Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

The fruit of the vine

with 2 comments


Signatures of some of the French Huguenot migrants to South Africa. Source.

As I write this in my cozy hotel room, I hear lions growl in the background. Next to my window, guinea fowl do what they do best: squeal with a voice that evolution would find difficult to explain. Somewhere a donkey hee-haws its own contribution to the cacophony. At 5am it’s still supposed to be silent night. But not in Pretoria. The sun is rising. Welcome to Africa.

Pretoria is a different country, and so is the past. I recently read Elsa Joubert’s The Hunchback Missionary, a book of historical fiction first published in Afrikaans in 1989 about a Dutch missionary traveling to the Cape around the year 1800 with the purpose to bring Christianity to an uncivilized world. In the end, it’s Aart Anthonij van der Lingen, the hunchback missionary, whose worldview is challenged by what he sees and experiences in the wilderness of the Northern Cape and the Eastern Frontier. It’s a world we would find difficult to imagine: months of painfully  slow travel, constant threats from wild animals and unknown peoples, and utter, deadly loneliness. The Business Day reviews it here. I would recommend the book if only for one scene that is inexplicably sad and shocking and unexpected and vivid that I am unable to banish it from my memory. You’ll know which one it is when you read the book.

What historical fiction books like these do for me is to contextualize the often dry economic history I investigate. Consider the French Huguenots. When the Huguenots fled France in 1685 following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they settled across the Western world. Many moved across the English Channel and settled in London. Others moved to similarly familiar places like Switzerland and Germany. Here they continued to make telling contributions to the local economy. A recent paper by Erik Hornung published in the American Economic Review shows, for example, how Huguenot migrants stimulated textile production in German, then known as Prussia.

But others, far fewer in number, decided to move to the Cape. What could they have possibly known about this small colony at the bottom tip of the massive African continent? What made them come to the Cape than to England or Europe or even America, where there were at least a large number of European settlers already? (At the Cape in 1685, there were about 400 settler families.) We don’t know, although we do know what they did when they got here: most founded farms in the Drakenstein region and began planting wheat and barley. Some planted vines. The Huguenot memorial in Franschhoek documents their arrival and early struggles and eventual contribution to South African society. (They continue to have: consider, for example, the current captain of the Proteas cricket team and Springbok rugby team.) But even though we know much about their social and cultural activities, there has been little attempt to quantify the economic impact of the 150 or so French Huguenots that arrived in the Cape Colony in 1688. In 2009 when I just started my PhD, Dieter von Fintel and I decided to see whether we could somehow find a way to identify whether the Huguenots were somehow different than their settler counterparts. We used eighteenth-century tax censuses to estimate the productivity of the French settlers and their descendants. The results of these investigations were published in the December issue of the Economic History Review. (An older working paper version is available here.)

We follow a novel approach to identify not only how much more productive French Huguenots were in making wine, but why they were so productive. We do this by tracing the origin district of each French family that arrived at the Cape, which allow them to split the sample between those that arrive from wine-producing regions and those that arrived from wheat-producing regions. We then show that those from wine-producing regions were more productive winemakers at the Cape than their counterpart Huguenots that originated from wheat-producing regions.

What is even more surprising is that this productivity bonus persisted for at least 80 years, in other words, for more than two generations. One would expect that those families with some skills in making wine would have an initial advantage, but that this would disappear as other families learn from them or intermarry. Yet we find the exact opposite result: the gap between the descendants of Huguenots who originally came from wine-producing regions and those who originally came from wheat-producing regions widened.

The reason, we suggest, is because families protected the knowledge of making good quality wine. Eighteenth century wine was typically bad tasting, so ‘good quality’ here simply refers to wine that would last several months, long enough for a ship to sail to India. OF Mentzel, a traveller in the 1730s, explained it thus: “There is no doubt that many colonists at the Cape do indeed know the secret of preparing good wine and therefore wines are made which stand the test, and grow mellower with age: but they are not such fools as to give away their secret and thus make the good wines more common.”

So what was the economic impact of the Huguenots? Their greater productivity in wine-making meant that wine production expanded significantly a few years after their arrival. Different to stock and wheat farming, though, viticulture required (and still requires, although mechanisation is finally changing this requirement) large numbers of labourers during harvest season. There was a shortage of labour at the Cape, and so the expansion in viticulture forced the Company to import more slaves from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and, later, Mozambique. The fruit of the vine, we argue, was the beginning of South African (racial) inequality.

