Why those promoting growth need to take politics seriously, and vice versa

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Why it’s time to put gender into the inequality discussion

October 15, 2015
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LSE’s Naila Kabeer introduces a new issue of Gender and Development, which she co-editedNaila Kabeer

The development industry has focused mainly on the question of absolute poverty over the past decades of neo-liberal reform.  Given the levels of deprivation that continue to exist in poorer regions of the world, this focus is not entirely misplaced. But it only tells us part of the story. The growing concern about economic inequality adds an important missing piece.  We are better able to understand the persistence of absolute deprivation in the world when we compare the share of the world’s income and wealth that goes to its richest citizens with the share that goes to its poorest.

The story becomes more complex when we factor in questions about social inequality because this tells us that certain groups are systematically over-represented at the bottom of the income distribution and among the ranks of the absolute poor, while others are over-represented at the other end of the income distribution.  The current issue of Gender and Development reminds us that gender inequality is one of the most significant of these group-based inequalities – and also one of the most distinctive.

credit: Paul Smith, Panos

credit: Paul Smith, Panos

Unlike other groups facing social discrimination, men and women are probably equally represented among the world’s wealthiest households, but women’s presence tends to be predicated on their relationships to wealthy men. According to Forbes magazine, there are currently 1826 billionaires in the world of which 197 are women or 11% of the total.  Only 29 of these women are ‘self-made’ billionaires.  The rest inherited their wealth from fathers or husbands.

Attention to the distribution of individual earnings rather than household income gives us a better picture of how gender inequality plays out at the wealthier end of the spectrum. The gender pay gap among leading Hollywood movie stars is among the more publicized recent examples of this.

But the gender gap in earnings is larger at the poorer end of the economic spectrum and its consequences far more severe. Official figures under-estimate this gap because they tend to be focused on formal work. Data on informal work in middle and lower income countries not only document far wider gender disparities but also the greater concentration of women in unpaid family labour, in other words, in work that does not provide them with any purchasing power.  There are a variety of reasons for this, but one that cuts across much of the world is women’s greater responsibility for care of household members and the lesser ability of poorer households to hire others to do this work or to access technology that will reduce it.

Women’s greater disadvantage in the labour market accounts for one of the gendered dimensions of poverty that has received considerable attention in the literature.  Households in which women are the primary, often sole, breadwinners for themselves and their children tend to be poorer than the rest.  In the Indian context, as Mangubhai and Capraro point out, this phenomenon appears in the greater poverty of households headed by women who are widowed, divorced, separated or still unmarried after the age of 30: dispossessed of any property when their marriages broke down, stigmatized by society for their husbandless status, these women are disproportionately drawn from the most marginalized sections of society.  It is clearly not husbands that these women need, but a fairer distribution of property and a fairer chance to earn their own living.

Gender disparities at the poorer end of the economic spectrum tend to be exacerbated by the intersection of gendergender wage inequality
with other forms of group-based inequality. So, for instance, while Dalits generally earn lower incomes than the upper castes in India, Afro/indigenous groups earn less than the white/non-indigenous groups in Latin America and African-American and Hispanic women earn less than whites in the United States, women from these marginalized groups tend to end up at the bottom of the earnings distribution.

Gender mediates the experience of poverty and inequality in non-economic terms as well.  Papan and Clow report that in Canada, the highest rates of food insecurity are to be found among households led by female lone parents. They also found that, in contrast to the long-standing equation between food insecurity and excessively low body mass index in poor countries, moderate food insecurity in Canada was linked to obesity or excessively high body mass index and this only affected women.  It did not appear to be an absence of knowledge about healthy life styles that produced such outcomes but the harsh trade-offs of poverty which required these women to choose between ‘a rock and a hard place’: healthy nutrition came lower in their list of priorities compared to rent and medication and their own nutritional needs ranked lower than those of their children.

