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The Role of Men in the Economic and Social Development of Women

Lídia Farré's picture

A commitment to gender equality in economic outcomes, as in other areas of social development and human rights, has emphasized women's empowerment. There is evidence that expanding woman's opportunities - particularly in the areas of health, education, earnings, civic rights, and political participation - decreases gender inequality and accelerates development. However, despite important advances towards equality, gender differences in many socioeconomic outcomes still persist. In light of this, policy makers and social scientists have shifted attention to the role of men in reducing gender disparities.

In both the developing and the developed world, men wield enormous power over many aspects of women's lives. In the public sphere, as heads of states and government ministers, as leaders of religious institutions, as judges, and village heads, men design and implement policies that may or may not favor women's priorities and needs. In the private sphere, as husbands and fathers, men can directly impact the economic and social progress of women. Thus, ignoring men in the design and implementation of gender-oriented policies may not only limit the effectiveness of these initiatives but also exacerbate existing disparities.

In my recent paper, using 'family' as the main unit of analysis, I identify situations in which men's actions or decisions affect women's achievements and analyze the implications of policies designed to foster gender equality. 

The paper first describes the process that governs decisions within the family and the economic factors that affect this process. Families are formed by multiple agents that have different preferences. Household allocation decisions are the result of a bargaining process in which household members seek to allocate the resources that they control  and particularly care about. Thus, the bargaining strength of each member is crucial to the process of final allocation. Relative income clearly influences the intra household distribution of power, but it is not the only variable that affects the decision process. Factors that alter a household's economic environment, particularly its members' respective bargaining positions, are also important.

Existing literature has identified several factors that, over time, have led men to share or give up some of their traditional privileges and authority in favor of women. For example, the rise in the returns to human capital has increased men's incentives to share power with women and has made polygamy less affordable. There is evidence that women spend more resources on children's well-being than men.Thus, more bargaining power for women means greater investments in children's human capital. Also, in a context of technological progress, skilled men value skilled women for their ability to raise skilled children. This increases the value of skilled females in the marriage market to a point that skilled men prefer one skilled wife to multiple unskilled ones. The narrowing of gender gap in pay, partly driven by increasing educational attainment of women, has also contributed to the reduction of  violence against women.  

The paper also reviews recent studies that identify an important role of husbands and fathers in the well-being of their wives and daughters. It focuses on access to education and health institutions, as well as on public and private arrangements that influence women's economic and social outcomes. Some studies show that in countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tunisia, India, and Korea, when women seek health care, they are dependent on decisions made by a spouse or senior male member of the family. Constraints on women's access to healthcare are likely to have severe implications on their health, particularly during pregnancy or at the time of delivery. In many developing countries, men also have control over women's reproductive health. As policy makers and service providers, men can perpetuate a dominant male definition of what is important for women's needs. As partners and husbands, in many instances men have the final say in family planning decisions and the use of contraception. Thus, fertility and family planning programs that focus solely on women will continue to achieve limited success.

The study finally summarizes some gender policy interventions that intentionally or unintentionally have affected men's attitudes and behaviors and consider their ultimate implications for women's outcomes. For example, there is evidence that involving men in reproductive health issues by boosting their participation in informational campaigns may have a positive effect on women's welfare. Some studies have also stressed that economic development per se will not reduce gender discrimination unless social structures, such as dowries, patrilineal living arrangements, and discriminatory inheritances, will be eliminated.  In developed countries, policies aimed at promoting a more equal distribution of child care and housework tasks are strongly encouraged to reduce inequalities in the labor market. The Scandinavian experience shows that a promising initiative is the introduction of incentives to encourage fathers to take parental leaves and to share the responsibility for child care.