It’s 6am. The sun is already high. For some reason the lions, guinea fowl and lone donkey have fallen silent. Time for this Huguenot-descendant and missionary of the African economic history gospel to get to work.

Lessons from a computer game

with one comment


Those who know me well, know that one of my secret indulgences is playing Civilization, a computer game that let’s you build a virtual empire. I don’t remember when and where I first encountered Civ, but I do remember spending countless hours over weekends and school holidays building my Egyptian, French or Zulu empire. I’m glad that as a student I never owned a computer with the specs necessary to play, as I’m pretty sure it would have cost me another year at varsity. I do remember playing it while writing my Masters dissertation: for a month, I would write from 5am to 9am, and then play for the rest of the day. I even mentioned Civ IV in the conclusion of my dissertation, using it as a metaphor to explain why a lack of infrastructure is holding back African development.

Why is Civ so appealing (and addictive)? I suspect there are many reasons, but for me it certainly has something to do with the ability to rewrite history. Civilization is in essence a massive simulation of counterfactual history, simplified of course to make it playable. While your aim is to found towns and cities, explore new territories, invent new technologies and conquer other nations, I am always struck by the relevance of economic theories in explaining ‘success’ in the game. Play on the world map, for example, and see how difficult it is to win when starting on the continents of America or Africa. The reason? Economic isolation. Trade and warfare between competitive civilizations benefits your civilization more than if you had developed on your own in peace. This concurs with much of what we know about trade and economic history and is summarised by Gary Fields’ classic remark that “you can’t get rich by selling to yourself”. Trade requires infrastructure, though, and here Africa is particularly problematic. The vast distances and the thick jungles of the continent (clearly visible when you play on a customized map to reflect the actual size of continents) makes it nearly impossible to build roads and railways to connect and defend your cities, and if you’re building cities on the coast of southern Africa, the harbours of other nations are simply too far to trade with. And apart from losing out on profitable trade routes, you also lose out, most critically, on gaining new technologies from your neighbours. The lesson: if you settle in southern Africa, be prepared for a tough game.

ImpiNot only is geography a limitation, but the lack of alternative strategies is sometimes patently obvious. This is most clearly visible in one of the scenarios in the latest Civ V version which allows you to start as the Boers or the Zulus during the period of African colonisation. There really is only one way to win as the Zulus: destroy the Boers as soon as possible and found as many cities in the ‘empty’ African interior. Similarly with the Boers: destroy the Zulus and beat back (or trade with) the Portuguese (in Mozambique) or the English (in Cape Town). Was there ever really an alternative to the hundred-years war between settler farmers and the Xhosa (from 1779 to 1879)? Perhaps we will uncover different options if a larger South African map was available, and one that included more southern African tribes. I’d like to see the Tswana, for example. Their special building could be the Kgotla (which could replace the courthouse and be built in any city (not only occupied ones), reducing unhappiness) and their special unit could be the Donkey (which improves the efficiency of workers). Or the Basotho, with their special building the Mokorotlo (or hat maker, which grants one additional gold for every grassland) and their unit the War Pony (which replaces the chariot archer and allows units to cross mountains). For those who haven’t played, the Zulu’s have a special building – the Ikanda – which replaces the barracks and grants extra experience to units, and a special unit – the Impi – which replaces the pikeman.

Simulations are used in many fields to predict future events, and economics is no exception. The world is incredibly complex, and simulations (based on our theories of how the economy functions) help us to explain what the impact of some shock would be. A good macroeconomic model, for example, can explain how an increase in the interest rate should affect other economic variables. Civilization was never meant to simulate the past or the future, but it recently did exactly that: one man who goes by the name Lycerius played a single Civ II game for more than a decade. In the game, he reached the year 3991. What does the future look like? Bleak. He finds himself (playing with the Celts) in perpetual war with the Americans and Vikings, with all other populations annihilated. Communism is the only political system that allows him to constantly make war. Malnourishment and pollution is rife. Sea levels rise. CNN reports on his efforts here. The one positive about this sad state of future affairs is that the game designers did not (and could not) factor in future technological innovations that might alleviate all this misery. Which just shows us the importance of incentivising innovation if we are to survive as a species.

