When Dana first announced The Woman Effect, which recognizes that gender balanced groups produce better results than gender-dominant groups, we noted that this philosophy was informing efforts to improve conditions for even the poorest countries. That was 5 years ago! We asked Jeff to give us an update on women’s empowerment approaches in 2017, and we’re happy to report some progress! – InPower Editors
By: Jeff Paddock
In 2012, the World Bank took a stand with a detailed report confirming the correlation between women’s empowerment and economic development. The report firmly connected a country’s growth with the participation and inclusion of its female population, although they were careful not to say the word “cause.” While the correlation is strong, to date we have not confirmed that women’s empowerment causes economic development, and until we can rule out the alternative view – that development causes women’s empowerment – the notion remains a theory. However, this lack in evidence makes it more important that we seek to pursue the issue. How far have we come since 2012? How close are we to knowing?
Where We Stand – The Research
The World Economic Forum seems optimistic in their recent analysis, Tracking the Gender Gap Over Time. Gender gaps are closing in countries around the world, even in developing nations. This is encouraging, to say the least. First, however, we should analyze the details of the World Bank’s 2012 Gender Equality and Development report and explore more deeply how women’s empowerment is important to economic development. With this understanding, it will be easier to interpret recent trends in gender equality, and more interesting when we look at a follow up report from the World Bank called Voice and Agency.
We’ve established that gender is a serious issue in economic development. I have seen first-hand what happens when low-income households suffer from the repression of mothers and daughters. Most of the people I’ve worked with in Latin America have been women who consistently work for, and invest in, the family. The World Bank and others have found that women are more likely than men to invest in a child’s well-being, which can take the form of school payments, medicines, and many other forms of care that helps them grow into a more healthy, productive member of the community. When we cut off access to resources for these women, it affects productivity on communal, even national levels.
Roughly 40 percent of working people around the globe are women, so by sheer numbers, the 2012 report pointed out to the developing world that half of its work force merited more investment. For substantial progress, though, they got down in the weeds; down into the quality women add to the economy (and society). The 2012 report showed that closing economic gender gaps correlated with new policies targeting the household, health improvements for younger generations, and institutions that are more representative of the population. Cause and effect aside, the 2012 report made us all yearn for the gender gaps to shrink, and some of them did.
Gender Gaps – The Differences That Matter Most
There are four key gender gaps the more recent World Economic Forum report focuses on in their report.
Unfortunately, progress in health is a flat line having changed only 2 percent since 2006: little to no progress has been made giving women greater access to health care, but that’s not exactly a bad thing given that most of the gaps around the world are more than 90 percent closed already. The World Bank, and many other organizations, are clear about the reasons for targeting health, which include lower mortality rates for women and population control with reproductive rights.
There is better news in education. Education is a lot like health in that most gaps are more than 90 percent closed (excluding Sub-Saharan Africa). The closing of the gender gap by 5 percent in education gives us cause to hope that the gap in health still has room for improvement. For one thing, we know that higher education amongst women correlates with lower and later fertility rates. In addition, greater literacy and knowledge gives women qualifications they need to participate in political and economic activity.
It isn’t until we get to politics that we see really good news. Ever since 2007, political empowerment indexes have been disappearing faster than fidget spinners at Toys R Us. We know that women’s input to policy leads to a more balanced market and fair institutional framework. While many of the Nordic countries have seen the biggest advancements, there are numerous champions of political gender equality in the developing world such as Nepal, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and South Africa. Many of these countries have closed their political gender gaps by up to 35 percent in the last few years. These results vary widely based on political ideology, but clearly, women are having a greater impact on policy than before, because the gap in politics has closed by 9 percent worldwide in the last decade.
Surprisingly there is less economic participation and opportunity for women than before. The gender gap keeping women from working is back to where it was in 2010 at 59 percent even though it was 60 percent gone in 2013.
