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Gender Equality and Development +10: Looking back to spring forward

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Gender Equality and Development +10: Looking back to spring forward Gender Equality and Development +10: Looking back to spring forward

Believe it or not, 2012 was TEN years ago. Back then one of us had a toddler at home, the other was expecting, and the World Bank Group (WBG) was launching its seminal publication, the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (WDR2012). We can tell that ten years is a long time just by looking at our kids. Ten years means that we have gone from worrying about the timing of feedings to worrying about screen time. But what about the WDR2012? What has ten years meant for it?

The WBG is marking the tenth anniversary of the WDR2012 with the year-long #AccelerateEquality initiative, which aims at reviewing and learning from the progress made, identifying critical challenges, generating innovative ideas, and calling for increased action and funding to further efforts toward gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Some of the authors of the WDR2012—Ana Revenga, Sudhir Shetty, and Luis Benveniste—recently joined Mamta Murthi (WBG VP for Human Development), Indermit Gil (WBG VP for Equitable Growth, Finance, and Institutions), and Alberto Rodriguez (Director for Strategy and Operations, Human Development) to reflect on the past ten years and the relevance of the report in the current context.  The discussion led to four main considerations.

  1. The framework developed by the WDR2012 is still relevant, but it is necessary to focus more on social norms, on children as public goods, on understanding power, on digital and e-tech, as well as on the role of men and boys in effecting change. The WDR2012 argued that understanding how households interact with markets and institutions--both formal and informal--is essential to understanding gender inequality in any of its relevant dimensions. Its framework was simple but powerful because it could explain why progress was faster in some areas than in others. It called for pushing on multiple fronts at the same time, as it cannot be expected for any one lever to make a meaningful difference. Ten years later, the framework is still relevant, but recent events have highlighted the need to better understand the black box of informal institutions and power, which is at the very center of gender relations in the household and public sphere. Children should be thought of as public goods, whose health and education are a collective responsibility. Hence, there should be more discussion on how to share the burden of care. Moreover, more attention should be paid to the roles of men and boys in fostering gender equality.
  1. Evidence base on enablers and barriers to gender equality has increased substantially, but problems remain; there is a lot that we still do not know, including on replicability of solutions in low-income contexts. At the time of the WDR2012, the evidence base was limited and mostly coming from high-income countries. Ten years later there is much more knowledge, and it is more granular. The Bank has made substantial contributions in broadening the evidence base at the country level. The focus has been on the most challenging problems (in particular, gender gaps in access to economic opportunities, which is one of the most intransigent areas of gender inequality). Although we have considerably more data and evidence, there are unanswered questions about whether and how results map from one context to another. Gender analysis must be more relevant and more attuned to country contexts. In many frontier areas, such as the nexus of climate change and gender, we need to build the evidence base.
  1. Gender inequality results in a misallocation of talent and in productivity costs that call for more systematic engagement with and a more active role of the private sector. Society tends to assign the responsibility of care to women, but this may not be economically optimal. Young women with increasingly high levels of education and skills not joining or leaving the labor force represent a significant loss of human capital. There is substantial misallocation of talent as the sorting of individuals into skills and occupation is mostly determined by social norms—what society is used to seeing—rather than based on talent. There is evidence of the economic costs of this misallocation as well as of gender-based violence. Economic gains that could be achieved by eliminating barriers are substantial, and they are greater in economies that depend on innovation. The more the world is driven by technology and ideas, the more costly it becomes to exclude women. But solutions are not easy, as social norms in many parts of the world are deeply entrenched. Some segments of the private sector are starting to realize these productivity costs and beginning to pay greater attention to gender equality. But there needs to be more systematic engagement with employers, including small ones, at the country level.
  1. The World Bank Group’s analytical power and the work of its gender innovation labs (GILs) must be exploited. The WBG has contributed substantially to knowledge generation on these issues, from shedding light on women’s social networks in India—and the opportunities or constraints that these networks present—to identifying critical priority areas for deepening women’ s financial inclusion and building financial resilience to mitigate future economic crises. It has shed light on the role of childcare in women’s labor force participation; the relationship between decision making between couples and the incidence of intimate partner violence; and  women's power relative to that of their husbands to determine how it affects women's health, reproductive outcomes, children's health, and children's education. There is a need to keep pushing the envelope, particularly in low-income countries, to learn what works and what doesn’t in closing gender gaps. The World Bank is quite unique as it works both with policymakers and the private sector. The experimental and inferential work that the Bank does through its regional GILs (in Sub-Saharan Africa, East-Asia and Pacific, Latin America and Caribbean, Middle-East and North-Africa, South Asia), DIME, eMBeD, and DECRG is invaluable. There is strong work in academia; however, very few organizations have the capability to conduct randomized controlled trials at scale to identify what works, which is critical in guiding public policy. 

Ten years since the publication of the WDR2012, we are at a critical juncture.  Many gender gaps have widened again during the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that we cannot just return to business-as-usual if we want to build back better after having lost ground to the pandemic. We hope you will join us this year as we look back at what has been learned and armed with this knowledge, spring forward to #AccelerateEquality.


Anna Fruttero

Senior Economist, ECA Poverty and Equity, World Bank

Jennifer Solotaroff

Senior Social Development Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) Social Sustainability and Inclusion (SSI) unit

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