As computers become more powerful, our models will become more complex too. Civ V: Brave New World (the third extension of the fifth edition) does an excellent job of replicating the major historical developments, perhaps with the exception of two things. Disease has shaped (African) history far more than anything else. The black plague, some scholars argue, were the root causes of the Industrial Revolution. Smallpox killed First Nation peoples at rates that warfare could never do. The deadly disease environment in many African countries forced Europeans, according to Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, to build extractive institutions that continue to have a detrimental effect on development. The resistance of  Africans to tropical diseases was also pivotal into them being coerced into slavery. If the next Civ could add disease and slavery, history might really come alive.

Two weeks ago, Sid Meyer and his team of Firaxis designers released the latest Civilization installment: Beyond Earth. As the name suggests, it takes mankind into space after an unexplained “Great Mistake” on earth. At the start of the game, you must choose one of eight different factions that builds a space ship and leaves earth to permanently settle a distant planet. (For an explanation of why mankind needs to go into space, listen to the two designers discuss it here.) On the new planet you have to choose one of three philosophies (or affinities as they call it) about how you want to live in your new environment. The Harmony affinity allow humans to adapt to the indigenous life, developing new technologies that eventually make you a new species. Choosing the Supremacy affinity means you choose to improve the robotics that allowed you to reach the new planet. Your interaction with the new environment is limited and you rely generally on advanced technology to stay alive and conquer. Following the Purity affinity suggests you believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and you therefore want to recreate (through prodigious terraforming) Earth in your new environment. Which affinity you choose, I think, will determine how you interact with the new environment and alien life forms.

columbus_1772950bI wondered whether there are parallels in the process of European colonisation? Some colonisers set out to create a new society, intermixing with the indigenous population. Think of the Cape Verde islands or Mauritius or perhaps Brazil and Mexico. Others set out to create a new Europe. Here the settler societies of the US, Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa are good examples. Others, again, tried to simply extract as much as possible, not settling but simply using their superior technology to extract resources as fast as possible. These are the places AJR say have ‘extractive institutions’, places like the Congo, and Hiati and the Philippines. It’s not difficult to see which of these turned out best for the descendants of the settlers, but the same is not true when we consider the welfare of the indigenous people of course. The millions of American Indians or Aboriginal Australians or Cape Khoesan that died due to smallpox or European guns had to give way for the Europeans to create their New Europe. (New Zealand was literally renamed after the home province of the European mapmakers. Think also of New York, first named New Amsterdam.) It is also patently obvious that the indigenous populations in the ‘extractive’ colonies benefited very little, even though they generally survived. If we were to maximise the welfare of the indigenous populations, integration was evidently the better alternative.

It’s not clear how humanity will react when we first discover alien life on a new planet. But let’s hope we learn from our own planet’s history – and the simulations of a computer game – about what not to do.

A renaissance reconsidered

with one comment


The 2014 African Economic History Workshop, ably organised by Leigh Gardner (centre), kicks off at the LSE.

Last week I attended the African Economic History Workshop at the London School of Economics. It was an excellent workshop, with 40 high-quality papers presented and more than 70 attendees. That is remarkable growth if you consider the previous African Economic History Workshop I attended, in Geneva in 2012, attracted around 10 papers and perhaps not more than 25 participants.

EHRAfricaThe reasons for the renewed interest in African economic history is discussed in the introduction to a new special issue of the Economic History Review entitled The Renaissance of African Economic History, incidentally the same title I used in a blog post in October last year. African economies are rising, if you haven’t heard, and with it comes greater interest in understanding the long-term determinants of this rise in prosperity. For long, much of the literature focused on the perceived persistence of poverty across the continent, but as new research reveals (some of which was presented at the workshop), not all of Africa has always been poor. The innovation of this New African Economic History School, if I can call the new approach to African economic history that, is to rely on big data. This is not the sort of Big Data that is fashionable in business intelligence or behavioural sciences, but rather a return to the historian’s own laboratory, the archives. Funding is now available to digitise and transcribe documents like historical military, missionary and marriage records which provide, often for the first time, individual-level information on the economic living standards of Africans during the colonial, post-colonial and, in rare cases, even pre-colonial period. These records often remain hidden in African archives, but as the workshop showed too, there is still much to learn from exploiting the wealth of statistical information in the colonial Blue Books, most of which is now available online. Browse through the papers presented at the workshop and you’ll see all kinds of interesting data: trade records from the Blue Books, Ugandan missionary records, tax records from Portuguese Mozambique, wage records from Senegal, household data for apartheid South Africa.

