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Gender and Development

Gender and Development










Gender and development is an interdisciplinary field focusing on the social relations between women and men in developing and transitional economies. The field has grown rapidly since the 1970s and includes innovations in research, analysis, and political strategies brought about by diversely located researchers and activists, as well as a set of practices and discourses that are institutionalized within multilateral organizations (such as United Nations agencies and the World Bank) and national governments (Cornwall et al. 2004, p. 2). Many fine collections have been compiled on gender and development (see Cornwall et al. 2007; Jacquette and Summerfield 2006; Benería and Bisnath 2001; Jackson and Pearson 1998; and Visvanathan et al. 1997). There are also several excellent summaries tracing the intellectual and political evolution of this field from the 1970s to the 1990s (see Elson 1999; Bakker 1999).

This entry will concentrate on gender issues in the context of development theories and policies since the late 1990s, focusing on five related but distinct issues that are debated in the literature: gender and poverty, womens empowerment, paid employment and unpaid work, gender and the macroeconomic policy environment, and institutional issues and gender mainstreaming. For the large and growing literature on other topics in gender and development, see: Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker (1998), Linda Mayoux (1999), and Naila Kabeer (2001a) on microfinance; UNESCO (2004) and Michael Kevane (2004) on education; Harriet Presser and Gita Sen (2000) on population; Gita Sen, Asha George, and Piroska Ostlin (2002) on health; UNFPA (2005) on the feminization of AIDS; and Claudia Garcia-Moreno et al. (2005) and Sunita Kishor and Kiersten Johnson (2004) on violence against women.


The literature on gender and development originated in opposition to views common in the 1970s and 1980s that women were excluded from the development process and needed to be incorporated into mainstream policies, institutions, and programs. Early gender and development theorists critiqued the prevailing development paradigm that promoted market-led development and structural adjustment and stabilization packages as a response to debt and balance-of-payments problems, as well as the view that women should be integrated into a process that benefits a few and impoverishes many (Benería and Sen 1982). In contrast to the earlier women in development literature, gender and development theorists had an explicit objective of social transformation, both of the ultimate aims and practices of development and of the relations between men and women (Jackson and Pearson 1998).

The feminist academics and activists who chose the language of gender used it in a particular way. Gender is a social construct that refers to the relations between women and men and reflects hierarchies among them, based not only on their biology, but also on their age, life-cycle position, ethnicity, race, income and wealth, and other features (Barker 1999). Gender relations change over time and vary across societies, but in all societies, they structure the division of labor and distribution of work, income, wealth, education, productive inputs, publicly provided goods, and the like.

Kate Young (1997) outlines six issues that characterize approaches used by gender and development scholars. (1) The focus is not on women per se but on gender relations, that is, relations between women and men in a variety of settings interlocked with other social relationships such as income, race, caste, and ethnicity. (2) Women are viewed as active agents, although they may not have perfect knowledge or understanding of the roots of discrimination and subordination. (3) The perspective is holistic, and focuses on the reproductive aspects of social and economic life (caring for dependents), as well as the gendered social relations of production and distribution of goods and services. (4) Development is viewed as a set of complex processes involving economic, political, and cultural transformation over time and space that should aim to produce improvements in capabilities, freedoms, and living standards for individuals and societies. (5) Achieving gender equality and womens empowerment requires multiple approaches and strategies that will necessarily differ by circumstances. (6) The role of organization and collective action by women is central to the achievement of gender equality and womens empowerment.


Examining the field of gender and development since the 1990s requires an understanding of the global political economy at the turn of the century. Although globalization had accelerated, the patterns were uneven (Stiglitz 2002). Some countries, such as China and India, were growing rapidly while others, such as Ecuador and Bolivia, were growing only slowly. Many countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, were experiencing negative growth (Birdsall 2006; Wade 2004). Although there is debate over whether global poverty has increased or decreased since the 1990s, analysts agree that a billionplus people were living on less than $1 per day in 2000 (Reddy and Minoiu 2006; Chen and Ravallion 2004; UN Millennium Project 2005). The widening of income inequality both within and between countries, a series of environmental crises from loss of species to global warming, growing religious fundamentalism, and violence and conflict also posed major development challenges (Milanovic 2006 and 2005; Melnick et al. 2005).

The concern over poverty, inequality, and differential economic growth led world leaders from 189 countries in 2000 to adopt the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight goals with related time-bound targets to reduce extreme poverty and its correlates by 2015 (UN Millennium Project 2005; Thorbecke and Nissanke 2006). The MDGs have become the global development policy paradigm for the early part of the twenty-first century and one of the key entry points for advocates of gender and development. Although many development economists and activists agree on the importance of reducing absolute poverty and improving human capabilities, they disagree about whether the MDGs can be achieved in the current era of globalization, and whether growth can be made to be pro-poor.


