Missing Women and the Price of Tea in China: The Effect of Sex-Specific Earnings on Sex Imbalance

Improved economic conditions for women in China increase girls’ survival and children’s educational attainment.


Both poor and rich countries in Asia are characterized by severe male-biased sex imbalances. The observed deficit of women is referred to as “missing women.” In China, the number of “missing women” has increased steadily over the past 40 years through a variety of practices such as sex-selective abortion, neglect, and infanticide. The distribution of income in households has also changed due to agricultural reforms enabling women to earn income by working in tea production since tea is picked primarily by women. Increases in female income as a share of total household income influence a variety of household decisions related to investment in girls and education. In this paper, the author examines the effects of changes in female income on the survival rate of girls and the educational attainment of girls and boys in China.


In China, increases in female income had an immediate and positive impact on the survival rate of girls and the educational attainment of all children.

  • Increasing the annual income of female household members by 10%, while holding male income constant, increased the fraction of surviving girls by one percentage point.
  • Increasing female annual household income by 10%, while holding male income constant, increased the educational attainment of boys and girls by 0.5 years.
  • Increasing adult male income, and holding female income constant, decreased the educational attainment of girls by .23 years and the survival rate of girls, but had no impact on boys.

In short, factors that increase the economic value of women are also likely to increase the survival rates of girls and to increase education investment in all children.


In the early post-Maoist era in China, agricultural reforms focused on increasing the returns to cash crops, particularly tea and orchards. Tea is picked mainly by women and orchards are cultivated mostly by men. The author compares the fraction of males between regions that produce tea and regions that do not, as well as differences between cohorts born before and after the reforms.

The author uses household-level survey data from the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Fixed Point Survey from 1993 to collect information on labor inputs by sex and cash crop production, as well as county birth level data from the 2000 Population Census. This paper uses the value of tea as a proxy for female wages and the value of orchards as a proxy for male wages. The final sample includes 1,621 counties from all fifteen provinces in southern China. It contains individuals born between 1962 and 1990, living in rural areas in 1990.

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