Knowing Our Shared Constraints; Acting Together to Remove Them

This Hindu woman and her child live in a rural village in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country. All over the world today, women of different cultures live, love, and work side-by-side. It is time we learned that we share the same basic set of inequalities and begin to work together to eliminate them.

I gave a talk at the World Bank last Tuesday.  I had been asked to speak from a global perspective, to take the historical long view.  It seemed appropriate to share the text for International Women’s Day.  The image is one that my husband Jim took during our field work in Bangladesh.  It is one of several that I used to illustrate the talk at the World Bank.

From this era of global data, we have learned lessons about gender that have the potential to change the course of history. It has been only since the mid-1990s that national comparisons on the status of women could be made for every region of the world.  The insights challenged not only conventional wisdom in economics and policy, but also contradicted the consensus among feminists about the origins and causes of women’s subordination. We now know that:

Women are economically disadvantaged in every country on the planet, as well as, apparently, within all subgroups. 

Economic exclusion appears to be at least as significant a factor in the subordination of women as the denial of rights. Indeed, the two are interdependent factors, not separate.

Women’s economic exclusion is a significant drag on world economies and societies, for a surprisingly wide-ranging list of reasons.

Capitalism is not the cause of women’s subordination. Indeed, women fare better under capitalism than under traditional or communist societies.

Some of the worst suffering and ugliest abuse in the world are associated with the gender system:  human trafficking, female infanticide, bride burnings, child marriage, and a pervasive threat of violence, both inside and outside the home, to name a few.

The specific forms that economic exclusion takes include restrictions on owning and inheriting property, unequal access to paid work, unequal wages for the same work, a disproportionate burden of unpaid labor, prohibitions on entering into contracts, barriers to credit and other financial services, and violence in the workplace (as well as on the commute to the workplace).

Though women in the developed nations have the right to inherit, work, and bank, their access to capital, career paths and pay, and participation in finance remain markedly unequal to men.  Importantly, if we step back even fifty years, we can see that most of the restrictions that currently hamper women’s economic participation in the developing nations had been in place for hundreds of years in the rich nations prior to the postindustrial period. Thus, the inequalities women experience in the rich nations are the vestiges of earlier restrictions similar to those in the developing world today.

In fact, it appears that women’s economic exclusion is very old indeed.  There is a very good case to be made that women have been excluded from the money system, via a consistent set of constraints, for literally thousands of years—in fact, from the time of the invention of money and financial systems.  There have always been individual women, especially aristocrats, who had more access than ordinary women.  There have been temporary reforms enacted by whole societies.  But it is clear that these exceptions only occur as a purposeful override to the default position.  That default position makes women economically dependent on men, due to an array of prohibitions against their economic participation that vary little from place to place.

The exclusions have the effect of making women extremely vulnerable.  In its most basic form, such a system requires that a woman, in order to survive, must attach to a man and must please him in order to continue to be fed, clothed, and sheltered.  It means that she must endure whatever pain or deprivations she may experience at his hands because she has no place to go and no means to live. Because females are not seen as economically valuable, they are more vulnerable to trafficking and may even be murdered at birth, simply because of their sex.  The list of wrongs that comes from the fact of this dependence is long and tragic.

A confluence of beliefs, practices, and institutional structures hold the subordination in place—that is why gender inequality is so slow to change and so difficult.  Governments, religions, schools, and economic institutions have all contributed over thousands of years to enforce gender inequality and to make women’s subordination seem natural or unproblematic.

Consider this.  Many millions of women today are in marriages that they did not choose. Of these, a significant subset were married off as children or were forced by their families. Thus, whether they gave consent—or even were capable of giving it—is highly questionable.  They work without pay in the home and in the fields.  They own nothing of their own.  Any money that comes their way must be turned over to the male head of their household.  They are in a contract they often cannot break, one that has no end date.  If they try to change their circumstances, they are subject to violence.  If they try to leave, they may be returned to their household by others thinking it’s “the right thing to do.”

If this description were applied to any other group in the world, we would not call it “marriage.” We would call it “slavery.”  But when the group in question is female, we apply an entirely different set of ethics, one that allows us to rationalize or ignore the similarities.  We impose our own “soft focus” lens, a very modern notion of romance, upon a set of conditions that is truly unacceptable. We must bear in mind that the notion of marriage that prevails in the developed countries—in which two people choose each other freely, out of love—is only about 100 years old.  The norm for centuries has been for men to trade women in marriage as a way of forging alliances and acquiring land—in short, for political or economic gain.

What the globalization of information has brought to light is the largest and probably oldest underclass in human history.  As a class, women have been subject to confinement, deprivation, humiliation, and brutality on at least an equal scale to any other group we would have a much easier time accepting as “an underclass.”  But what we are looking at here is, in truth, one of human history’s greatest tragedies.

We talk a lot about the “business case” for women’s economic empowerment.  We talk a lot about the macroeconomic benefits.  But to make a change of this magnitude, there must be something more profound at stake.  There must be a moral imperative.  And we must remember when we plan our projects and measurements, that the underlying moral imperative deserves attention.  Because if we get growth and profits, but the women are still held hostage to dependency, we will have failed.  Pursuing business ends to the exclusion of human ends leads to exploitation.  We have learned that over these two hundred years and should not need to learn it again.

There is another reason why acknowledging the moral imperative is important.  Gender work is very difficult, especially in environments where the leadership is unfriendly to women, whether that is the president and parliament of a rich nation or the elders of a tribal council.  Those who are on the front lines of this change must confront resistance, face self-doubt, and endure emotional turmoil.  It is a long, hard road and they need a good reason to be in this fight.  The “business case” will not be enough to get these individuals on their feet every morning.  They must have something more.

All institutions bear responsibility for this tragedy and all must be engaged if the gender gap is to be closed.  Particularly in the case of economic inequality, the private sector must be included as a partner—a real, hands-on partner, not just a source of funding—or the concrete steps that need to be taken will not happen.  Governments can influence economies by their policies.  And they do bear weight as economic actors in their procurement and hiring.  But if women are to be economic equals, change must occur in hiring, in lending, in workplace safety, and all the other places that the rubber meets the road.  It is not an exaggeration to say that, in real day-to-day terms, the private sector is the economy.

But balancing the benefits between women and firms is tricky, especially because most of us are blind to the effects of gender on business transactions we see as ordinary and, therefore, neutral.  In order to create change, we must learn to look for gender effects in everything we do and to construct measurements that will capture the effect of our programs on the moral imperative.

If what we are determined to end is one of humanity’s longest running tragedies, this effort will be well worth the energy.  We know we will achieve growth, reduce suffering, and claim a number of social benefits if women can be made economically equal.  Yet this global attempt to close the gender gap also can be a shining moment in humanity’s continuing mission to lift spirits, raise standards, enact fairness, and bring about a better world.


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