By Carmen Marti

Is there a role for TV in improving the status of women in India? Yes, said Emily Oster, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

Oster’s presentation was part of a Becker Brown Bag Series luncheon Feb. 27 at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Charles M. Harper Center. She said her research shows improvements in attitudes and behavior in areas where cable television has been introduced, and this drives changes in status.

Not only does exposure to programming on cable television—as opposed to broadcast TV—seem to raise the level of education for mothers, it also seems to influence how many girls between the ages of 6 and 10 go to school, how high pregnancy levels are and what the freedom of movement is like for women (i.e. the ability to go out without permissions, etc). This could be because the most popular program in India is a soap opera set in an urban environment, where women can be professionals, such as a female character who is a doctor. “The theory,” Oster said, “is that cable opens attitudes and maybe changes behavior.”

Oster and her team talked to 2,500 women in 180 villages on three separate occasions. While she said there are some drawbacks to the research, she concluded that changes in attitudes and behavior were aligned with the introduction of cable television. The number of people watching TV rose to roughly 90 percent of the population in areas with cable access.

“Cable TV seems to be able to change who you think of as peers, what your reference group is and which behaviors are acceptable,” Oster said. From an economist’s perspective, these kinds of changes mean changes in costs, benefits and survival. Girls and women become more educated, make more money and gain more autonomy.

First-year MBA student Aparna Kumar, who lived in India until her family moved to the United States when she was in high school, said Oster’s findings were consistent with her own experience. “TV influenced views at my house,” she said. “The Western dress and girls in movies made a difference in my family’s attitudes.” Kumar’s family moved before cable was introduced, so she was curious about its effect. “I learned quite a bit,” she said.

By Carmen Marti

Originally published on March 7, 2008.