Free DP Download 04 February 2021 - HERSTORY: The rise of self-made women

Thursday, February 4, 2021

HERSTORY: The rise of self-made women
Arash Nekoei, Fabian Sinn
CEPR DP No. 15736 January 2021

Women’s under-representation at the top of the social hierarchy is not just one of the most enduring aspects of gender discrimination; it also influences subsequent generations’ ambition and self-esteem. New data documents the absence of a long-run trend in women’s share in recorded history, but provides new findings on the rise of a new type of woman – self-made women – as opposed to those women who dominated history for a long time whose power was based on family connections.

A new CEPR paper by Arash Nekoei and Fabian Sinn documents the evolution of women's status across the globe and throughout recorded history. The authors construct a database of seven million notable individuals into a single database, the Human Biographical Record (HBR) to measure the share of women among each birth cohort’s most prominent individuals in recorded history and take a broader and comparative view of cross-section and time-series. Among the findings:  

  • The records show no long-run trend in women's share (among prominent individuals) in recorded history
  • Historically, women's power has been a side-effect of nepotism: the more important family connections, the higher the women's share 
  • But self-made women began to rise among the writers in the 17th century before a broader take off started with the 1800 birth cohort: first among artists and scholars, followed by elected politicians, and finally appointed politicians
  • The first wave among writers emerged when informal humanist education and new public spheres shaped a supply of literary women, who met the demand of a new female reading public
  • A strong writer wave predicts a stronger takeoff of self-made women in the 19th century. This effect has persisted and created cross-country divergence.

Self-made women took off in separate waves, gaining momentum from 1800. What is remarkable about their rise is that it became a ubiquitous phenomenon in the 20th century, visible across countries, continents, and occupations. This unprecedented rise represents a relatively long-run trend. Its speed, given the initial low level, is far from satisfactory: at the current pace, using a linear extrapolation, we should expect to reach gender equality at the top by the year 3000. Whether the take-off documented here is a linear phenomenon remains unanswered, but what is clear is that self-made women are on the rise.


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