Greater gender equality brings with it economic gain. The conclusion is common sense, but the logic is not always recognized by political leaders and societies. In many countries women continue to work predominantly in the informal sector and lower-paid jobs where they cannot realize their full potential.
In an anecdote that illustrates this, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer recalls one of her international trips with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
As they were travelling through the local countryside, a government official who accompanied them was going on and on about how women in his country had no role in the economy. Mrs. Clinton stopped him and said, “Sir, as far as the eye can see women are bent over with children on their backs doing the farming, carrying wood, carrying water…if they all stopped but for a day, your country would shut down.”
There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that gender equality indeed matters for development.
The 2012 World Development Report focused on Gender Equality and Development, for instance, cites measurable impact of greater women’s empowerment, including productivity gains that can be made through integrating women into the labor force and using their skills and talents more fully. That unrealized advantage is intuitive given that women account for half of the world’s population, and several studies quantify it in specific sectors and countries.
For instance, if female farmers were to have the same access as men to agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, maize yields in Malawi and Ghana would increase by almost one-sixth. Similarly, stronger property rights for women in Burkina Faso would raise total household agricultural production by approximately six percent since secure land tenure provides better access to credit and inputs.
Another area where women’s participation matters greatly to development and where they often remain underrepresented involves management and leadership positions. That is also intuitively obvious: when women are excluded from managerial positions or certain jobs, more men who are insufficiently qualified are in charge to the detriment of sound business decision-making and innovation.
Studies show that discriminating against women in managerial positions and preventing them from working in certain occupations leads to the loss in output per worker of up to 25 percent and a similar level of worker’s wage loss across a range of countries. The region with the largest income losses due to gender gaps in managerial positions and labor force is Middle East and North Africa.
Crucially, economic gains made by women benefit not only them but also the next generation, magnifying the development impact. A larger share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit children in areas ranging from better nutrition to years of schooling and academic achievement. Therefore, the persistence of gender inequality must be viewed as negative not only in its own right but also as an economic and social loss that hinders a country’s long-term development prospects.
Economic empowerment is a step in the right direction but not sufficient by itself. Women must also actively participate in political and civil spheres to realize their full potential and to meaningfully shape both formal and informal institutions, make them more conducive toward equal opportunity. In other words, women need stronger agency: the ability to make choices and to transform them into desired actions and outcomes. That ability is still severely constrained in many countries around the world because legal structures and societal norms often disadvantage women.
Women’s empowerment can make big strides when policy reforms meant to increase women’s political, economic, and social participation have broad-based support and represent views of large portions of society – men and women alike. One way of building such cross-cutting coalitions for reform involves civil society organizations and the private sector.
Groups such as chambers of commerce and business associations, for instance, can bring women into the economy and help remove barriers to entry. Working in concert, these groups can achieve far-reaching policy changes toward greater gender equality in key areas from business registration to family law. They provide a space for women to network and exchange experiences, and give them a voice in policymaking.
While recognizing the benefits of greater gender equality in all its aspects, it is important to remember that women and girls are not just beneficiaries of development. Instead, it is a two-way street. As MIT professor and development expert Esther Duflo put it, there is “a reciprocal and intimate relationship between women’s empowerment and economic development. (…) While development itself will bring about women’s empowerment, empowering women will bring about changes in the decision-making, which will have direct impact on development.”
Women are therefore active agents of change who matter to development as much as development matters to them.