11 April 2017

Gender, Economic Activity and Equality

The relationship between economic empowerment, often discussed in relation to employment and income, and gender equality is not straightforward. Increased access to employment and income for women does not readily translate into an improved status or bargaining power for women. Although involvement in economic activity is a necessary condition for the attainment of gender equality in the economic sphere, it is in itself not sufficient, partly because not all economic activity is empowering, and partly because additional measures are required to promote gender equality in other spheres (legal, political etc.).
The pursuit of gender equality is bound to be a complex process since inequality is multi-causal phenomenon, linked to the intra-household decision-making processes and influenced by both market signals and institutional norms. Whilst access to economic activity is important in this pursuit, the key concern which drives this review is to identify what forms of economic activity most enhance women's position and under what terms and conditions.
Gender equality is a multi-faceted concept which implies equality of opportunities in the legal, political, social and economic dimensions as well as equality in personal relationships between men and women. More precisely, economic equality will exist only when employment opportunities and outcomes, earnings and returns to labour are equal by gender, whether in the formal or informal sector and all across types of economic activity. Gender equality in an economic sense requires equal access to resources (credit, market opportunities, education etc.) and equal engagement in all aspects of the economic activity. It is only when the conditions and terms of the economic activity are the same for both men and women that the returns generated are equal.
The economic dimension is central to achieving gender equality overall. Without economic equality women will always have an incentive to buy into the 'patriarchal bargain'. As long as women are relatively disadvantaged in economic terms they will continue to be drawn into partnerships with men who earn more and have more resources in exchange for the provision of services within the household.
As a result, women are often perceived as secondary members of the household with consequences for women's bargaining power in wider political and legal contexts. Patriarchal partnerships also limit women's opportunities to secure employment and a livelihood in the short and long term, creating a vicious circle. There are repercussions in terms of the investments made for boys and girls which carry through into social ranking and political participation in later life and determine the life chances of individuals, particularly in terms of earning capacities and access to resources. For instance, families often prefer to invest in education for boys because the perceived returns from their market activity are higher than those for girls.

(A version of this article appears in print on June 17, 2017 of My Republica by Pramod Bhattarai)


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