Senior Thesis Series: Gender Disparity in India During the Demographic Transition

Ever wondered what a Harvard senior thesis looks like? Read about what Megan Prasad ’15 wrote!

What concentration are you in?


Can you summarize your thesis briefly?

My thesis focuses on quantifying gender disparity in India during the demographic transition. By using an income-based approach to estimate human capital in India, I am able to examine how the ratio of male to female human capital varies across states and time, establishing which states are lagging behind and which states are improving. Using these estimates, I then examine how changes in the number of child dependents affects convergence in human capital between genders.


My takeaway: things used to be terrible for women, but while they have improved slightly, they are still pretty terrible.


Was there a particular experience or class that helped you get the idea for your research?

My mom is a widow, and I grew up seeing how terribly widows are treated in India. Often widows are considered inauspicious and ostracized from their families and society. Seeing all of this made me think more about women’s issues generally and why it is that women are considered to be less desirable and valuable. This exposed me to ideas of gender disparity more broadly, so I knew I wanted to study more while at Harvard. Then, last year I did some work in India with women in Bangalore and became interested in questions of lost potential because of female exclusion from work and education.


Do you see your findings having real-life applications? If so, what kind?

We all know about the rapes that happen and hear about India’s low female labor force participation, but I wanted to move past a qualitative discussion. My mom always describes how terrible x state or y state in India is for women, but now I can actually say “Yeah, those states lag behind when it comes to gender equality and this is how much they lag behind and how they have changed over time.” It’s also relevant because India is in the midst of a demographic transition, where fertility and mortality are falling. If India is to properly take advantage of growth possibilities in the next decades, it has to understand what it is missing out on because of gender disparity, which is why I think this topic is important and relevant.


What was your most interesting/most surprising finding?

Something that surprised me is that while most states see convergence between male and female human capital, Bihar has actually seen an increase in gender inequality!


What was the hardest part about the experience of writing a thesis?

For me, the worst part was understanding how to work with my data. I’m using a data source that most people don’t like since it takes significant time to understand how to clean the data files and get them into a state to work with. There weren’t online sources to help with this, so a lot of it was stumbling in the dark, but when I finally got it, I felt even more excited.


If people want to learn more about your topic, what sources would you recommend?

I would recommend reading Economist articles! There is a lot of work about demographic transition and gender inequality in India, since it’s currently  a topic relevant to Indian growth.

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