Narrowing the divide between men and women

March 2017

Blog

An interview with Ms Caren Grown, World Bank Group Senior Director for Gender, about what is needed to close the gender gap.

Caren Grown is the World Bank Group Senior Director on Gender and oversees the World Bank’s work both at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) as well as the International Financial Corporation.

Prior to joining the World Bank, she was Economist-In-Residence and co-director of the Programme on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University in Washington, DC. From 2011 to 2013 she was on leave as senior gender advisor and acting senior coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she crafted the agency’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy and led efforts to integrate gender equality throughout the agency’s policies and programs. During her career, she directed many collaborative, international research projects, including the United Nations University-WIDER program on aid effectiveness and gender equality, the Gender Asset Gap Project, and the Project on Taxation and Gender Equity.

In the last two decades, the world has narrowed the divide between men and women. What happened?

In the past 20 years we have seen a closing of the gap between men and women, especially in education and health. A lot of progress has been made increasing life expectancy-rates for both men and women and of certain health issues, such as HIV/AIDS.

But there are still sticky domains. For instance, the maternal mortality rate still remains unacceptably high, although we know what works to bring it down: strengthening health systems and ensuring adequate referral mechanisms among other things.

Similarly, in the field of education, the world community has closed the gap between boys and girls in enrolment at the primary level and is rapidly closing gaps at the secondary level. In a number of countries around the world, girls actually outnumber boys at tertiary level.

What works is ensuring schools to have the right kind of infrastructure, for instance boys and girls latrines. It involves having more female teachers as role models and more incentives like cash transfers or financial incentives to households such as stipends. These educational gains however have not always translated into the labour market or other economic opportunities for women.

So there is still much work to be done in the labour market?

In countries in the Middle East, Northern Africa and South Asia female labour force participation is low, hovering around 20-25%. In Sub-Sahara Africa, labour force participation has historically been high, but the issue here is the quality and the type of employment women are in. It is often in subsistence agriculture and unpaid work in family farms and firms, not in the formal sectors with higher earnings and opportunities for advancement and skills development.

Three issues are important. The first is labour participation. Second is the quality of the jobs women hold. In every country around the world women are segregated in female dominated jobs and sectors with lower earnings than in male dominated sectors. These sectors are perceived to be less highly skilled, although the issue of ‘skill’ is highly gendered.   In many parts of the developing world women tend to predominate in informal employment, that is the most insecure, the least remunerated, with fewer opportunities for advancement and very low productivity. We need to focus on how we reduce occupational segregation, how we increase the productivity of informal employment and how we increase remuneration in those types of jobs. And finally there are some issues that constrain labour force participation of women having to do with the lack of appropriate public and private services for childcare, elderly care or other dependent care. In many countries around the world, women are largely responsible for caregiving because of lack of affordable, accessible, and quality care services.

According to the World Economic Forum's Gender Report at this rate, closing the gender gap will take another 170 years. What is the World Bank's opinion on this?

A shocking statistic that calls for moving away from business as usual!

The challenge is that gender inequality is multidimensional. It exists in almost every domain. We can close gaps in one domain, but it does not always mean we are making progress in other domains. So we need to identify entry points that can create spill overs in other domains.  But there obviously is not a one-size fits all approach. Different countries have to make different judgements about where to put their scarce resources and where to make their investments.

Are there situations where an approach is successful in one context but does not work in another context? How can we know which gender approach is most suitable?

Earlier I mentioned occupational segregation: women are channelled into certain types of jobs. We have been doing some experimentation and research in Uganda where there were a handful of women who crossed over into male dominated occupations, such as electrical engineering or the construction sector. We sought to understand what motivated these women to cross over. Having a male mentor is particularly important. And, informing women about what they are likely to earn in a particular profession has persuaded women not to open a beauty salon but to become an electrician for example.