Another feature of the New School is the young age of participants, on average. A new generation of scholars, taught in the language of statistics and unburdened by the ideological struggles of the post-independence period, is coming of age, initiating their own research programmes, winning research grants, training new PhDs and opening positions for postdocs. It was difficult, for example, not to bump into one of Ewout Frankema’s PhD-students or postdocs at the conference, all doing wonderfully exciting work on a wide range of topics and (African) countries.

Yet it also struck me – and perhaps as a South African I am more sensitive to this – that there is still a long road ahead. Much of the new African Economic History is happening in Europe. Of the 56 authors (if we allow for several authors per paper), only three were from Africa. Of those three, only one was black. This echoes the fact that only one of the nine papers in the EHR’s special issue on Africa was written by a team from Africa. Of course, this is not limited to the EHR: as I’ve written recently, in the Economic History of Developing Regions special issue on the economics of apartheid which I edited with Martine Mariotti, no paper was published by a black author. This imbalance of contributions is not easy to rectify; funding lacks at many African universities to attend these workshops, and even where there is funding, there is often a disconnect between the methodologies employed by the New African Economic History School and those of an older generation of economic historians whose work remain isolated in History departments throughout the continent.

More should be done, though. The best would be to start at the bottom and train a new generation of African students in the methods and tools of the New School. The good news is that this is happening; this textbook, written by members of the New School, is available for free to anyone teaching African economic history. But intervention is required at higher levels too. We need to deliver more African Masters and PhD students that are able to use the tools of both Economics and History. We need more opportunities for the best African students to study at European and American universities. We need stronger networks and exchanges between African and European economic history research centres; networks that allow for the greater cross-fertilization of ideas, methods and data.

If we are to avoid another Scramble for Africa (this time in search of historical data) or, as has been suggested to me by local archivists, the ‘recolonization of African data’, we need to actively empower more African students, and especially black students. This is a challenge to myself and my colleagues at South African universities, but also to my European colleagues who perhaps have access to more resources. I am happy to report that there is certainly a demand from African students: at the end of November, I will run an ERSA Economic History training workshop in Pretoria. Although I had planned (and budgeted) for only 15 students, more than 30 mostly Economics students signed up. Of those, more than 70% are black. It is time to ensure that the renaissance of African economic history is not only about Africa, but also for Africa.

The economics of apartheid

leave a comment »

Why did apartheid end? Who benefited from apartheid? What was the National Party ideology when it instituted apartheid? Why did the ANC government have so little room for redistribution when they were elected in 1994? These and many other vexing questions are answered in the December issue of Economic History of Developing Regions, a journal published by the Economic History Society of Southern Africa, in a special issue on the economics of apartheid. All 11 papers have now been published online. The introduction, written by Martine Mariotti and myself, spells out the reasons we decided for a special issue on the economics of apartheid twenty years after it was abolished:

It should surprise no one that the weight of our history hampers our attempts to create a prosperous society. This has been a constant theme in presidential State of the Nation addresses. Of the 25 such addresses since 1994 (two in election years), 20 have mentioned the word ‘apartheid’ at least once. In 2004 Thabo Mbeki, celebrating 10 years of democracy, said that ‘we have always known that our country’s blemishes produced by more than three centuries of colonialism and apartheid could not be removed in one decade’. In 2011 Jacob Zuma said that ‘the legacy of decades of apartheid underdevelopment and colonial oppression cannot be undone in only 17 years’. In more recent addresses, President Zuma has observed that ‘apartheid spatial patterns still persist in our towns and cities’ (2013), and that ‘the culture of violence originated from the apartheid past’ (2014).

The Economics of ApartheidResearchers confirm these views. Poverty levels remain high for black South Africans (Van der Berg 2011; Leibbrandt et al. 2012; Bhorat & Van der Westhuizen 2013; Gradín 2013), their educational attainment and health outcomes continue to lag behind those of white South Africans (Van der Berg 2007; Harris et al. 2011; Spaull 2013; Barbarin & Richter 2013), and unemployment, which was already increasing during the 1970s and 1980s, shows no signs of declining (Banerjee et al. 2008). The distrust and non-cooperation induced by apartheid persist to this day (Burns 2012).

