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The education of a gender skeptic: what I learnt from the WDR 2012

Ana Revenga's picture

Before I started working on the World Developmnet Report 2012 (WDR), I often thought of gender equality being at the periphery of my work on development.  Like many other World Bank colleagues, I would have told you: “Yes, gender equality matters and it is a good thing.”  But in my mind gender equality was something that happened pretty much automatically with economic development.  If asked about policy priorities, I would say: focus on growth, on creating jobs, on reducing poverty and improving equity in opportunities, and gender equality will come right along.  But I was wrong. Gender equality is not just something that ‘happens’ with development. Gender equality is both fundamental to and a means for development.  And countries need to work hard at achieving it, because it does not come about on its own with economic growth.

Higher incomes and the economic changes that come with growth do help close some gaps, as in education. As schools expand and more jobs open up for young women, parents see clear benefits to educating their girls.  In a third of developing countries there are more girls in secondary school than boys, and at the university level, young women now outnumber young men in over 60 countries.  And as they get more educated, women are more likely to work outside the home, and earn incomes. Indeed, over half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force over the last 30 years. As a result women now represent over 40 percent of the global labor force.

But other gender gaps remain stubbornly persistent, most obviously where girls and women face other disadvantages (such as poverty or exclusion due to ethnicity, remoteness or other factors) or where markets failures, poor service delivery institutions and social norms combine to limit progress.  While there is little difference in schooling between wealthy boys and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, poor girls are half as likely as poor boys to complete primary school.

The worst disparity is the rate at which girls and women die relative to men in developing countries—leading to about 3.9 million “missing” women per year. About two-fifths are never born (due to son preference), a sixth die in early childhood, and over a third die in their reproductive years. And the problem is getting worse, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Big gaps remain also in access to economic opportunities and in voice. Around the world, women are far more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers or in low-earning occupations, to farm smaller plots, and to manage smaller firms in less profitable sectors. So, almost everywhere, whether as workers, farmers or entrepreneurs, women earn less than men. Women have less say over decisions and less control over household resources than men do. And women’s representation in society, in business and in politics is significantly lower than men’s, with little differences between poor and rich countries. Less than 20 percent of seats in parliament around the world are held by women.

Redressing these gender disparities is smart economics. There is a growing body of careful micro-level studies that highlight the beneficial effects of closing these gender gaps. For example, improving women’s access to agricultural inputs in Burkina Faso would increase total household agricultural production by about 6 percent, with no additional resources—simply by reallocating resources such as fertilizer and labor from men to women. And in Malawi and Ghana equalizing access to fertilizers and other inputs between women and men farmers could increase maize yields by over a sixth. Similarly, eliminating barriers that discriminate against women working in certain sectors or occupations could increase labor productivity by as much as 25 percent across a range of countries. These productivity gains are likely to be even larger in a more globalized world where efficiency in the use of resources is essential to countries’ growth.

And gender equality matters for society more broadly. Empowering women as economic, political and social actors can make institutions more representative of a range of voices and change policy choices. In India, giving power to women at the local level led to increases in the provision of public goods, such as water and sanitation, which mattered more to women.

Gender equality can also help improve outcomes for the next generation. Women’s education and health have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Brazil, Nepal, Pakistan, and Senegal. In China increasing women’s income improved schooling for both boys and girls. Instead, a comparable increase in men’s income reduced educational attainment for girls.

So, what should policymakers do? The WDR 2012 identifies four priority areas: 1) addressing excess deaths of girls and women and eliminating gender gaps in education where these persist; 2) closing earning and productivity gaps between women and men; 3) giving women greater voice within households and societies; and 4) limiting the perpetuation of gender inequality across generations.  

To be effective, policies need to target the root causes of these gaps. For some problems, as with high maternal mortality, this requires fixing the institutions that deliver services to expectant mothers—as Turkey did, targeting underserved women and areas. For other gaps, as with unequal access to economic opportunities, policies need to tackle the multiple constraints—in markets, in institutions and inside the household—that keep women trapped in low productivity/low earning jobs. This requires not just improving women’s access to productive resources, but also tackling information problems and institutional biases that work against women and lifting time constraints linked to care and housework.

What does this mean for the World Bank? These findings have implications for how the development community supports gender equality, starting with the Bank.

