Published on Voices

Progress and persistence in gender equality: Reflections on the WDR 2012

This page in:

Today marks the fifth International Women’s Day since the publication of the World Development Report 2012 on “Gender Equality and Development.” That WDR showed us that gender equality is both an important development objective in its own right, as well as smart economics. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I sat down with the co-Directors of the WDR 2012, Ana Revenga and Sudhir Shetty. They shared some of their reflections on the origins of the report, its successes and impact, the challenges that remain, and why a focus on gender in development work still remains important today.  

Looking back, what was the level of gender-thinking in development before the WDR 2012? Why was “Gender Equality and Development” chosen as that year’s topic?

Ana Revenga: The reason that gender equality was chosen as a topic for that WDR was the recognition that gender equality was not something that was incidental or peripheral to development, but actually a very core determinant of development outcomes. The Bank had done a major piece on gender, called “Engendering Development,” which written about 10 year before we did this WDR, which had put a marker down for the importance of gender in development. But there was a feeling that it was time to both take stock of everything we had learned during those ten years, but also bring the issue of gender equality much more to the forefront of the development debate.

Sudhir Shetty: There had also been in the intervening years between “Engendering Development” and the WDR [at the World Bank] an effort called the Gender Action Plan, which really was trying to make the economic case for gender equality, but doing it on the basis of evidence and analysis and linked to our work in operations. And so, [the WDR] came at a good time because we had additional works, including research outside the Bank, beyond what “Engendering Development” had been able to use to build this WDR on.

In your opinion, what have been the greatest successes from the WDR 2012? What ideas have had the most impact on gender work today?

Revenga: First is the fact that we were able to bring an economic lens to the thinking about gender, and did so in a very empirical, evidenced-based way. This was important because it shifted the tone of the debate about gender in the Bank from a strong focus on advocacy to a strong focus on achieving better development outcomes. So, it’s not just because gender equality is the right thing to do, which it is, but it’s also a really smart thing to do if you care about development.

And there are areas where we shifted the framework of thinking a little bit. One is that we shifted the emphasis to thinking about what the constraints [on women] are. What are the constraints in markets or the failures of markets? What are the constraints in institutions or the failures in institutions that give way to these gender-unequal outcomes? And by doing that, we provided a way to think about gender equality or gender inequality that is policy-friendly. Because once you’ve identified what the problems are in markets or the problems are in institutions, you can think about the policies needed to address that.

And the other thing we did that has really made a difference is bringing in not just formal institutions, not just markets, but also this idea that social norms and informal institutions make a big difference in influencing women’s choices, men’s choices, influencing formal institutions, and then influencing what happens. So bringing in this idea that you could integrate an analysis of social norms with hardcore economic analysis of market and institution failures, and use that to identify the causes of gender inequality.

Shetty: Two other points. One is—and you know, for this we are indebted particularly to the women on the team—it was really important to recognize the intrinsic value of gender equality and to be explicit about it. We could have very easily fallen into the trap that this is all about the ‘economic smartness’ [of gender equality], and forget about the fact that this is about fifty percent of the population and that is important in itself. That was an important thing, particularly coming from the Bank.

The second thing is that not all gender gaps are important to all countries at all times. It’s no different than any other development problem; you have to set priorities. So, the priorities on gender in [a low-income, conflict-affected country] will be very different that the priorities in a middle-income country that is not conflict affected. And that’s something our Country Partnership Frameworks need to take on board. And that’s something that, not just the Bank, but other external partners need to take on board when they deal with countries.

Have you seen countries taking up the ideas that were outlined in the WDR? Do you see them driving demand for gender-smart development among clients?

Shetty: Well, it would be nice to say that we changed the course of history within five years, right? But, the world is more complicated than that and this is not an easy issue. I’m not close enough to the country dialogues to know what’s going on, but I’ll tell you what has changed. There is much more of an emphasis on the use of evidence, on building up evidence. Because one of our points was that, particularly in developing countries, there was a need for more evidence. I don’t think it was the WDR that started it necessarily, but what has now become true is there is much more of a concerted effort, not only on our part, but on the part of other development partners as well, to systematically marshal evidence in developing country settings.

Revenga: Bringing the gender lens to the work that we do in all sectors has been an important factor of that dialogue with clients. I do think that the growing amount of evidence on the economic benefits of gender equality, particularly in the labor market and in access to economic opportunities, has permeated some of our clients. And if you pair that with the fact that we have more evidence, thanks to the impact evaluations, on what kind of interventions actually work to address some of those inequalities and access to economic opportunities, that’s creating a demand. We’re not there yet in every country in every region. But there are places where I see significant inroads. You know, the work that we’re doing in parts of Africa, the dialogue in Latin America, hopefully increasingly the dialogue in East Asia, and certainly also in high-income countries. It’s a combination of good evidence and why it matters and more information on policy interventions that work that are making a difference.     

Are there any gender challenges that you recognize now or questions that you wish you had focused more on with the WDR 2012?

Revenga: One area where we did focus, but probably could have done more, is the issue of skill acquisition. We obviously had a strong focus on education, and while we saw greater equality in access, we still saw a lot of segregation by field of study. And so underrepresentation of women in certain fields, particularly science and technology, that’s an area where we didn’t go so deep. We also focused a bit on demographics, but now [there are] certain client countries and certain regions of the world that are facing fairly rapid population aging. So the issue of aging and what kind of new constraints or pressures that’s going to bring on men and women that are going to be different, because of a woman’s particularly important role in care. And of course right now—maybe this is just because the spotlight is on issues of migration and refugees—we chose [in the WDR] to stay away from issues of migration because we just didn’t think we could cover everything. But that’s an area, too, where there are gender dimensions that warrant some more thinking.

Shetty: If we were to do it five years later, I would go back to the policy chapter and revisit it because we actually know more now. It’s one thing to understand what’s going on and to have a useful analytical way of thinking about gender equality. But at the end of the day what countries really want to know is, what do we do about it? And there is now more that we know about that, which I would reflect in the report. There’s one other thing I feel like we didn’t do justice to in the report, and that is indoor air pollution. We did a lot of useful analysis of excess female mortality, but from a policy perspective, especially given how important energy is as part of our portfolio of activities as well as to many developing countries, indoor air pollution is a huge issue in terms of the unequal burden of that that is borne even between women and men and even between young girls and young boys.

What role do you think the focus on gender equality will have in development work going forward?

Revenga:  When we both started [work on the WDR] we knew that gender equality mattered. But we both became convinced as we worked on the topic, that [gender equality is] fundamental to development and that addressing some of these inequalities can make an enormous difference to our client countries. And that’s why we feel that it’s so important to have this embedded in the work that we do. And it’s by bringing the gender lens to what we do in energy, or what we do in transport, or what we do in the discussion of fiscal policy or pension policy that we can really, actually make a difference. So, at least for me, the experience of working on the WDR turned me from a development economist that thought that gender equality would just sort of come along with development, to realizing that in fact it’s a two-way street. Some things do improve with development, but a lot of things do not and that addressing those inequalities can really push the development process forward.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]


Daniel Nikolits

Special Projects Editor

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000