Understanding Society

This is a woman’s world

In February 1966 when James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, recorded his top 10 hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” he spoke the truth. In most ways that can be measured; societies worked better for men than women, especially from a cultural perspective. Culture creates the gender roles we are taught by our parents and reinforced by our institutions. It also creates the expectations about how to distribute economic and political power in a society. While one can bridle at the concept of an objective “patriarchy” – I certainly do – its undeniable that cultures set the guidelines for how we live our lives. And, throughout history, those guidelines have mostly advantaged men.

The Godfather was also right about the demographic power of men. Although, in 1966, the world was pretty much equally divided between the number of men and women alive. Soon though, due to the explosion in global population (the world went from a population of 3.4 billion in 1966, to the 7.5 billion it is today), we had more men than women. This is because, if Mother Nature is left to her own devices, there are always more boys born than girls. The ratio, according to the UN, is 102:100 in most countries. Although, other demographers have it as high as 105:100.

Those countries in which the ratio isn’t the average have cultural practices (female abortions to favour male births) that slant the birth ratio even further towards boys. That’s certainly the case in the world’s two largest countries, China and India. In China, the birth ratio today is 106:100; in India it’s 107:100. Again, these ratios are optimistic. There are estimates that have the ratios as high as 115-120:100. They are certainly higher in rural communities in both countries.

Young populations are male populations. That’s the impact of more male births. The male advantage won’t last, though. That’s because even though more boys are born than girls, the longevity advantage goes to girls. Men are like mayflies. Lots are born but die quickly.

Soon, every year, there will be more women alive than men

Why do women outlive men? Because almost everything that can cause a human being to die has an earlier effect on men than women. Of the top twenty causes of death, only three are more prevalent among women than men. Two of them, cervix uteri cancer and breast cancer are almost exclusive to women. The third, Alzheimer’s, disproportionately impacts women because they live longer.

Another significant early killer of women has almost been eliminated from the lives of today’s women. That’s death due to the complications of childbirth. Part of the reason for this has been advancements in maternal healthcare. But, a significant contributor has also been women now choosing to have smaller families. The world’s birth rate today is around 2.5, which is half of what it was in 1950. Fewer children means fewer chances to die due to the complications of childbirth.

Why will the future be a woman’s world? Because soon, every year, there will be more women alive than men. And numbers count when it comes to culture. Japan is an example of where the world is headed. Japan is a low fertility country (birth rate 1.3), with a high life expectancy (85 years), and an older population (median age 48 years). Japan’s population today is 51.2% female. And getting more female every day.

What will an older, more female humanity mean? Almost nobody is thinking about it. Politicians and commercial organisations are obsessed with youth. When was the last time you saw a political party focus its campaign strategy on attracting the votes of older women? How about a major brand featuring an older woman in an advertisement? This must change. Because every year we are becoming a woman’s world. Especially an older woman’s world.

Darrell Bricker
Ipsos Public Affairs