While economists and policy-makers are rightly interested in addressing these consequences of apartheid that affect South Africa today, the task seems to have fallen to economic historians to discover precisely how policy decisions taken during the apartheid era determine the country’s economic growth in the twenty-first century. The stagnation in employment opportunities is a case in point. The shortage of semi-skilled workers caused by the apartheid regime’s statutory job reservation policy obliged manufacturers to overinvest in capital technology, with the result that South African manufacturing became capital intensive rather than labour intensive. The consequence for employment has been low levels of job creation at the unskilled level, precisely the level of skills that the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and subsequent policies had envisaged as being required.

Economic historians are interested in the economics of apartheid not just because apartheid continues to affect South Africans, but because we see analogous situations elsewhere today. Ethnic divisions remain a feature of our times worldwide, perhaps nowhere more overtly than in the continuing conflict between the Palestinian Independent Authority and Israel. Former American president Jimmy Carter (2006) famously called for ‘peace not apartheid’ in this region. In the US, discussions of poverty and inequality often reference apartheid (Massey & Denton 1993).

In South Africa, we continue to extract lessons that hold the promise of not repeating past mistakes. We look for clues to understanding ideologues and their ideologies (Giliomee 2013; Koorts 2014): can we find similarities between Afrikaner nationalism in the early twentieth century and black nationalism in the twenty-first? We investigate apartheid policy counterfactuals (Bhorat & Ravi Kanbur 2006) because they provide a sobering perspective on current trade-offs: should government focus on high quality education for a select few, or education for all, but of lower quality? And at the macroeconomic level we consider the global response to apartheid policies (Kaempfer and Lowenberg 1988; Moll 1991): do economic sanctions force a regime change, or do they instead strengthen the oppressor’s hand?

The good news is that we are getting better at understanding how the past affects us and recognizing analogies between past and present. With the tools of econometrics, South African economic history studies are adding a valuable quantitative analysis to the rich qualitative analysis that is growing larger each year (Fourie & Schirmer 2012). The digitization of data previously buried in archives and libraries is beginning to make the apartheid era more accessible. Studies of apartheid can contribute to important themes in the economic history literature, such as the longevity of institutions and path dependence (North 1990; David 1994; Acemoglu et al. 2005). The era provides natural experiments with which we can analyse human behaviour in response to distorted incentives. The benefit of such experiments is that the inferences drawn are causal (Diamond & Robinson 2010). And because South Africa’s twentieth-century experience is a microcosm of global development, with the incomes of rich and poor diverging, the apartheid and post-apartheid periods serve as an analogy for the process of globalization and the potential effects of greater integration (Dalby 1998).

This special issue brings together the work of economists and historians to showcase recent developments in the study of the economic history of apartheid. We hope that the papers will inspire scholars to continue to work on this topic, to explore underused data sets and to maintain the conversation about this definitive era in South Africa’s history.

It is especially exciting to see younger researchers tackling this tough research area. As we report in our contribution, newly digitised, micro-level South African data, often with spatial features, allow for much deeper insights into not only the South African past but in things that are important to social scientists in general, like the political economy of policy-making. We discuss, for example, the fascinating work of LSE PhD-student Ed Kerby, University of Illinois PhD-student Nicolas Bottan, Harvard PhD-student Martin Abel, UCLA PhD-student Katherine Eriksson, MIT PhD-student Daniel de Kadt and Columbia PhD-student Laurence Wilse-Samson. Their affiliations include some of the leading economics departments in the world. That alone should be an indication of the treasure-trove of research possibilities the apartheid period offers.

But challenges remain. Although some are South African, these PhD-students are all based at universities outside South Africa. They are also all white. Let’s hope that the excellent research being done by a younger generation of (foreign-based) economists can act as a catalyst to encourage South African students to delve into an economic past that will remain with us for some time to come.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 22, 2014 at 11:37

When diversity hurts

with one comment

‘Diverse People Unite’ is the motto on the South African coat of arms. Diversity is a great thing, we believe, because it exposes us to new peoples, new experiences and new ideas. But what if diversity also results in lower productivity? This is the uncomfortable result of a forthcoming paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, one of the foremost journals in the field. The paper, written by Jonas Hjort of Columbia Business School, provides evidence that suggests that ethnically diverse teams are less productive than ethnically homogeneous teams. Hjort writes:

