one: Australia.
In contrast to Australia’s native aboriginal population, who lived in thriving gender-balanced societies for millennia on the continent prior to the arrival of European colonizers, Australia’s white population is a far more recent creation.
By the late 18th century, Britain had established a practice of alleviating its overcrowded prisons by packing convicts onto ships and transporting them to other spots in the empire where their labor could be of use. Australia, claimed for the crown in 1770 by captain James Cook, presented an attractive alternative to the North American colonies lost in the Revolutionary War.
The first convoy of convicts arrived in Australia in January 1788. Transport continued for the better part of the next century. The relocated prisoners were almost entirely of British or Irish descent, and men outnumbered women by a ratio of roughly six to one. They were joined in the early 19th century by free migrants from Britain, whose numbers also skewed heavily male. Fifty years after the first boats of prisoners arrived in Australia, the white population on the continent had three men for every woman. (People of aboriginal descent were not counted in the Australian census until the 1960s.) In areas with high concentrations of convict settlers, such as New South Wales, the ratio was as high as 11 to one.
Pauline Grosjean, a professor of economics at the University of New South Wales Business School, became curious about the lingering effects of the area’s status as a former penal colony when she moved to Australia from France seven years ago.
As detailed in a recent paper for the Review of Economic Studies—cheekily titled “It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah?”—Grosjean and her colleague Rose Khattar found that unbalanced gender ratios of more than a century ago shape perceptions about women’s employment today. In areas of the country with the highest male-to-female sex ratios in the 19th century, Australian-born women do fewer hours of paid work, and are less likely to work in high-ranking occupations than women in other parts of Australia.
But while women in these areas do less paid labor, they also enjoy more hours of leisure time than women in other parts of the country. The higher the proportion of men to women in an area’s early days, the fewer hours of paid labor women living there do now, and the more hours in a week they enjoy for their personal use. The findings were only true of people with Australian-born parents—the effect wasn’t observed in more recent arrivals to the country.
Grosjean theorizes this is a holdover from an era in which the marriage market for women among Australia’s European population skewed in favor of women. In the 19th century, more than 70% of women in Australia were married, a far higher rate than in Britain at the time. Married women were less likely to work outside the home. Given that potential female marriage partners were in short supply, women in those areas may have had more negotiating power in the home, and used it to insist upon more hours unoccupied by housework.
The lingering effects of biased sex ratios matter in places with lopsided gender ratios. There are an estimated 63 million “missing” girls in India as a result of sex-selective abortions and inferior nutrition and care for female children. China has a shortage of women as well, though not as severe as previously feared. As Australia proves, the consequences of unbalanced societies can last for decades to come.