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Three Good Reasons: An Introduction

I spoke to the Oxbridge Women’s Network in Hong Kong this week, courtesy of the Woman’s Foundation.  We had a really great conversation afterward and several asked me to post the slides. A similar talk also had a good impact at Oxford North America during the spring, so it seems like a good  idea to recap.

I began the talk by pointing out the authoritative voices behind the call for the world economic community to engage with empowering women.  The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the International Finance Corporation are joined by major corporates such as ExxonMobil, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sachs.  NGOs small and large (CARE, Plan, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women) are strongly engaged.

Much of the impetus comes from analyzing the global datasets we now have that document conditions for women around the world.  These data show that gender inequality is real, measurable, and has massively negative effects on a wide range of phenomena from national prosperity to human trafficking to the disease burden.  While there are many, many reasons to support women’s economic empowerment, I chose three  broadscale reasons to show how huge the impact would be–with implications for every nation and every citizen, whether male or female, rich or poor.  These three good reasons are: (1) to reduce poverty and hostility, especially in the poorest nations, (2) to counter the real threat to growth posed by declining fertility, and (3)  to improve governance and transparency of the private sector, while reducing risk.

If you take the nation-level gender data and arrange it in an array from best to worst, as the UNDP and World Economic Forum do, you immediately see a global spectrum that can be broadly characterized.  On the high gender equality end, the nations will be rich and stable.  They will offer universal education and good health care.  The best scores will tend to be Scandinavian countries or developed English-speaking countries (UK, US, Canada, Australia).  They will mostly have stable populations that maintain size at the replacement rate (average fertility for a woman = 2.1); however, there will be an increasing tendency for fertility to be dropping.  On the low gender equality end, you will see countries that are poor and conflict-ridden, that offer poor schooling and health care–and the females will have less access to both medicine and education than the men.  These countries will still have very high fertility rates (around 5 or 6).  There will be clustering of sub-Saharan African countries and poor Muslim majority countries.

The pattern is strong.  The question is:  toward which direction does the causality run?  Initially, the expectation was that the rich nations could afford to free their women, while the poor nations could not.  However, when you dig into the data, what you find suggests a different theory.  A key example is girls’ education.  National wealth tracks strongly with the level of female education.  [Click here to see graph on Girls Education and National Wealth.] You could say these are the countries who can spend to money to educate girls.  However, female education also correlates inversely with a variety of ancient practices known to have negative economic effects, such as early marriage [see Early Marriage and Girls Education graph here], and also runs in the opposite direction with poor health indicators like adolescent fertility (which in turn goes hand-in-hand with bad stuff like infant and maternal mortality).

People at universities and think tanks have been tinkering with interventions and studies designed to test the interrelationships.  The situation is complex, with effects running across domains.  In this short video clip, I explain how a single intervention on behalf of women can have multiple effects, rippling through societies with the benefits.

Various experiments across a number of years have changed the consensus among those working internationally with the whole phenomenon of women’s empowerment:  the common thinking at this point is that the causation runs counter to what was first thought.  That is, rather than believing that rich nations could afford to set their women free, we now believe that setting women free made the rich nations prosper.

We can see this effect at work as we turn to the “first good reason,” reducing poverty and hostility.  Please continue to the next post.

All the “Three Good Reasons” posts can also be accessed here:


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