I’m not sure this falls under my “campus news” beat for Grist, but I heard it at a seminar at a college campus, and it’s compelling enough that I’m going to say that because it falls within academia, it counts. Michael Ross is a political scientist at UCLA who was published in the February 2008 American Political Science Review with the assertion (PDF) that much of the gender inequality in the Middle East relative to the rest of the world can be explained not by traditional Islam, but by the presence of oil.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

The quick version is that Ross makes a strong case that women are hurt by a previously unappreciated effect of the infamous “resource curse” that imperils democracy in countries with abundant fossil fuels.

Saudi Arabia and Nigeria are textbook examples of the “curse”: when ruling elites and governments can get rich quick by exporting oil (or natural gas, or even tropical timber), they don’t so much have a reason to care about the well-being of their citizens, or anything else for that matter. Many. Bad. Things. Ensue.

Speaking today at Brown University’s Watson Institute, Ross emphasized that when developing economies are dominated by oil and don’t diversify into things like textiles and manufacturing, women don’t go into the labor force, their social status remains low, and — because women are stuck at home or in informal employment — their political movements remain nascent. The preponderence of oil in the Middle East and parts of North Africa would explain why traditional gender roles remain enforced even as oil wealth brings the accoutrements of liberal modernity.

Can Ross really suggest that oil impacts women’s status in the Middle East and North Africa more than Islam does? Academics at his talk raised questions about the strength of his methodology. But I tend to believe, and I think there is strong evidence to suggest, that social mores shift to accommodate demonstrated economic opportunities. When women can bring home good money in the labor market, traditional gender roles bend to allow it.

Read the paper (PDF) to get the full — and fascinating — report. Among many others, I think this should be of specific interest to the World Bank and other development agencies that currently fund extractive industries. Ross points out that nations in sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia are revving up to pursue oil- and gas-led growth strategies — and getting lots of international development loans to do it.

The upshot: more diversified, clean-energy economies may promote gender equality in ways that direct attempts to reduce the role of religious traditions in society might not. And the bottom line: coal may be the enemy of the human race, but in developing countries, oil may specifically be the enemy of women’s empowerment.