Tyranny of numbers

Affirmative action for Iranian men — to help women!

Posted in Education, Employment, General by Djavad on July 12, 2011

A recent news item posted on Alef’s site (in Persian) with the provocative title, “33 harmful effects of  increase in women’s enrollment in universities,”   reported the opinions of “experts” and politicians, including some members of the parliament, on the consequences of the rising presence of women in universities.  Expressing concern about the imminent “takeover” of universities by women, and suggesting the need for affirmative action for men,  is not new (I wrote a short article on this subject more than three years ago).  What is new is the claim that it is not good for women.  Affirmative action for men to help women!

The old reasoning was based on the fact that university educated women participate in the labor force only half as much as men, so they should not take up valuable spaces for those who are more likely to put their education to use.   The new reasoning is that these educated women will have difficulty finding educated men to marry.  The argument has thus moved from the labor to the marriage market.

Proponents of this view, who I am certain are many beyond those listed in the Alef post, point to the rising age at marriage and spinsterhood to support their argument.  The policy-minded among them then take the next logical step to charge the government to save these women from themselves.

But there are serious problems with these arguments.  Their key assumption that the gap in university education between men and women is the main cause of the rising age at marriage does not survive close scrutiny.  There are at least two other more important reasons.  The first is a general trend worldwide of delay in marriage associated with economic development and the changing role of women in the family.  To have eight children  a woman would do well to start early, at age 15, but to have two children she could wait till age 25.  This is precisely what has happened for the vast majority of Iranian women: in one generation they have switched from 7 or 8 children to 2.

The second reason for the delay in marriage in Iran is an acute age imbalance in the marriage market.  Since the mid 1980s,  the ratio of marriage-age men to women (the sex ratio) has been falling, resulting in a shortage of men of about 25%.  This phenomenon is not limited to those with university education, it is for all young men and women.  This graph, taken from a forthcoming paper of mine, shows the ratio of men ages 25-29 to women 20-24.  The 5-year age gap is a rough approximation of the Iranian norm in marriage and a convenient way to capture  the imbalance in the marriage market.  In reality, this gap can change in response to the imbalance in the marriage market (and that is indeed what seems to have been happening in recent years).

A view of the age imbalance in the marriage market

Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects, 2008 edition

The age imbalance in Iran, which is more exaggerated than for any other country that I looked at, is not due to “missing men” as a result of the war with Iraq.  That war was bloody enough to worsen the imbalance, but not by much.  By far the largest influence is from to the baby boom that occurred right around the revolution, about 1979-83, when new birth cohorts were larger (by about 60%  compared to those born 10 years earlier).  Because of the social norms in Iran regarding the age gap between husbands and wives, the larger cohort of men reached marriage age a few years ahead of the same cohorts of women, thus causing a shortage of men.

Looking at this graph, you cannot help being struck by how fast the situation will be changing in the next ten years — from a shortage of men of about 25% to a surplus of about 40%!  The policy of affirmative action for men would seem quite silly from the vantage point of 2020 when the age at marriage will be under serious pressure to come down.

When the diagnosis is wrong, what chance has the remedy?   The question that should be asked at the outset is why do women seek university education if that is not to their advantage?  We have to understand why people do something before dispensing prescriptions.  To assume that as experts we know more about the value of university education to women than women who seek the education takes quite a bit of hubris.

The classic rationale for policy intervention is the tragedy of the commons, as in a common pond, when individuals left to their own devices will deplete the pond of fish.  In such situations it is not the superior knowledge of  policy makers but their ability to restraint individual action that is the reason for policy to ration fishing rights.  There is no resemblance of the situation women face with respect to dwindling number of men in universities and situations like the tragedy of commons.  Why should we presume that policy makers know more about what women want from a university education, what would be their alternative (sit at home and cook for their brothers who go to university?) if they did not go to university, and how they evaluate that relative to going to university and having to marry someone with less education?

If women are going to university to improve their chances of marriage, in the face of the general demographic imbalance in the marriage market, restrictions in meeting men in public spaces, and unfavorable marriage and divorce laws, how can experts decide that they are making a bad calculation?  What if staying home is inferior to marrying later,  marrying someone with less education, or even not marrying at all?

But, you may ask, are public universities not common resources that should be put to their best social use, educating those who are more likely to join the labor force?  First, I should say that I am against subsidizing higher education.  Like energy subsidies, it tends to be regressive because the children for better off parents have a great chance to take advantage of it.  I prefer charging those who can afford it the full cost and for those who cannot, offer loans to be repaid when they are employed or scholarships based on need.  Second, the value of a university education is not just in the labor market; educated women provide better health and education for their children, a value that the market wage may not be able to match.

Given all the things we need to know that we don’t before we can decide where and how to intervene, there is a lesson in modesty to draw.  Without the knowledge of why people do something and how particular outcomes arise, designing and implementing policies to alter those outcomes is a fool’s game– looking for solutions to imagined problems.  That knowledge comes from solid policy analysis and does not come cheap; it requires good social science research.

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