This piece of mine was published this Sunday in Mail Today (pdf link).
We live in times when progress is often denoted in statistical terms: the Sensex rises by this much, the economy grows by that much, inflation is so much, poverty is that much, and so on. In a complex world, any single piece of data always tells just part of the story. So which statistics do a good job of illustrating India’s progress? One very good one, in my view, is the divorce rate.
Divorce rates are going up across India. The figures that exist for our cities and towns show a sharp increase in the last decade or so. Many commentators bemoan this trend, speaking of the breakdown of families, the loss of family values and the influence of the West. But to me, the rising rate of divorces is a trend to celebrate. It is the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.
Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news. We do not need to credit either feminism or Western culture for this – the emancipation of women in real terms, across the world, has been enabled by technology, and can be explained most easily with economics.
In economic terms, the biggest factor behind human progress is the division of labour. If we all hunted our own meat and grew our own food, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to illustrate how division of labour improves productivity: if one man attempts to make pins all by himself, he might make about one pin a day; but his productivity can increase by as much as five thousand times if every person in the factory focuses on just one aspect of the pin production. This is true of everything in our lives, such as this newspaper you are holding: if every employee of Mail Today set out to write, design and produce the whole newspaper, it would take weeks for each person to put together a single issue, and they would all be substandard in one way or another. Instead, they specialise, and the result is in your hands every day.
Well, in the words of Tim Harford, who devotes an excellent chapter to this subject in his book The Logic of Life, the family is “the oldest pin factory of all.” In old days, before the advent of modern technology, for a single man or woman to earn a living and look after the household all by himself or herself was immensely difficult. It became a little easier if two people came together and split both tasks half and half. But it became exponentially easier if they specialised. For evolutionary reasons, and because women were stuck with child-bearing, it so happened that men traditionally got the role of earning a living while women raised kids and looked after the house.
These gender roles evolved out of circumstance, and not necessarily because women weren’t capable of earning a living. Indeed, in cases where the wife was better at both earning a living and keeping house, the traditional role allocation would still make sense for them as a unit if the husband was especially bad at housekeeping. (Economists call this “comparative advantage”.) Thus, the incompetence of men at keeping house might have played a greater role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes than any shortcoming women might have had in the workplace.
These gender roles got reinforced culturally. If men earned a living and women looked after the house, it made economic sense to bring up children to specialise in those areas. Thus, the boys got a better vocational education while the girls were taught to cook. This also reinforced prejudices in the workplace, intimidating women from taking up a profession. Women thus became dependent on men, unable to break out of bad marriages because they simply didn’t have choices available to them. No wonder divorce was so rare.
All this changed in the 20th century. The catalyst for these changes was technology.
Technology freed women in two ways in the last century. One, household technology made it possible for women to finish off household work quickly, while it was otherwise enormously time-consuming. The cooking range, the microwave, the mixer-grinder, the pressure cooker are all commonplace kitchen items today, but imagine how arduous preparing a meal was before they existed. (It still is in poorer parts of the world and our country, which partly explains why the oppression of women varies with class.) Once these gadgets entered the kitchen, women found themselves with more free time at their disposal, which they could use to take up a job or to get an education.
Two, the pill allowed women to delay child-bearing and plan parenthood. This meant that they could be sexually active without the risk of pregnancy, and thus delay marriage. That allowed them to study further and be as qualified as men for the workforce. And, most importantly, it gave them options.
A qualified woman who chose family over work is much better placed than a woman who hasn’t got any skills to help her earn a living. She has more leverage within the relationship. One, it is easier for her to quit the marriage if she feels unhappy with it. Two, because that option is open to her, her husband cannot take her for granted, and has to treat her better than he otherwise would.
Harford, in his book, points to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that showed that as states across America passed ‘no fault’ divorce laws, allowing women easier routes to divorce, “domestic violence fell by almost a third.” When incentives were in place for men to behave better, men tended to behave better. Thus, technology not only enabled women to walk out of bad marriages, it also made them more powerful within a marriage.
In India affluence acts, in some cases, as a substitute for technology. In Mumbai, for examples, the typical middle-class house is too small for household devices like washing machines and dishcleaners. But in families that can afford household help, maids take care of those functions, freeing up women’s time in ways that technology does in the West.
Families have such sanctity in Indian tradition because until recently, people needed the division of labour that a family provides. Indeed, joint families used to be common here because, when we were a poorer country, they made economic sense. (A common kitchen for 20 people provided economies of scale.) But times have changed, incentives have changed, and to value these things for the sake of tradition alone is irrational.
As a society, our highest value should be to ensure that every individual has the maximum opportunities possible to find happiness. This means educating our daughters to be independent and removing the stigma that comes from a broken marriage. Every divorce means that two people have a better chance at finding fulfillment than they did in the marriage, and that is surely cause for celebration. In America, divorce rates climbed back down after the surge of the 1970s, mainly because young people took greater care in getting married, and premarital relationships were not considered sinful. Change is happening at different rates across classes in India, and the divorce rate will continue to rise for many, many years. That is a sign of progress, and we should be happy about it.
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For more on this subject, I highly recommend checking out the chapter on divorce in Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. It’s written in an American context but its insights are universal, and it cites a number of studies that you can Google and read for yourself. My review of Harford’s book is here. I’ve also briefly touched on this subject in these two old posts: 1, 2.
For more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.