Information by Country

Global Section:

Women and the 2012 World Development Report

September 21, 2011—For 23 year old Nguyen Thu Hie from Toan Thang, Vietnam, making a decision about employment is not easy. It’s not the question of what to do that preoccupies her, but the prospect of paid employment itself - whether to work or to stay at home.

“As a woman, being employed may lead to my husband’s family assuming that I am not a capable person. Also, men can find another job if they get fired while women are not very self-confident,” she said.

Nguyen’s worries are shared by many adolescent girls and women across the developing world. Social norms, traditions, and families often complicate the decision-making process and limit employment opportunities for women.

While real advances in gender equality have occurred over the past 25 years, there remains an immense gap between the promises of equality and everyday reality for women in many parts of the world, according to the World Bank’s latest World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development (WDR).

In developing countries, girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries. And women now represent 40 percent of the global labor force. However, these gaps have not narrowed evenly for everyone, everywhere.

For every woman who dies in childbirth in Sweden, 1000 women die in Afghanistan, 815 in Somalia, 495 in Nigeria, and 122 in Pakistan. Globally, excess female mortality after birth and ‘missing’ girls at birth account for an estimated 3.9 million female lives lost each year in low- and middle-income countries.

While gender equality is a core development objective in its own right, the report also notes that it is smart economics. Greater gender equality can increase productivity, improve outcomes for children, make institutions more representatives, and improve development prospects for all, according to the report.

“Preventing women and girls from acquiring the skills and earnings required to succeed in today’s world is both wrong and economically harmful,” said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President, Development Economics. “The fruits of growth and globalization should be shared equally between men and women for more equitable development.”

Gender Equality through an economic lens

Drawing on quantitative and qualitative data, including new field research covering over 4,000 men and women in 19 developing countries, the report focuses on the economics of gender equality. It notes that misallocation of women’s skills and labor due to market or social discrimination can result in large economic losses.

Greater control over household resources and equal access to credit and assets for women has a positive impact on children. In Ghana, the share of assets and share of land owned by women are positively associated with higher family food budgets.

Giving women equal opportunities to be socially and politically active positively influences laws, policies, and makes institutions more representative of a range of voices. In India, empowering women at the local level led to an increase in the provision of public goods such as water and sanitation as well as increased reporting and prosecutions of crimes against women.

Which gender gaps have closed and which persist? And why?

“On the one hand, the enrollment of girls and young women in schools and universities and the participation of women in the labor force have increased in most of the developing world. And in many countries, such as Bangladesh and Colombia at a pace much more rapid than was the case in the U.S during the 19th century,” said Sudhir Shetty, WDR Co-Director, “On the other hand, gender disparities remain stubbornly large in most countries if earnings gaps, excess deaths of girls and women, and the representation of women in leadership positions in government and business are the focus.”

So, while over half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force in the last 30 years, females earn only a fraction of what their male counterparts do: 80 percent for workers in Georgia; 50 percent for entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka; and 60 percent for farmers in Nigeria.

To better understand why some gender gaps close while others persist, the WDR provides a framework showing how gender outcomes can be understood as a result of the responses of households to how markets, formal institutions, (laws and public service delivery mechanisms), and “informal” social institutions, (procedures and rules not related to the state, which shape social interactions) are structured and function.

The benefits of economic development (higher incomes and better service delivery) on gender gaps can be seen through this framework as emerging from the workings of households, markets, and institutions and their interactions. So, in the case of education, income growth (by loosening budget constraints), markets (by opening new employment opportunities for women), and formal institutions (by expanding schools and lowering costs) have all come together to influence household decisions in favor of educating girls and young women in a range of countries.

Yet, sizable gender gaps can persist where girls and women face other disadvantages such as poverty and other forms of exclusion. For ethnic minority women in Vietnam, for instance, more than 60 percent of childbirths occur without prenatal care–twice as many as for the majority Kinh women.

And, markets, institutions, and households can also often come together in ways that limit progress despite economic development. Gender gaps in productivity and earnings, for example, are pervasive. And they are driven by deep-seated gender differences in time use (reflecting social norms about house and care work), in rights of ownership and control over land and assets, and in the workings of markets and formal institutions, which work in ways that disadvantage women.

“Policymakers should focus on the most stubborn gender gaps that rising incomes alone cannot solve. It is by fixing those shortcomings that the payoffs to development are likely to be greatest, and where policy changes will make the most difference,” said Otaviano Canuto, Vice President, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management.

Action Areas

“Focused domestic public policies remain the key to bringing about gender equality and in ensuring that the potential of globalization for women is actually realized,” said Ana Revenga, WDR Co-Director. “And to be effective, these policies need to address the root causes of gender gaps.”

So, where should countries focus and what should they do? The report calls for action in four priority areas:

    addressing human capital issues, such as excess deaths of girls and women and gender gaps in education where these persist;
    closing earning and productivity gaps between women and men;
    giving women greater voice within households and societies; and
    limiting the perpetuation of gender inequality across generations

In some areas, as with reducing maternal mortality, governments will need to address the single binding constraint to progress --weak service delivery. Similarly, to shrink persistent educational gaps, policies need to improve access for girls and young women when poverty, ethnicity, or geography excludes them, and to reach boys where gender disadvantages have reversed. Cash transfers conditioned on school attendance are often effective in reaching these groups. Such measures in Cambodia, for instance, increased school enrollments among girls moving from primary to secondary school by over 30 percent.

In others, as with differential access to economic opportunities, policies will need to tackle the multiple constraints that arise from the workings of markets and institutions either simultaneously or sequentially.

So, to improve women’s access to economic opportunities the WDR recommends measures to:

    reduce women’s time spent doing housework and caring for children (e.g., through providing subsidized childcare as in Colombia);
    enhance women’s access to productive resources (e.g., through joint land titling as in Ethiopia);
    address the biases of markets and service delivery institutions against women (e.g., through job placement programs and training as in Jordan).

While domestic policy action is crucial, the international community can play a role in complementing these efforts in each of these priority areas as well in through better data, impact evaluation, and learning. In some areas, this will mean additional support in the form of more funding, more innovation, and better partnerships.


email icon Email this article

printer icon Printer Friendly