Obviously all of these developing country gender gaps are moving targets that indicate greater trends. Significant progress has been made by many NGOs and national governments around the world who fight for gender equality, but the volatility we see tracking these gender gaps is concerning. How can we tell if we’re any closer to knowing if women’s empowerment causes economic growth? What does the World Bank have to say about these trends?
Progress – The World Bank’s 2014 Update
There are a lot of buzzwords thrown around when discussing these findings. Market participation is a woman active in the work force. Gender-based violence is violence against a woman because she is a woman. The most important word to remember, however, and the one the World Bank focused on in their follow up report, is agency. Agency is “the ability to make decisions about one’s own life and act on them to achieve a desired outcome, free of violence, retribution, or fear,” a right that many women in the developing world still lack.
Agency does make a difference. I’ve seen agency at work in my experience running community finance programs in rural Honduras. Low agency looks like the woman who can’t come to the community meeting without her husband, and does not attend the follow-up session because the husband was unsupportive of the material. By contrast, I saw high levels of agency in one household where the mother had complete control over the family finances. The entire family acknowledged the father’s drinking problem and for the greater good, the mother took control and gave him a weekly allowance. These examples are on far ends of the scale, but they illustrate why women’s agency stood out to the World Bank as a key factor that led to economic growth.
While the first World Bank report from 2012 reads like the financial institution asking itself introspective questions and then diving into mounds of data to figure it out, the bank’s 2014 Voice and Agency report, carries the tone of a researcher who finally found her lead and is pursuing it with avid fascination. What they discovered was that agency deprivation, propped open the gender gap to make advances in other areas impossible. In other words, the key to women’s empowerment overall lies in the amount of agency she has and which then opens other doors to her. Of course, the reverse is also true; a lack of agency can exacerbate the surrounding problems. The driving message of the 2014 report was to turn this into an advantage; convincing countries that if one less degree of agency leads to huge deficiencies in economic development, why can’t one more degree of agency for women lead to a surge in economic development? This is why the World Bank focuses on collective action projects to amplify the impact one women has to affect the global economy.
Key Dynamics – The Role of Technology
Take information and communication technologies (ICTs) as an example of agency and collective action. In the 2012 report, The World Bank found ICTs have created opportunities for women to participate in the work force. In the last two decades, industry in the developing world has moved from manufacturing to services. This movement from brawn to brains meant that women gained greater access to the economy, primarily because of breakthrough industries reliant on ICTs including banking, printing, publishing, insurance, and information processing. By 2014, women composed 80 percent of call centers in Malaysia. In the Caribbean alone, data entry jobs opened doors for women in Jamaica and Barbados to participate in the job market. The World Bank knew that ICTs showed promise for gender in economic development and in their follow-up report, they got closer to the how and the why.
When a woman participates in collective action, it amplifies her agency. Hence, those who fight for women’s empowerment use ICTs as megaphones. Technology platforms for individuals to use their voices have been springing up to address threats to women’s rights, such as Harassmaps in Cairo and Mumbai, to Hollaback! which is active in over twenty countries. ICTs are just one example of the new spaces contributing to gender equality, but they may be no more than a facilitator; real progress, notes the report, comes from institutional change and movements against cultural norms.
We have a lot of reason to be hopeful given the world’s progress since 2012. While we still don’t know if women’s empowerment causes economic development, we are certainly closer to finding out. The World Bank seems to have zeroed in on some of the household issues that provide clues to solving gender gaps around the globe. Agency might be the first clue that gives us hope. If there’s any reason to feel more empowered by these findings, it’s this: five years ago the world took a stand to identify the economic cost of injustice for women in the developing world, and now, the world is on the case and we’re learning more every year about how the power of choice helps women contribute to a brighter future.
About the Author
Jeff is a freelance writer and works on the ethical considerations of economic development and cash aid programs around the world. He currently works in Honduras, supporting local community projects through micro-finance and holds two degrees in Philosophy and International Affairs. Follow Jeff’s blog Suddenly Human.