A study by a Virginia Tech economist that shines a spotlight on the reasons why 6 million women are "missing" each year worldwide has won the 2020 Kuznets Prize of the Journal of Population Economics.

Sudipta Sarangi, head of the Department of Economics within the Virginia Tech College of Science, co-authored the paper with Gautam Hazarika of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Chandan Kumar Jha of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. It was published in the Journal of Population Economics last year. The team received the award on Jan. 3 at the Allied Social Science Association conference in San Diego during a reception hosted by the Institute for Economic and Social Research.

The paper focuses on ‘missing’ women — not women who were kidnapped, killed in adulthood, or otherwise left home — but the shortfall as a result of a combination of circumstances such as sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and inadequate healthcare and nutrition for female children.

“We found that societies whose ancestral ecological endowments were poorer have more missing women or lower female-male sex ratios,” Sarangi said. “Societies with better ecological resources in the past have lower levels of gender inequality today.”

Ancestral ecological endowments in the study were measured by a nations’ average annual caloric yields per hectare based on the agro-climatic yields of pre-Columbian crops — crops that existed in different countries prior to 1492 — under rain-fed and low-input conditions, as would be the case in antiquity, Sarngi said. The variable was further adjusted to account for the movement of people across countries.

The paper also examines this relationship using district level data in India where gender inequality is an important concern. The sex ratio in India continues to highly favor men – there are 1.08 males per female in the total population, according to Sarangi and team. They found that there are fewer missing women in Indian districts with better ancestral ecological resources.

Sarangi said the relationship between ancestral ecological resources and current gender inequality remains even after controlling for the societies’ current resource environments. This fact suggests that gender norms formed in antiquity have been transmitted during several generations, suggesting that cultural attitudes formed in antiquity may persist today.

Even though gender equality has been improving across the world, Sarangi said the research indicates that achieving actual gender parity is a long way off. If there were no gender discrimination, this female-male sex ratio should be equal to the expected number and not systematically less – so somehow, without focusing on the exact mechanism(s) that is responsible for missing women, we know that women are being treated differently,” he said. Gender norms set in ancient times is one reason for that.

Understanding the origins of gender inequality could help lead to policies targeted to achieve gender equality, Sarangi said. “Our paper shows that economic phenomena such as resource scarcity in antiquity  shaped gender attitudes, and their effect can be felt even today,” Sarangi said, adding that the global issue and causes of “missing” women has been studied in-depth since at least 1990. Policies will need to take these attitudes towards women into account, he added.

The research began during another study co-headed by Sarangi, this one covering the increasing involvement of women in politics and business leadership roles, and the decline in corruption.

Named for the late Simon Kuznets – a Harvard University population economist and 1971 Nobel Prize laureate, the Kuznets Prize honors the best paper published in the Journal of Population Economics, as judged by the periodical’s editors.