But this approach may not work in a country like Tunisia or Morocco where the norms and labour markets are different. We need to understand the cultural and normative issues for the kind of labour market programmes that are likely to be more successful. It might not be giving information to women but rather working to identify good male mentors. It might be having to engage the private sector in a different way than it has been historically engaged because in Morocco and Tunisia, women are more comfortable or more likely to go into public sector employment. So how can we change conditions working with private sector companies in these two countries where there are more women in the university level than boys? How can firms and the public sector take advantage of that talent?

Diagnostics, experimentation, impact evaluation, learning and most fundamentally a commitment to tackle these kinds of challenges head on are all needed. When a country simply says it has a robust strategy that is about job creation, it may not come about if that strategy does not have these elements.

The World Bank has begun implementing its new Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2023. What do you consider to be the most interesting and promising dimensions and how is it different from previous strategies?

This is the first strategy that brings together our work on the private sector side with our work on the public sector side. It is different from past strategies in that it is intended to focus on results and to be operational, using all the tools at our disposal: resources, our dialogue with clients, our lending and our investment in private sector companies.

I mentioned there are some first generation gaps with respect to health and education. In countries with those gaps, we can double down and channel resources to bring down the rate of maternal mortality. We have something called the global financing facility for maternal and child health; a new facility to bring evaluation evidence, financing and technical assistance to dramatically decrease these rates. We have a set of objectives in a handful of countries to make sure that in ten years we are not in the same place as we are today.

But for the World Bank Group, we have raised the bar on the results we are working hard to achieve. More, better and inclusive jobs for women as well as for men is an actual tangible result we want to achieve. We are going to do that by focussing more on these issues of labour market segmentation, by focussing more on ensuring that social infrastructure like child care services are in place and that the right type of safe and accessible transport infrastructure is in place that helps women access jobs.  

Another area of results is in closing physical and financial asset gaps between men and women. The data are not very good but the data that do exist show women to own less and have less access to and control over land, housing, technology and finance. So in the countries where we work on land reform or on building housing as part of an urban project, we can ensure that in land or housing titling programs, women have their name on those titles. This can help them access credit markets so they can use their property to accumulate wealth.

Among assets, the financial inclusion agenda is important.  We have something called the global FINDEX; data which shows how many men and women have accounts at formal financial institutions. On average globally women are 7% less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution. This global average of course masks some very high rates among countries. I was in Pakistan recently, only 6% of the population has access to finance, but less than 2% of females have access to finance. So this is a goal for Pakistan as a whole: how do they increase peoples’ access to the financial system and specifically, how do they bring up the number of women who are able to have some kind of account? We are prioritising this issue in the strategy.

How can governments be involved in and benefit from gender equality? Is it a driver in decreasing poverty?

Absolutely! We did some analytical work in Latin America that shows female labour participation resulted in 30% poverty reduction over the last 2 decades. So there is a direct benefit for these countries.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law database can be used by governments and other country stakeholders like the private sector. This database tracks economic legal differences between males and females and it has direct recommendations as to what governments can do. We have seen some interesting changes as a result of this data; the Democratic Republic of Congo recently reformed its family code, allowing married women to open a bank account and sign a contract in the same way as a married man.  

Men can face laughter by neighbours, family or friends when they try to change things in favour of their wives. How should we deal with this peer pressure?

Gender equality is not a zero sum game. When men realise they benefit from these changes in their households they are very much in favour of women bringing an income. And this is often income that is spent on health, education and other services that will benefit their children and themselves.

For example, there is a wonderful story from an evaluation of a microfinance programme in Lebanon that gave women access to small loans to start their businesses of one woman who started a catering business. She was able to get a contract with some of the local hotels. A TV journalist was dining in one of these hotels and loved her deserts. He offered her a television-cooking programme. Her husband who had also participated in the early phases of the programme supported her business and her cooking show. But when she became a television star, his family approached him and asked: “What are you doing? Your wife is out there, she may be dishonouring the family.” He himself said this is not the case: “She is doing our family proud, she is bringing in income and she is helping the community. If there is anything not appropriate, I will be the first to tell her but in this case, I fully support her in what she does.”

