Surging or Subsiding? How Mining Sector Booms Impact Female Empowerment

By Audrey Au Yong Lyn

Mexico experienced a major mining boom as a result of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which produced sharp increases in the prices of precious metals mined in Mexico such as gold and silver. Mining is a male-dominated profession, so what happened to female welfare during the boom? This think piece discusses the results of a study of data from mining communities in Mexico before and during the boom on two significant determinants of female empowerment, namely intra-household decision making and intimate partner violence (IPV).

Is mining an obstacle to female empowerment?

Although the Mexican gold and silver mining boom didn’t lead to more female employment, it seems to have led to a 58 percent increase in women’s overall intra-household relative decision-making power. A closer look shows that women had greater bargaining power over their own private goods, children’s goods and household goods. Men on the other hand, experienced no overall change in their decision-making authority, although their bargaining power over household goods increased.

The data for the study were drawn from two main sources: the Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS) which provides information on women’s intra-household bargaining outcomes in 2005/2006 (pre financial crisis) and in 2009/2010 (post financial crisis); and the National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relations (ENDIREH) which was conducted in 2003, 2006 and 2011, similarly allowing for the comparison of women’s intimate partner violence (IPV) experiences before the spike in gold and silver mining activities in 2007, and after.

To explain the observed increase in female bargaining power, the study analysed the effect of the intensification of mining activities on female and male employment in mining areas. The results showed that the mining boom did not generate significant changes in female employment (with zero-bound estimates), although it did decrease male employment probabilities. A closer examination of the data revealed that the fall in male employment was driven by two occupational sectors in particular: agriculture and informal work, which may have been crowded out by mining.

In addition to employment, the study also looked at changes in male-female income in mining using an additional dataset from the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) The empirical analysis showed a decrease in male salary brackets in open-pit mining by about 5.8 percent during the mining boom from 2005 to 2011. Women in open-pit mining, however, experienced increases in their average wages by approximately $7.90 USD per month and an increase in their average salary scale rank by roughly 38 percent. These results suggest that the observed improvement in women’s relative decision-making power in Mexico was in part driven by an increase in relative female employment and wages during the mining boom.

Moving on to women’s intimate partner violence (IPV) outcomes, the data show that women in mining areas experienced 2.4 percent, 3.4 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.5 percent more emotional abuse, threats of violence, physical abuse and sexual violence respectively, during the boom. Dividing the sample of women into high and low socio-economic classes produced heterogeneous results. Poorer women were more vulnerable to harder forms of IPV such as physical and sexual violence, while better-off women faced an increased likelihood of softer types of IPV such as threats of violence and emotional abuse.

Facing a backlash?

A woman’s susceptibility to intimate partner violence (IPV) is often seen as a subset of her household decision-making power. Yet, the results from this study show that while women in mining communities in Mexico saw improvements in household decision-making power, they were also more likely to experience IPV. It is worth noting that although the IPV estimates in this study are relatively small in magnitude, the effect of mining on IPV would possibly be larger with the use of a dataset disaggregated at a lower level (the IPV data in this study is at the state level) and with geocoordinate data, which unfortunately was not available. These findings nonetheless suggest that female bargaining power is not necessarily negatively correlated with the probability of domestic violence.

That finding can perhaps be explained by what is known as the male-backlash phenomenon, and stresses related to male unemployment when men do not meet income-earning expectations. There are studies documenting this phenomenon in many different parts of the world. One study on cash transfers in rural Mexico found increases in the aggressive behaviour of husbands with traditional views of gender roles when their wives received large transfers, probably because their wife’s entitlement to a large transfer threatened their identity. A study in India by Gangadharan et al. (2016) showed men retaliating through more muted behavioural changes in order to resist improvements in women’s socio-economic status. In the paper, men contributed significantly less to public good expenditures when women, rather than men, were leaders. Bertrand et al. (2013) also found that American couples were less satisfied with their marriage when the wife earned more than the husband, and that women with higher income earning potential than their husbands were also less likely to be in the labour force.

Policy implications

From a policy standpoint, this study underscores the need for more work in altering social and gender norms to accommodate increases in female bargaining power. In particular, it is important for gender-aware policies to specifically target a potential male-backlash in response to improvements in female income and employment opportunities. For instance, efforts should focus on cushioning the fall in male socio-economic status (through counselling services, or community-based awareness campaigns for example), such that an increase in a woman’s household decision-making power through better employment outcomes for instance, would not be accompanied by higher IPV risk. To encourage female labour force participation during a mining boom, governments and mining companies should consider cooperating closely with local communities by supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) owned by women for example. This could be done through the provision of seed money, which would help to increase the viability and profitability of female-run businesses in mining areas. Lastly, this study highlights the need for a more integrated approach in policy making which accounts for both social and economic factors in tandem.

The study is part of the author’s forthcoming PhD research. A woman’s relative bargaining power index was calculated by taking the total number of sole decisions made by a wife, less the total number of sole decisions made by her spouse in each decision-making category (out of a total of 12 decision-making questions). A negative index value therefore indicates that a wife has relatively less bargaining power than her spouse, and the opposite is true for a positive index value. Using this measure of household decision-making power, the results from the analysis showed that women’s overall intra-household relative decision-making power increased by about 58 percent during the gold and silver mining boom. In a more granular analysis, the survey questions on decision-making power are divided into different categories, according to what kind of consumption goods are being bought

A different version of this post was first published by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Audrey Au Yong Lyn is currently completing her PhD in Economics at the University of Munich, Germany, and at the time of writing was a visiting research fellow at UNRISD. Her research lies at the intersection of development, gender and demographic economics, and focuses on issues related to child marriage, adolescent fertility, intra-household decision making and intimate partner violence (IPV). Audrey has also interned with the Gender Department at UNEP in Montreal, Canada.

Image: Ted McGrath under a Creative Commons License on flickr