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Editor's Note:

With sex-selective abortion prevalent in societies such as China and India, the rising gender imbalance could ultimately create an unintended consequence on men who are unable to find their “missing” partners – death. But how does terminating the life of an unborn female child lead to death, happening only a few dozen years later? Prof. Xiaobo Zhang at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, explains this phenomenon in his most recent research paper issued on Journal of Development Economics, “Deadly discrimination: Implications of ‘missing girls’ for workplace safety”. Read on to learn more.

Research background

In the absence of gender discrimination and sex-selective abortions, millions more girls would have been born and raised in countries such as China, India, Vietnam, and the Republic of Korea. The “missing girls” phenomenon is a deadly consequence of gender discrimination and has been well-studied by Sen (1992) and others. In this paper, we examine an indirect but also potentially deadly consequence of “missing girls” on parents with sons of marriageable age. As far as we know, this is the first paper that investigates this effect.

Our hypothesis can be stated as follows: due to unnaturally low female-to-male ratios at birth, the subsequent shortage of potential brides induces many parents with sons of marriageable age to work harder and seek higher-paying but riskier jobs to accumulate wealth and improve their sons’ attractiveness in the marriage market. In response, employers may invest less in workplace safety, which in turn will cause more injuries and deaths at workplaces in general. Our paper documents such a negative spillover effect of discrimination against girls (on top of other welfare losses associated with discrimination), which parents who terminate the life of an unborn girl did not take into account in the first place.


Literature Review

A few papers have also shown that a rising gender imbalance may bring about some social ills. For instance, Edlund et al. (2013) reveal that increasing sex ratios may account for up to one-seventh of the overall rise in crime in China. Tucker et al. (2005) and South and Trent (2010) find that imbalanced sex ratios increase sexually transmitted infections through the channel of sexual behavior. Our paper contributes to the literature on the consequences of a sex ratio imbalance by highlighting an unintended deadly consequence.

Furthermore, our paper speaks to the emerging body of literature on the economics of mortality. Case and Deaton (2015) find a rising midlife mortality rate among the middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic population in the United States between 1999 and 2013 in the face of growing competition associated with globalization. By analyzing publicly listed companies in China, Fisman and Wang (2015) show that politically connected firms have a higher likelihood of workplace deaths than nonconnected ones. However, this channel alone cannot explain why China’s work-related death rate is much higher than that in most other developing countries, where politically connected firms are generally prevalent. Our paper offers a new explanation for China’s high work-related mortality rate: the pressure to accumulate wealth in the face of a marriage market squeeze causes workers to work harder and take more risks, while employers may underinvest in workplace safety in response.

Our paper is also related to the literature on workplace safety and accidental deaths. The literature on accidental deaths focuses on environmental causes (Howland and Hingson, 1987a, 1987b; Blake et al., 1988; Myers et al., 1991; O’Loughlin et al., 1992; Fuller, 2000) or personal factors (Agnew and Suruda, 1993; Fuller, 2000; Lord and Dayhew, 2001; Dong et al., 2012). Although stress in general is listed as an important risk factor of health outcomes in the medical literature, few studies have examined the specific impact of competitive pressure on stress-related accidental deaths. Besides, none of the above studies traces the causes of accidental deaths to discrimination against girls or sex ratio imbalances.

China’s rising gender imbalance, which varies greatly over time and across regions, provides a natural experiment to study the mortality cost of sex ratio imbalances. Our study focuses on parents’ responses to their children’s premarital sex ratios.


Research Method

We marshal empirical evidence from multiple data sources and organize it in two steps.

First, we establish the fact that the work-related disability rate and accidental death rate are significantly higher among the cohort of parents in regions with a more skewed sex ratio (i.e., with a greater shortage of young women) in the premarital cohort than in regions with more balanced sex ratios. In terms of the economic effect, an increase in the sex ratio by one standard deviation in the sample elevates the accidental death rate of the parents’ cohort by 0.16 standard deviation. By our estimation, the sex ratio imbalance plays an economically important role in driving up China’s accidental deaths.

Second, we explore the mechanisms linking sex ratios and accidental death rates from the perspectives of employees and employers. On the employee side, we investigate an interaction effect: parents with unmarried sons in regions with a higher male-to-female ratio in the premarital cohort spend more time working outside their hometowns and take more dangerous jobs. At the same time, families with unmarried daughters do not exhibit a similar tendency. Since working extended hours and participating in dangerous jobs are risk factors for accidental deaths, we treat these patterns as additional evidence that the “missing girls” phenomenon induces riskier behavior that may be physically harmful to the workers.

On the employer side, we show that employers compromise workplace safety when potential employees have weakened bargaining power in regions with more premarital-age men than women. On one hand, a significantly lower proportion of trade unions set up specialized committees in charge of workplace safety in regions with higher male-to-female ratios (As of 2011, 90 percent of the firms in China had established trade unions). On the other hand, companies in regions with a more skewed sex ratio are less likely to provide work-related injury insurance coverage, which is a critical facet of employers’ investment in workplace safety.


Research Findings

Our empirical evidence demonstrates that skewed male-to-female ratios among the young cohort increase the likelihood of work-related injuries and accidental deaths due to fires or falls among the parent cohort. To accumulate wealth and improve their sons’ attractiveness in the marriage market, parents react to the imbalanced sex ratios by working harder and taking more risks, resulting in more deaths. Imbalanced sex ratios boost the probability of and time spent working outside the hometown as well as participation in risky jobs for families with sons, but not for families with only daughters. Employers invest less in workplace safety in regions with skewed sex ratios where more potential employees are willing to put up with dangerous working conditions. These findings shed some light on the puzzle of the rising midlife male mortality in China over the past decade.


About author

Xiaobo Zhang has published more than 60 articles in peer-reviewed English journals, includingJournal of Political Economy, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Journal of Development Economics, Journal of Economic Perspective, Journal of International Economics, and Journal of Public Economics. His main research areas focus on agricultural economics, development economics, and Chinese economy. Xiaobo’s publications are widely cited. As of November 30, 2016, Google Scholar lists more than 9,200 citations of publications authored or co-authored by Xiaobo. The h-index for Xiaobo compiled by Google Scholar is 41 and the i10-index 102. He received Sun Yefang Prize for Economics Research in China (the most prestigious award in the field of economics in China) in 2015 and Zhang Peigang Development Economics Outstanding Achievement Award (the highest award in the field of development economics) in 2016. He has rich field experience in developing countries, such as leading Guizhou Household Panel Survey (four waves on more than 800 households), China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) survey (four waves on about 15,000 households), firm surveys in more than 10 clusters in China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Myanmar, and village governance surveys in China and India

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