Published on Let's Talk Development

Women are still pushing a boulder uphill, but progress is real

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Most women today still get the short end of the economic stick - by virtually every measure available to us, women are more constrained and economically excluded than men.
Globally, men are nearly twice as likely as women to hold full-time jobs. On average, women earn between 10 and 30 percent less than working men, while they spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work, such as caring for family members and doing housework.

Beyond job market obstacles and family obligations imposed on women, we must also consider legal barriers. According to Women, Business and the Law, a product of the Global Indicators Group at the World Bank, laws restrict the types of jobs that women can do in 79 economies. The most extensive restrictions on women’s employment are in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Financial access is another arena in which women are not yet at par with men. The Global Findex database shows, for example, that in South Asia, 41 percent of adult men and 25 percent of adult women have bank accounts.

Other data also show the challenges women across the globe still face.

One of three married women across the world suffers some form of domestic violence.

And reflecting a broader trend in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women farmers make up almost half the agricultural workforce,  a recent study from Malawi showed that plots managed by women are 25 percent less productive than plots managed by men, because they have less access to productive inputs like land, seeds, fertilizer,  and extension services. According to one estimate, if women worldwide had the resources they needed, 100-150 million fewer people would go hungry every day. 

While the status of constraints for women is dire, there has been progress in the recent past, both economically and in terms of social indicators. And when women do well, so do their families. Modifying that old proverb a little, we can say, “Teach a man to fish and he will not go hungry. Teach a woman to fish and he will not go hungry; and, in addition, nor will she and the children”.

This brings to mind two examples.

First, it has been noted that in recent years Bangladesh has overtaken not just Pakistan but also India in terms of some indicators of well-being. There is reason to believe that this is caused by the remarkable success of the pioneers of microlending, who established a rule that only women would be eligible for certain loans. This small act of drawing women into economic life and giving them a voice has played a role in boosting the quality of life not just of the women but entire households, resulting in the sharp improvement in the country’s social indicators. 

Bangladesh is now doing well today in terms of female education as well as life expectancy (women there live to age 71, which is the average for women around the world).  Children's health has also improved, and this is attributable in no small part to women being better integrated into society.

A second example relates to women’s political participation in India. Some years ago India made an important, progressive change in the law, whereby only women could run for office in one-third of randomly chosen local governments. Taking advantage of this natural randomization, Raghabendra Chattopadhyaya and Esther Duflo in a celebrated study showed that: if you have women leaders, the provision of local public goods, like water, improves.  So, having a woman leader makes a difference to public good provision in the local area and improves the general quality of life. 

At the World Bank, we are moving beyond gauging our efforts in terms of what an action will do for economic growth or GDP and are focusing more on the twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. In so doing, we know that attention to gender equality is good economics. I must however hasten to add that we do not have to justify all interventions in terms of ‘good economics.’ Drawing those who are marginalized and excluded into the mainstream should be construed as good in itself.

A key takeaway as we look forward to International Women’s Day on March 8 is that: women are half of humanity, and ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Even if their participation in broader economic activity had a small negative effect on GDP growth, the upside of greater gender equality would be worth the price.

Luckily for us, we don't have to contemplate such a sacrifice on growth because all studies, including the in-depth review undertaken as part of the World Development Report 2012, show that better inclusion of women helps with overall economic performance.

Join the worldwide effort to recognize and celebrate International Women’s Day #makeithappen #get2equal


Kaushik Basu

Former Chief Economist & Senior Vice President of the World Bank

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