The link between household poverty and gender-based violence has been supported by both qualitative and quantitative studies but needs to be further unpacked.  It can reflect the frustrations experienced by men from poor households unable to live up to their breadwinning responsibilities or it may reflect their reactions to women’s efforts to take on more of a breadwinning role or to take up economic opportunities provided by development organizations.  But gender-based violence is not always at the hands of intimate partners. Class and caste based violence can take gendered forms. Both dalit men and women face various forms of violence at the hands of the upper castes, but dalit women bear the brunt of aggravated sexual violence which often goes unreported because of fear of perpetrators, the intervention of dominant castes or to avoid shaming the family.

Greater attention to economic inequality is long overdue but if we are to tackle the harm, suffering and injustices that lie at the core of our concern, we must not lose sight of its social causes and human consequences.  That means much greater attention to gender inequality in all its manifestations within the market, within the home and in society at large.

And here’s Naila and friends, discussing the issue at a recent LSE event, in 80m of fairly ropey video (sorry about that)

or of course, you could just ask James Bond (and M, obviously)


  1. When it comes to absolute levels of economic inequality, isn’t a focus on gender likely to be a distraction rather than a help?

    In very poor countries, such as Malawi, I doubt that the poorest women only aspire to be as wealthy as their husbands or brothers. I think they aim for much better than that as these men are also in absolute poverty. When I was there I heard people talking about raising their communities out of poverty with shared boreholes, better access (bridges and roads) and improved income generating opportunities. All their plans were for men AND women – or they might have said for their sons and daughters.

    While new boreholes helped women (who generally collected water) most directly, this was talked about as freeing up time within the family that they could then spend either earning money or farming – in aid of their whole families. Of course families with 2 working adults were better off than families with only one working adult – but both were poor.

    They did also talk about better sharing of power within families, in particular reducing domestic violence, and women having more say in communities – these were helped by women getting more respect when they earn money. But in terms of absolute income, the obvious need was for all members of the society in Malawi, except the elite, to get more money and more food.

    Similarly, with respect to income inequality, does it matter what gender has most billionaires? Is the gender of a billionaire any more relevant to global inequality than say their height? It is simply wrong that a few people have so much power and to bring their gender into the argument is a distraction.

  2. I agree – but only up to a point. In most poor countries in which I have worked, I find that women would like see their families prosper, and indeed spend a disproportionate amount of whatever resources they have at their disposal, on the wellbeing of their families. But they would also like a fairer say in decisions that impinge on their lives, whether it is within the family or in the wider public sphere. And most would like a fairer share of resources within the family and in the public domain so that their own wellbeing and those of their children is not entirely dependent on access to male earnings or male good will.

    And to the final point, if we found that billionaires were (say) systematically taller than everyone else (eg. only 3% of the world’s billionaires were less than 6 ft) , then I think height might become relevant to the distribution question. We would want to know whether taller people were simply systematically more talented than everyone else, whether they had always been better fed and hence had a height advantage or whether they had fixed the system so that it worked systematically against shorter people.

    It is, of course, true, that the practice of gender discrimination at the higher end of the earnings distribution may not impoverish the women involved, but it is part and parcel of the structural nature of gendered injustice that reach all the way to the bottom. We certainly need a strong redistributive agenda but a redistributive agenda that does not take account of gender inequalities in income, voice and influence offers a very truncated version of justice.

  3. I find that men want their families to prosper too!

    Of course there should be a fair share of resources and burdens between men and women within the family and in the public domain. That is important in it’s own right and I don’t want to dismiss it, but it is largely separate to global inequality.

    With 1% of the population owning half of the wealth in the world we need to focus on the power structures, tax systems, trade agreements and politics that allows this to happen. The same Oxfam report goes on to say that the least well-off 80% of people in the world currently own just 5.5% of the world’s wealth. There is just no way that gender imbalances can be significant with an inequality that impacts 80% of the global population. I am richer than most women in Sub-Saharan Africa because I was born in the UK – not because I am a man.

    When the discussion moves on to the unfairness of Hollywood’s leading actresses only earning a collective $181 million last year then I think that is a distraction.

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