Is Democratization Good for Women?

Event Coverage by Devin Windelspecht

“There have been two world trends since the 1970s: the diffusion of democracy, and the global market economy— and both world trends were believed to improve people’s lives.”

So began Professor Barba Wagner’s presentation to a group of dozens of students gathered on the ninth floor of Renaissance Park. For Professor Wagner, an associate professor at the Department of Transnational Studies at Buffalo University and an award-winning academic who specializes in economic and political sociology and gender studies, it was this assumption that she wanted to challenge. Do all people benefit from democracy, Professor Wagner wanted to ask—in particular, do the lives of women, who have less than equal status in almost every country in the world, improve in a significant way?

The answer, Professor Wagner found, isn’t exactly straightforward. In a multi-year study analyzing democracy, economic development, and wellbeing in over 150 countries, Wagner observed that wellbeing in fact proved higher for both men and women who lived in fully democratic countries. So far, this observation fit well with established beliefs—but when she looked deeper into the data, Professor Wagner found that not everything was quite as rosy as it initially appeared.  

In fully-developed countries, Wagner explained, well-being did increase more for both men and women in democratic societies. But in semi-developed or low-developed countries, nations making the shift to democracy in fact saw women’s well-being decrease. Not only did these countries experience a decline in women in the labor force, but they also witnessed an increase in maternal mortality, a lower life expectancy for women, and a smaller ratio of girls to boys in schools.

The average amount of time for these negative effects on women to turn positive was around twenty years, Professor Wagner said — an entire generation.

Professor Wagner’s has her own hypothesis for this outcome: when democratic shifts happen, especially alongside globalized free-trade economics, the resulting gap between economic classes can cause people to target all kinds of minorities—including women. Wagner believes that similar effects can likely be seen in religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

To counter this trend, Wagner suggests that women be allowed to play a greater role in state legislatures, in order to protect women during political instability and to prevent discriminatory workplace practices in the event of an economic downturn. But she also stressed that even if democracy can be achieved with minimum impact, work would still need to be done to keep progress for both women and men from sliding backwards.

“Democracy itself is not the end goal,” Wagner said. “If you have a beautiful rose, it must be cultured, it must be taken care of. Or it will be abused.”