Emily Oster: Cable television is good for women in India

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University of Chicago economist Emily Oster went on stage at TED2007 to say that most of what we know about AIDS in Africa is wrong — and proceeded to show data and graphs to make her case (watch the video of her speech — or read the summary). Now she’s applied her atypical lens to the effect of the introduction of cable television on gender attitudes in rural India, coming up again with surprising results.

In a recent draft paper (full text in PDF) that she wrote with Robert Jensen of Brown University after a three-year study, she argues that "the introduction of cable television is associated with improvements in women’s status" and finds "significant increases in reported autonomy, decreases in the reported acceptability of beating and decreases in reported son preferences", this last point being about sex-selective abortions (rural families prefer boys). They also found "increases in female school enrollment and decreases in fertility (primarily via increased birth spacing)."

The effects are large, the two researchers argue, "equivalent in some cases to about five years of education" within the surveyed population.

These changes are "accomplished despite there being little or no direct targeted appeals" such as public-service announcements. Which brings Oster and Jensen to speculate that "it may be that cable television, with programming that features lifestyle both in urban areas and in other countries, is an effective form of persuasion, because people emulate what they perceive to be desirable behavior and attitudes".