Published on Let's Talk Development

Learning from past research on gender: endowments, agency, and economic opportunities

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Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank

This blog entry is part of a series that highlights insights from research for development policies and practices, supported by the Knowledge for Change Program (KCP).

“We don’t know our rights. We don’t know laws very well. Not beating your wife – is that in the laws?” -from an interview with a woman in Burkina Faso, 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development.

Women’s rights  activists have observed November 25 as a day to increase awareness of the fight against gender-based violence since the early 1980s, and the United Nations officially designated it as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2000.

Despite continued progress in improving women’s rights and opportunities, public actions for greater gender equality are still insufficient. Women’s agency – their ability to make effective choices – matters tremendously for their individual well-being, quality of life, as well as their children’s future behavior. The enactment and effective implementation of laws, as well as social norms, values and expectations may promote or constraint a women’s capacity to take control of lives.

We all recognize that gender equality is a moral imperative and a basic human right. But what makes the argument even more persuasive is the fact that gender equality also makes great economic sense.  In addition to the importance of exercising agency highlighted above, two additional dimensions are worth noting for a pathway towards greater gender equality: i) the accumulation of endowments, such as education attainment and health, and ii) the utilization of these endowments to pursue economic opportunities, in order to improve labor productivity and earnings. The three interconnected concepts of gender equality outcomes – endowments, agency, and economic opportunities – are the foundation of the conceptual framework for the 2012World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development published nearly 10 years ago, which the KCP supported, and the insights still resonate immensely today.

What gives women power? And how do we define pathways to empowerment?

Based on conversations with 2000 women in 19 countries, the WDR2012 team asked women in each country to place 100 representative women from their community on different steps of a fictional “ladder of power and freedom”. Each community had a different story to tell, but many common factors emerged. A comparative qualitative analysis reveals that what’s deemed powerful for a woman often relates to economic freedom – the ability to generate and manage income, followed closely by obtaining education and training, then by access to social networks and personal characteristics. The graph below presents a summary of the perceived factors of “powerfulness”. The WDR2012 team argues that in order to achieve better gender equality in endowments, agency, and economic opportunities, one needs to remove gender barriers in households, in the structure and functioning of markets, and the operation of formal and informal institutions, while paying particular attention to the interactions among these factors.

How to better understand gender disparity in exercising agency?

Even when gender gaps in human capital and physical assets start to narrow, unequal gender outcomes could still emerge due to uneven capacity between men and women to effectively make choices and transform those choices into desired outcomes. Often times, the disparity in one’s ability to exercise agency is most pronounced at the household level, which may include matters such as the control over resources, the ability to physical mobility, the decision-making power over family formation, the freedom from risk of violence, and the ability to have a voice in society. However, efforts for a more comprehensive understanding of intra-household inequalities are often hampered by the difficulty in measuring and estimating gender differences in a family. Traditional measures of poverty at the household level often under-estimate poverty differences between men and women. KCP has been supporting an innovative approach to study the validity of the "equal sharing" assumption embedded in standard poverty estimates. In most cases, disaggregated poverty rates for women are higher than for men. In Bangladesh, for example, by relaxing the equal sharing rule, the gender difference in consumption poverty increases between 8-15% points depending on the age group. A follow-up project that we are supporting plans to further validate the approach through a randomized survey experiment in one low-income or lower-middle-income country through three different angles. The findings of the research project could have potentially large implications for social protection and broader development programs that rely on household-level targeting approaches for beneficiary identification.

What explains employment segregation by gender?

There is persistent employment segregation between men and women, which traps women in low-productivity and low paying jobs. Evidence collected from WDR2012 points to three factors that contribute to gender inequality in the structure of employment. First, gender differences in human capital may result in varied productivity and earnings, although its relative importance may be reduced as the education gap narrows. Second, when it comes to female farmers and entrepreneurs, they are as efficient as their male counterparts, after taking into account gender disparities in access to productive inputs, such as access to land and credit. Third, a significant part of wage gap can be explained by women and men sorting into different jobs, although there is also some evidence of gender discrimination.

Recently, the KCP approved a grant to contribute to the policy debate on jobs and human capital development and explore policy options for India to address its worsening female labor force participation. The project will examine whether the lack of employability skills and informational barriers to job search are significant drivers of India’s low female labor force participation rate, and whether these barriers can be overcome through the virtual provision of employability skills training, personalized assistance to find internships, informational talks by industry leaders, and access to a Glass­door-type job information portal. The project will conduct two randomized con­trolled trials (RCTs) with young women who are enrolled in or have recently gradu­ated from vocational training institutes. The first RCT will evaluate the impact of an employability skills program that will be delivered on its own or in combination with personalized internship support to female vocational training students. The second RCT will assess the effects of access to a mobile phone app and virtual talks by industry leaders, both of which seek to reduce informational barriers that hamper effective school-to-work transitions for female vocational training graduates.

The authors would like to acknowledge contributions from the following projects under the guidance of task team leads (TTLs) and researchers: World Development Report 2012 - Gender Equity and Development (TTL: Ana Revenga); Intra-Household Allocation of and Gender Differences in Consumption Poverty (TTL: Talip Kilic); Validating Model-based Estimates of Intra-household Resource Allocation and Gender Differences in Consumption Poverty (TTL: Talip Kilic); Lack of Employability Skills and Informational Barriers to Female Labor Force Participation in India: Evidence from Two Randomized Controlled Trials (TTL: S Anukriti).

About the blog series: The Knowledge for Change Program (KCP) has launched a blog series to retrospectively highlight a selection of research projects conducted over the past 20 years, many of which still remain highly relevant and offer great lessons for development policies and practices today. Managed by the Development Economics Vice Presidency of the World Bank (DEC), the KCP promotes evidence-based policy making through research, data and analytics. To celebrate the KCP’s fourth phase launched in November 2020, this blog series will look into the wealth of knowledge researchers have generated in KCP’s previous phases, distill lessons learned, and inspire discussions on future research directions.


Kerina Wang

Senior Program Officer, Development Economics and Chief Economist

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