by Sydney Henderson
Gender inequality is deeply pervasive, prevailing in all four corners of the world. Ranging from access to education and healthcare to the wage gap and employment opportunities, gender inequality is typically worse in countries considered third-world or developing.
Ironically, gender equality, i.e., the empowerment of women, effectively increases both economic development and economic growth. The socio-political empowerment of women acts as a pillar of sustainable economic growth and development.
Approximately 132 million girls worldwide are not able to attend school, whether it’s because of religious beliefs, traditions, child marriage, violence against women and girls, or poverty (UNICEF).
Indian economist Amartya Sen has written extensively on gender equality and development economics. Sen maintains that in India, there is a cultural view that women are extensions of their families rather than individuals, which is “the way inequality survives, by making underdogs become upholders of the inequality.”
The idea that women exist to serve their families is an obstacle in gender equality because there is no social pressure to educate women - because it is seen as unnecessary. Many household responsibilities fall on women, from the United States to Sri Lanka.
However, in developing countries, these household responsibilities pose a significant roadblock to girls’ education because a lack of infrastructure can make household chores incredibly time-consuming, leaving no time to go to school.
Despite how unrelated they may seem, access to running water and gender equality are closely related. Around the world, women and girls spend 266 million hours collecting water every day (water.org).
In many places, people must walk for hours to collect water and this responsibility primarily falls on women and girls, resulting in girls not receiving an education at disproportionate rates compared to boys.
The time women spend collecting water is time that they cannot spend going to school or working to earn an income, further enforcing the cycle of poverty that exists when there is a lack of access to running water.
With investment in infrastructure – particularly water infrastructure such as aqueducts and plumbing that would bring running water to people – women are empowered to go to school and work outside the home and earn money to help pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
Naturally, if girls are educated, they are able to work higher-paying jobs. Studies show that when women work, 90 percent of their income goes back into their families - compared to men, who put 35 percent of their income, on average, back into their families.
The income that is invested in the family is spent on things like food, housing, and education for children, all of which contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Essentially, women across the globe tend to invest more heavily in their families, which indicates that if there were equal participation in the workforce between men and women, more money would be spent towards breaking the cycle of poverty.
When women work outside the home, they also contribute to their country’s gross domestic product (GDP), not only through the purchase of more goods but also through investment in their children’s education, a worthwhile investment from an economic standpoint since GDP usually increases with the number of educated workers in an economy.
Moreover, a UNESCO study revealed that if all women received a secondary education, there would be 2.8 million fewer child deaths for children under the age of five in low income and lower-middle-income countries. This is significant because infant mortality rates bear a strong correlation to a country’s economic development.
A 2014 World Bank report states that:
“women with some or completed secondary education have an 11 and 36 percent lower risk of violence respectively, compared with women with no education.”.
This trickles down to their children, especially daughters, being less likely to experience domestic violence and more likely to go to school. If fewer women experience domestic violence, more women might be empowered to work outside the home in a self-perpetuating cycle, which will contribute to the country’s larger development, as aforementioned.
To take another example - of many more - many developing countries rely on agricultural products as their main export good, which contributes significantly to their GDPs. If female farmers had the same access to resources as their male counterparts, up to 150 million fewer people would be undernourished.
What this comes down to is productivity – how effectively resources are being utilized in production – because when women have access to more resources, they will produce more agricultural goods like crops and livestock, which will feed more people.
When half the population isn’t able to work with adequate resources, companies will naturally be less productive. In order to maximize productivity and increase welfare, countries must take responsibility for empowering their female population. Not only for the sake of economic prosperity but on a moral level: women should have equal opportunities.
Gender equality should be a priority for everyone simply because all people, regardless of their gender, have a human right to be treated as equal and not face discrimination.
If this is not enough, then understanding that gender inequality is bad economics must bring new enthusiasm to the fight for gender equality.
Gender equality – socially, politically, and economically – leads to sustainable economic growth and development. Investing in women, especially girls’ education, is smart economics.