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Equality pays

Granting women equal access to resources, rights and political participation is not only desirable for the sake of fairness. A number of studies prove there are economic benefits too.

By Inga Müller

The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report shows that a country’s competitiveness and prosperity (measured as GDP per capita) are closely linked to gender equality. Empirical analyses by Klasen and Lamanna (2009), and Knowles et al. (2002) show that gender-specific inequalities in education and employment can negatively impact economic growth.

There are several reasons why equality may stimulate an economy:
– A society that provides women and girls with fewer educational opportunities is a society with a smaller pool of qualified workers and thus unable to fulfil its full potential.
– Investing in the education of women leads to lower infant and maternal mortality, lower fertility rates and a slowdown in population growth. Accordingly, there are fewer dependent children, and more adults can join the workforce.
– Women who have an income of their own have a stronger bargaining power at home. Their priorities often differ from men’s; they are more likely to spend money on food, healthcare and the education of their children.
– When educated women have access to the labour and financial markets, society’s savings rate as a whole may increase, and so does the scope for investments.

As Seguino (2000) elaborates, low wages for women in Asia have been known to increase competitiveness in export-oriented sectors where up to 90 % of the workforce is female. This trend has boosted short-term growth. On the one hand, it is a good thing that many women now have their own incomes, but on the other, they tend to suffer more than men from low job security and bad working environments.

A recent study (2011) by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that women are more likely to hold temporary jobs than men. The ILO promotes what it calls “decent work” in the gender debate. The term stands for secure jobs with fair wages and the right to organise in the pursuit of one’s interests. Any progress towards decent work may slow growth somewhat in the short run, but in the long run, it will contribute to distributing resources more efficiently and thus serve sustainable development.

Education, employment and income

Gender-specific inequalities in education, employment and income are closely inter-related. Equal access to education, however, does not automatically mean that women also enjoy the same employment opportunities as men.

The promotion of equal job opportunities can spur growth especially in countries where women so far play a minimal role in the labour market (for instance in the Arab world or South Asia). It is evident that discrimination not only hurts the women concerned, but implies costs to society in general – at least in the long run.

The UN’s “World survey on the role of women in development” (2009) provides an overview on women’s access to economic and financial resources and employment. In regard to Asia, the aforementioned study by the ADB and the ILO is equally recommended. The World Bank and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), more­over, have published a comprehensive analysis of gender-specific differences in African labour markets (Arbache et al, 2010).

The UN’s 2010 report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) also provides a good overview. There has been substantial progress in education – many countries have nearly achieved gender parity at every education level. But major differences remain once one breaks the statistics down according to regions. Women in sub-Saharan Africa find it harder, for example, to access secondary and tertiary education than men do. In crisis times, girls and women are usually forced to stop going to high school or college. The gender gap is especially wide among the poor and people in rural areas. Matters are similar in South Asia. In Latin America and the Caribbean, by contrast, more women than men attend secondary schools.

In recent years, women’s share of the workforce (excluding agriculture and self-employed people) has risen. It now stands at 41 % globally. The ILO reports that the average growth rates in labour force participation were higher for women than for men in recent years. There are, however, regional divergences. Only 20 % of the women in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have formal sector jobs.

In some world regions, women still face social, cultural, religious or ideological bar­riers even if they are well educated. Therefore they cannot live up to their full productive potential. Self-employed women, moreover, often find it harder than men to gain access to financial services, so their chances of success are more restricted.

Where unemployment rates are high for both men and women, it is often particularly difficult to promote gender equality in the labour market. The ADB and ILO – backed by analyses carried out after the financial crisis – argue that Asia should focus more on the promotion of women in small businesses (for example in agriculture) and on gender-sensitive social security systems (including in the informal sector) for the sake of advancing equality. The ADB and ILO also demand that politicians promote gender mainstreaming in administrations, laws and households in order to meet the needs of both sexes.

The number of women represented in national parliaments is an indicator for their scope for taking part in politics. The numbers are rising in many countries, but the rate has yet to reach 20 % at the global level.

Household chores

Though far more women have joined the global workforce in recent years, unpaid domestic work is still largely women’s work. What is called the “care economy” – taking care of the needy – is also usually handled by unpaid female family members or by female servants. The double burden of household and care is extremely high, which is why women tend to have less time for paid work than men do.

Improving the infrastructure (like water or transport) can indirectly boost equality. That is the case, for example, when household work becomes less time consuming.

Gender-specific discrimination is usually rooted in long-standing traditions and deep beliefs concerning gender roles. The local cultural context matters a lot; progress is often slow. Reforms must include both sexes, so gender policies do not necessarily add up to specifically promoting women. In practice, gender differences are an issue that covers a lot of ground – but one that is frequently not taken into account adequately.

Maternal health, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS remain important issues. There has been some progress, but last year’s MDG summit showed just how much work remains to be done in these fields.

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