First, we need to enhance our country-level diagnostics so as to better inform country policy dialogue. The WDR 2012 shows that to understand gender outcomes we need to analyze carefully how markets, institutions (formal and informal) and households interact with each other to support or impede greater gender equality. The report also shows that the binding constraints are sometimes not where we think they are: for example, women’s over-representation in certain sectors or occupations may not be a result of discrimination in the labor market per se. Deeply rooted gender roles that, almost everywhere, allocate the bulk of responsibility for care and house work to women and force them into making difficult choices have a lot to do with it.

Another implication is that we need to scale up our lending and support for the four priority areas identified in the WDR 2012. In some areas, this will require sustaining or adjusting existing efforts, as in education or our work on adolescent girls. In other areas, it will demand new or additional action on multiple fronts—some combination of more funding (directed especially to helping poor countries reduce excess deaths of girls and women through investments in clean water and sanitation and maternal health services), coordinated efforts to improve the availability of gender-disaggregated data and to foster more experimentation and systematic evaluation of interventions (especially those that aim to improve women’s access to markets, services, or justice), and more effective partnerships.

And we need to think internally how we can all be more responsive and accountable for improving our work on gender equality.

I hope many of you (especially the skeptics) will take a look at the report and maybe you too, like I did, will gain new insights on how gender matters to our work.


The main cause of gender inequality is the dependence of woman on man. It is traditionally believed that woman has to be protected by man and therefore a marriage is essential for her survival; and there are not enough eligible men to be husbands. This leads to parents eliminating daughters to mitigate suffering later on. The system of marriage, though highly useful for many women, is counter active to the rest- the unfortunate one who cannot get good husbands to take care of her. In my opinion, it is essential to disassociate marriage as the vital element in the survival of a person and that marriage should cease to be an instrument for protection, economic support and social status. Women and men should be able to independently survive in this world without dependence. I suggest a space in the society for those people who choose to remain unmarried, or following alternate lifestyles other than the married one. The dominance of married lifestyle is real cause of many social evils. Society must therefore cater to the needs of sexually different people, socially isolated ones and minority lifestyles.

Submitted by Duncan Green on
Ana I've only read the overview, but my initial impressions are that this report is a real contribution to that elusive task, 'mainstreaming gender and equity in development'. Congratulations. My initial review and comments on

Duncan, many thanks for your thoughts. We agree that there are many other areas that we could have covered but we had to make some hard choices on the scope of the Report so as not to sacrifice depth of treatment. We are happy that you like many aspects of the report and think it may have some staying power. There are a few key messages of the Report that we do want to stress. First, gender equality is intrinsically important and it is also economically "smart". Second, to understand gender outcomes, one needs to look at the ways in which social norms interact with markets and societal institutions to shape aspirations, beliefs, opportunities and outcomes for women and men throughout their lives. And this understanding of what drives outcomes needs to be brought to bear on the design of programs and policies so that these address the root causes of persistent inequality and “get it right”. Third, public action needs to be based on solid evidence and rigorous evaluation of what works and what doesn't work. Too many out of date or not well documented facts and evidence are used for advocacy purposes that end up undermining our credibility on this critical issue. Working together, governments, civil society organizations (including faith-based organizations), and development agencies can make an enormous difference to the lives of many girls and women around the world. If the WDR 2012 helps arm all of us with well-documented "killer facts" and solid analytics and credible evaluations (which reflect country context and experience) then this Report can indeed be useful. Couple of responses to some of the issues raised by other commenting: we do look at quality of education and point out that there is a big problem in getting kids to learn. Children in low and middle income countries are learning less than in rich countries and this can hamper their future opportunities to get good jobs and earn decent incomes. But there is no gender gap there: it is a problem for both boys and girls. We also note the ways in which the education system replicates and transmits gender roles and stereotypes. On globalization we see as “glass half full”: good potential to help close gender gaps but not an automatic, unless policies tackle the structural causes of persistent gender inequalities.

The major cause of Gender disparity in Nigeria is illiteracy. During our independent research on girl child education in Nigeria, we discovered that the educated families attach interest to their female children as much as they do for the male folks. But we visited rural villages also and discovered that the poor parents are struggling to first of all educate their male children before the female folks. We talked to them and they elaborated on gender preference as a cultural phenomenon...they believe that the male children are by nature preferable because they will advance the family lineage while the female children if educated, will get married away and the benefits of her education will be transferred to her husband's family. Though in Northern Nigeria, we discovered that early marriage is the major factor affecting the development of female genders. Our upcoming film captioned Visions of a Slave Girl will elaborate more of this situations as seen in our locality. Ugwuja George Odinakachi Founder BSFC