Gender inequality and linguistic determinism

Our preferred specification suggests that grammatical gender is associated with a 12 percentage point reduction in women’s labor force participation and an almost 15 percentage point increase in the gender gap in labor force participation. These associations are robust to the inclusion of a wide range of geo-graphic controls (including suitability for the plough) that could not plausibly have beenimpacted by language. Taken at face value, our coefficient estimates suggest that gender languages keep approximately 125 million women around the world out of the labor force.


Stumbled across this fantastic paper about the subtle affect that grammar can have on how we think. In this case, languages that sort nouns into gendered categories are associated with poorer labour market outcomes for women.

It reminds me of similar research showing that people from language groups that don’t clearly separate the future from the present (such as German) “save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese”.

And it seems to fit with the findings from many other fields:


Our results are consistent with research in psychology, linguistics, and anthropology suggesting that languages shape patterns of thought in subtle and subconscious ways….


It all comes back to my main takeaway from The Heretics: we really don’t have a good working model for how we form beliefs, make decisions or even behave. There are profound contextual factors affecting all of these. I’m not sure how we fix this.

(My emphasis)

Time to update our democratic models

Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works –physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful’. The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds –people who ‘see it like we do’, whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the trueway.

I’ve just finished reading The Heretics by Will Storr. It’s part investigation, part memoir, as Storr embeds with homeopaths, faith healers, neo nazis and others with “weird beliefs”.

I’m slowly going through my notes and may pull out some more, but the thing that consistently struck me throughout is what this means for institutional design.

Our democracies absolutely were not built, and have not evolved, with our more sophisticated understanding of how people build beliefs and make decisions. How fallible our memories are, how we capitulate to group think, react and then build post hoc justifications (etc.).

Meanwhile those who wish to take advantage of us certainly have.

In that strange, chemical and alchemical moment when an unconscious decision is made about what to believe, how much is genetic, how much is rational, how much is concerned solely with reinforcing our dearly held models of the world? And how does personality collide with all of this? How does the character of the decider – all that complex emotionality, the calculation of possible outcomes, the current state of mind, the kaleidoscope of motives, the autobiographical heromission – pollute the process? With these questions, we have struck rock. There is no answer.

(My emphasis)

How should we frame foreign aid?

I’ve always been inclined to frame foreign aid in purely self interest terms – helping others makes us all safer, preventing disease etc. But if we want our governments to increase foreign aid is that the best argument?

Terence Wood and Chris Hoy from the Australian National University have done an interesting study on precisely this issue:

All of the treatments, including the basic treatment, increased general approval of aid giving (by roughly ten percentage points) and decreased the percentage of the population who thought Australia gave too much aid by a similar extent. Simply providing people with some tangible detail about what aid is doing, and coupling this with endorsement from an independent expert, is enough to have a substantial impact on support for aid. The specific way aid is framed – basic information, appeals to national interest, altruism, etc. – doesn’t seem to matter much for these improvements.

These are from their dev policy blog post about their paper. (My emphasis)

Increasing the share of Australians who thought Australia gives too little aid was more difficult though. Only the altruism and national interest treatments brought statistically significant increases, and the increases were only in the vicinity of about five percentage points.

There’s more to this story – for one the authors note that this is complicated by what participants believed the intention of the project is. But at the very least this confirms that low information is a major problem and seemingly any discussion is a good discussion.

Are fines and barriers really worth it?

In Berlin, a city whose public transit uses an honesty system (backed up with unannounced in-vehicle inspections) and fairly low fines for fare dodging, it’s estimated that 3 to 5 percent of journeys aren’t paid for. 


London, by contrast, has a closed subway system with ubiquitous barriers and high fines for being caught without a ticket. Unambiguous figures are impossible to come by… but a survey from a decade ago suggested a similar rate of fare evasion in the U.K. capital as Berlin, with 6 percent of riders admitting having dodged a fare.

These are both from an article in Citylab, which also notes that a Dutch city is seeing success by taking the Berlin route – forcing fare dodgers to buy a ticket.

If ~6% of customers fare dodging is the price of doing business, wouldn’t we much rather public transport without all the nasty fences and gates and ticket inspectors?

At the very least we could put that money towards comfier seats.

Oligopoly harms housing affordability

Interesting paper from Jacob Cosman and Luis Quintero that finds the concentration of house builders has a significant impact on construction, and therefore availability and prices.

The research is from the US. But it is particularly concerning in Australia, where builders appear to be dropping like flies in the face of the downturn and investor pullback.

Our estimates suggest that in the average market a decline from six firms producing 90% to housing to five firms producing 90% of housing (the change in median from 2006 to 2015) with all else equal would lead to a reduction in the value of housing produced by 58%, a reduction in square footage by 60%, and a reduction in the number of housing units by 46%.

Of course there are particular reasons for increased concentration in the states, but it’s hard to imagine the same is true for the mechanism:

When many firms are competing to build, they build early to preempt their competitors. This increases total housing production, raises the volatility in the supply of housing, and creates a surplus of unfinished units. Conversely, in a more concentrated market, firms can time their housing production to maximize their profits without fear of pre-emption. This lowers production volumes but increases price volatility as firms with market power can opt to build when demand growth is strongest and charge prices higher above their marginal cost of production.

(My emphasis)


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