A body of literature suggests that ethnic heterogeneity limits economic growth. This paper provides microeconometric evidence on the direct effect of ethnic divisions on productivity. In team production at a plant in Kenya, an upstream worker supplies and distributes flowers to two downstream workers who assemble them into bunches. The plant uses an essentially random rotation process to assign workers to positions, leading to three types of teams: (a) ethnically homogeneous teams, and teams in which (b) one, or (c) both downstream workers belong to a tribe in rivalry with the upstream worker’s tribe. I find strong evidence that upstream workers undersupply non-coethnic downstream workers (vertical discrimination) and shift flowers from non-coethnic to coethnic downstream workers (horizontal discrimination), at the cost of lower own pay and total output. A period of ethnic conflict following Kenya’s 2007 election led to a sharp increase in discrimination. In response, the plant began paying the two downstream workers for their combined output (team pay). This led to a modest output reduction in (a) and (c) teams – as predicted by standard incentive models – but an increase in output in (b) teams, and overall. Workers’ behavior before conflict, during conflict, and under team pay is predicted by a model of taste-based discrimination. My findings suggest that inter-ethnic rivalries lower allocative efficiency in the private sector, that the economic costs of ethnic diversity vary with the political environment, and that in high-cost environments firms are forced to adopt “second best” policies to limit discrimination distortions.

Pushed to the extreme, these findings suggest that, if South Africa’s businesses want to become more productive, then they should forget about the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and only employ people of the same ethnicity, i.e. Xhosas or Sothos or Afrikaners or Zulus. Businesses that opt for diverse teams will grow slower than businesses which employ only people from one ethnic group; in a profit-maximising, Darwinian world, the ethnically homogenous businesses will eventually win against the diverse but unproductive ones. Where businesses already employ different ethnicities, Hjort’s evidence suggests that it would be best to let those of the same ethnicity work together in teams instead of mixing team members across ethnicities. So much for ‘Diverse People Unite’!

Of course, things are not that simple, and it would be silly to conclude from this that diversity is evil. We should remember that most teams in the real world don’t assemble flowers into bunches; teams are often required to provide creative solutions to complex problems where innovative, out-of-the-box thinking is required. It seems reasonable to assume that ethnically diverse teams have a higher probability of dissimilar ideas than ethnically homogenous ones. In economics jargon, perhaps ethnically diverse teams are more prone to economies-of-scope rather than economies-of-scale. And a logical conclusion from Hjort’s work is that, were ethnic rivalries to disappear, the negative impact of diversity on productivity would all but disappear too.

But such results force us to stop and think about the untested assumptions we make. And it raises difficult questions too: even if our own labour and development economists find that diversity hurts our productivity, is there not a moral argument in favour of maintaining ethnically diverse teams? Given our history of forced racial segregation, how do we weight the ethics against the efficiency arguments? My expectation would be that some of the counter-productivity effects that Hjort finds will be mitigated over time by working with people from a different ethnic group, and that this in any event is the only way of addressing the issue at its core. As economists, we should understand the value in delaying instant productivity gains for even greater long-term benefits.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 15, 2014 at 09:39

What Amanda Gouws wants

leave a comment »

GouwsAmanda Gouws responded in today’s Cape Times to my blog post of August 29, which later appeared in the Cape Times under the regrettably misleading heading “Gender parity is not the ideal”. Prof. Gouws is right on many fronts: I have not read the literature on formal versus substantive gender equality, and know little about the different definitions of gender justice. I also had not read the open letter published by the Women’s Forum and, in truth, did not even know that a Stellenbosch University Women’s Forum existed or that it was them who had published the poster in the lift.

Instead, I arrived at work one morning, got into the lift and, as one does, scanned through the wall posters. One of them, the infographic on gender inequality, was fascinating. I got out of the lift and later that week, I wrote a post on this blog about my thoughts on the difference between a strict 50% gender quota and gender equality, which I defined as the opportunity to be promoted and to earn the same regardless of your gender. I said that where discrimination still persists, it is wrong. I said that I suspect we are moving in the right direction; that if you had to draw a similar infographic a decade ago, it would look remarkably different. And I made suggestions that could speed up the process by, for example, making parental leave for men compulsory and equal to that of women.

Somehow, though, prof. Gouws has missed that I agree with her on nearly every point she raises in her response today. Instead, she chooses to build her own straw man, one that vaguely sounds like he might have said the things she protests against, and shoots him down. She misquotes me several times. To give one example, she writes: “Fourie thinks it is ‘normal’ to have fewer women professors”. I don’t think that and didn’t say that. Control-F my blog post or the Cape Times piece and see if you can find the word ‘normal’ in it, which she attributes to me by placing it in direct quotes. I also did not say “in time it will change”, although, according to prof. Gouws’s own statistics, it has. She notes that in her twelve years in the Senate, the number of female professors has increased from 6 to 60, an annual growth rate of 21%. If the trend continues, we could see gender parity at senate level within the next decade, not 40 years as prof. Gouws suggests. Now that is worth celebrating, right? Wrong, according to prof. Gouws. It is simply my “sexism hiding behind arguments about numbers”.

