The World Bank's "think equal" campaign, which launched the new World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, addresses the challenge of women's empowerment and gender equality well. Preconceived notions of what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman" are deeply internalized and integral to our identities and relationships: Men are more “competent” and “tough”; they call the shots, they earn the bacon. Women nurture, look pretty, and take care of the household. Women and men who seek to mix up this picture will have to do the hard work of acknowledging that some of our most cherished values and assumptions about gender no longer make sense and may ultimately prove to be harmful.
Some of the barriers to the shifting mindset about gender became apparent to me from my new research on Yemen and West Bank and Gaza. This past January and February, 60 focus groups comprised of males and females from three generations, in these two contexts, shared their views on a host of topics related to gender roles and norms for the World Bank's new gender report. One question explored whether they thought men or women were better at different kinds of jobs. An adult women's group from an urban neighborhood of Gaza where few women are economically active replied, "Women excel in health, education, and housekeeping. But men excel at everything else, like engineering and police." Their list of local jobs indicated that what they deem as “good fields” for women were only in education and healthcare. So clearly, the challenge to think equal does not just apply to men, but also to women as well.
As one might predict, job sorting by gender narrows among areas where women have stronger economic roles, are attaining higher levels of education and are residing within dynamic local economies. However, the gender bias does not completely disappear. One women's group from a better off urban community in southern Yemen indicated as many “good jobs” for women as for men. There, women sold door-to-door, ran their own businesses, took jobs in beauty salons or restaurants, and made handicrafts. Yet even that group reached an agreement that women were more proficient at sewing, henna craft, and hairdressing, as opposed to men, who were better in commerce and with construction jobs like welding and carpentry.
On a hopeful note, sizable generational differences emerged. A large majority of girls and young women who participated in focus groups from both Yemen and West Bank and Gaza made clear that they aspired to work and have good jobs across many fields, despite considerable barriers. They even spoke of a future with professional occupations that few women presently held in their societies, although a good number of the youths live in communities where relatively few women currently worked for pay. However, these young women and girls are in school and exposed to television and social media. They are seeing, imagining, and seeking a life different from their parents. The great challenge now for them, and for us, is to translate "thinking equal" into something much more than these young girls’ wishful thinking.