When men can do this in greater numbers as opposed to just a lone voice, it can be very powerful.

Behavioural change takes time so how does that work in practice?

Norms changing takes time and there are interesting examples in West Africa, East Africa and Latin America on community based approaches. Targeting elder and male leaders and religious leaders with the evidence of negative impacts can be effective; community-based training programmes for young men are also having good results on issues like violence against women.  . Impact evaluations of these types of approaches show results within 24-36 months of people changing attitudes.

Sometimes you do not have a frontal approach on norms and you can help change them by changing economic and other circumstances. Simply giving women resources they can control helps to increase their bargaining power, their ability to negotiate and their ability to be more recognised in families and communities are key economic agents, an important norm change. Bangladesh is an interesting example of a country where work in the garment sector, which depends on women’s employment, has changed norms of mobility and the median age of marriage in a 15-18 year time frame.

Is gender prominent enough in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The SDGs are a vast improvement over the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) where gender equality was narrowly defined. SDG 5 (Gender Equality) in particular has a much more expansive view of the types of gaps that exist between men and women. It pays attention for instance to the fact that there is unequal sharing of unpaid work and of caregiving responsibilities, and it gives a more expansive role for women’s participation in politics, and a more expansive view of the importance of reducing  violence against women and girls.

Apart from SDG5, many of the other goals state recognize the gender gaps that come into play in achieving those goals. The SDG-agenda as a whole is a powerful policy framework for the global community towards 2030.

How is climate change impacting the position of women?

There is an increasing recognition of those who work on climate that there are different vulnerabilities as well as different resiliencies between males and females living in countries or environments that are deeply affected by global warming, water scarcity, floods or other types of natural disasters.

The fact that women may be less mobile than men is a particular kind of vulnerability that we need to address. The fact that women may not participate for instance in disaster risk and resilience planning is an issue that we need to rectify in order to prepare women better at the community level to cope with disasters when they occur. The fact that women may not be as well represented in key policy negotiations in terms of climate finance or in terms of the climate funds is something that we are starting to pay attention to. And that is both important in terms of mitigation as well as adaptation.

From casual observation, when you look around the world in terms of environmental movements and climate action, women are often locally at the forefront. They certainly understand the implications of climate change for their families, for their livelihoods and for their communities.

SNV’s Balancing Benefits in aims to change gender norms and relations. The approach addresses 4 core themes: household dialogues, grow women’s businesses, women in leadership and gender-responsive market systems. What is the World Bank’s view on this approach?

These are four great approaches for change in the agriculture sector. And our recent report, with the One Campaign called “Levelling the Field” emphasizes the same things. It is a research report from six countries that tries to understand why productivity is so different in plots men own and control versus plots women own and control. It is not because women farmers are inherently less efficient or productive than men, it is because they have less access than men to the type of productive inputs. Women have less access to seeds, new technologies, and credit markets, partly because they often do not own the land they farm.

We know from work on impact evaluation that a household or a farming approach is absolutely the right way to go. You need to have men and women discuss the way they work and live together, what their different roles are. Men for instance need to understand the nutritional value of the types of crops that the family grows, and they need to understand women’s time constraints.

We also know that women’s businesses are often smaller than men’s business. They have fewer employees and are less able to mobilize hired labour than men. It is not that women are less efficient or productive than men, but it is just that they don’t have access to the same kinds of inputs or labour as men have.

Producer cooperatives are important in changing the way the sector works. They are also important in helping women move to higher value added activities. Raw production may not be as remunerative as doing processing in the value chain. Producer cooperatives, in particular for processing and agribusiness, are really important approaches. There are some really great examples in countries in East Africa, West Africa, India and Bangladesh of successful women producer cooperatives.

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