A week or so after I wrote the original post, I was contacted by Stellenbosch University’s marketing office to know whether they could send the piece to the media. My blog is public, so I don’t mind if the posts are reposted elsewhere, and so I agreed. A month later, September 30, the piece was published in the Cape Times under the title “Gender parity is not the ideal”. I would have chosen a different title, but newspapers need an audience, and catchy titles like that sell. So I understand why they did it. But I certainly did not find it “necessary to take the issue into the media without consulting the Women’s Forum”, as prof. Gouws claims.

The Women’s Forum, according to prof. Gouws, “wanted to start a debate about gender equality at Stellenbosch University. This was an opportunity for our male colleagues to show solidarity with women.” I would suggest prof. Gouws got exactly what she wanted.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 10, 2014 at 14:20

Gender apartheid

with 10 comments

Boy meets girl: expect their grades to drop

Boy meets girl: now expect their grades to drop

Seeing that, according to the Cape Times, I don’t believe in gender parity, I might as well go the full distance and call for gender apartheid. Yes, I want separate neighbourhoods for boys and girls, separate beaches and benches, separate entrances to public buildings. Heck, I might even demand separate homelands for men and women. And to be honest, this will be much easier than implementing racial apartheid because we already have separate schools, separate sports teams and separate toilets.

You might think that I do this because I believe that one gender is somehow inferior to the other, but in fact I’m basing my big plan for gender apartheid on science which says that separate gender development is better for both sexes. According to a paper published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, boys and girls do better at school if they interact less with the opposite sex. Here is the blurb for Andrew Hill’s paper The Girl Next Door: The Effect of Opposite Gender Friends on High School Achievement:

This paper finds that a student’s share of opposite gender school friends negatively effects high school GPA (grades). It uses the gender composition of schoolmates in an individual’s neighbourhood as an instrument for the gender composition of an individual’s self-reported friendship network. The effect occurs across all subjects for individuals older than sixteen, but only in mathematics and science for younger students. Additional results indicate effects may operate inside the classroom through difficulties getting along with the teacher and paying attention, and outside the classroom through romantic relationships.

Hill’s paper comes at a time when there is some debate about whether single-sex schools or mixed-gender schools are best. His results show unequivocally that single-sex classrooms are better for kids because they get along easier with the teacher and are not distracted by opposite-gender friends. I would think that a romantic relationship might prove to be a valuable confidence booster, with a positive impact on grades. But alas, it seems like the opposite sex is bad news. One might also think that causality works in the opposite direction: that poor-performing kids tend to select into relationships with the opposite sex. Let me rephrase that: nerds have their books and jocks have their girls. But Hill’s clever use of an econometric technique called instrumental variables avoids this possible causal problem: kids that live in neighbourhoods with lots of kids from the other gender tend to do worse in exams than kids who live in neighbourhoods where the other kids happened to be of the same gender. Causality runs therefore clearly from interaction with other kids to worse grades.

But somehow I am slightly uncomfortable with the policy implications of these results. Maybe it’s because I attended a mixed-gender school and simply don’t want to believe that these schools are necessarily worse than single-sex schools. (My mother and my wife attended a single-sex school, though, so I can’t be too critical.) But maybe it’s also because I believe that schools impart more than just our ability to do math and learn history. Maybe the social interactions in school are really important to teach values such as fairness, equality and diversity. Of course, many single-sex schools organise student interactions outside the classroom to accommodate this vital part of social learning. But taking Hill’s findings literally, one would want to avoid even these social interactions.

The results also imply that with relatively little additional costs, the grades of high school students across the country can be improved by just making all schools same-sex schools. A sort-of Grand Gender Apartheid policy for schools. But I wonder what we’ll lose in the process. If my own high school experience is anything to go by, I would think a lot. School is a multidimensional experience and shouldn’t be reduced to only one criterium – grades. Gender apartheid, much like other forms of apartheid, is a bad idea.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 3, 2014 at 12:53


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 348 other followers