Reducing gender inequality and empowering women is the third Millennium Development Goal. In setting this goal, governments recognized the contributions that women make to economic development and the costs to societies of the multiple disadvantages that women face in nearly every country (Grown et al. 2005). As noted in the World Banks Engendering Development :

In no region of the developing world are women equal to men in legal, social, and economic rights. Gender gaps are widespread in access to and control of resources, in economic opportunities, in power, and political voice. Women and girls bear the largest and most direct costs of these inequalitiesbut the costs cut more broadly across society, ultimately harming everyone. For these reasons, gender equality is a core development issuea development objective in its own right. (World Bank 2001, p. 1)

Beginning in the 1990s, the concept of poverty broadened beyond a focus on shortfalls in income or consumption to lack of capabilities (e.g., education and health), lack of voice, lack of opportunities, and lack of dignity. When these broader criteria are factored in, females appear to be more vulnerable than males to the risk of poverty and vulnerability, although data limitations make it difficult to quantify the relative proportion of female poverty (Quisumbing et al. 2001). They also experience poverty differently than men (Razavi 1999; Jackson 1998). Because of their responsibilities for social reproduction, as well as gender inequalities in ownership of assets and access to employment and productive resources, women find it harder than men to transform their capabilities into steady income streams that would allow them to escape poverty (Deere and Doss 2006; Cagatay 1998).

Early work on gender and poverty focused on female-headed households, identifying them as the poorest of the poor (Chant 2003, p. 11). In a meta-analysis of sixty-one empirical studies, Mayra Buvinic and Geeta Rao Gupta (1997) found that in thirty-eight studies, female-headed households were overrepresented among the poor. More recent work has debunked the notion equating female headship and poverty, noting the wide economic diversity of female-headed households in countries around the world and the heterogeneity of intrahousehold sharing rules, which may disadvantage females in male-headed households more than females in female-headed households (Chant 2003).

Since poverty encompasses many dimensions other than earned income, including lack of public provision of goods and services, access to common property resources, and voice in political processes and decision-making, poverty reduction strategies need to be multidimensional. Within the context of the MDGs, Caren Grown and colleagues (2005) recommend seven strategic priorities to achieve gender equality in the context of poverty reduction, including strengthening opportunities for postprimary education for girls, guaranteeing sexual and reproductive health and rights, investing in infrastructure to reduce womens and girls time burdens, securing womens and girls property and inheritance rights, eliminating gender inequality in employment by decreasing womens reliance on informal employment and closing gender gaps in earnings, and significantly reducing violence against girls and women.

Although the broader focus on the gender dimensions of poverty is welcome, Cecile Jackson (1998) cautions against seeing gender and development as a variant of poverty problems; poverty is not entirely responsible for the subordination of women, and even antipoverty strategies may not be sufficient on their own to improve the position of women.


The concept of womens empowerment features prominently in the gender and development literature, and many development interventions not only aim to increase income and assets but also to empower women. The World Banks sourcebook on Empowerment and Poverty Reduction (Narayan 2002) defines empowerment as the expansion of freedom of choice and action. Feminist scholars point out that womens empowerment encompasses unique additional elements. Women are not just one group among several disempowered subsets of society, but are spread throughout all categories of disadvantage, including race, caste, ethnicity, and class. Second, the household and interfamilial relations are a central locus of womens disempowerment in a way that is not true for other disadvantaged groups (Malhotra et al. 2002). At the same time, empowerment requires systemic transformation in household relations, social norms, and market and government institutions (Kabeer 2001b).


Access to employment and income are a critical component of poverty reduction and womens empowerment. Womens participation in paid employment has increased everywhere since 1990, but there is still a large gap between female-male activity rates in most regions. Most analysts attribute the increase to opportunities provided by globalization and structural changes, including commercialization of agriculture, industrialization, and the replacement of unpaid provision of services by women in families and communities by the paid provision of services by women employed in both the public sector and private firms (Standing 1999). Controlling for long-term economic development, Cagatay and Ozler (1995) find that structural adjustment policies and export-oriented growth lead to a feminization of the labor force

As the International Labor Organization (ILO 2007) points out, indicators of paid employment (such as labor force participation rates or the female share of paid nonagricultural employment) show little about the likelihood of being employed or having decent work. In almost all regions, the female unemployment rate is higher than the male rate, occupations are sex-segregated, and gender gaps persist in earnings. Women predominate in informal employmentjobs that lack formal contracts, security, benefits, or social protection (ILO 2002). The average earnings from informal employment are too low, in the absence of other sources of income or social protection policies, to raise households out of poverty (Chen et al. 2005). And the conditions of informal employment perpetuate the financial dependency of women wage earners on male relatives and partners because they do not earn enough in informal employment to support themselves and any children they may have (Chen et al. 2006).

Time-use data are necessary for calculating the total amount of work, paid and unpaid, that women and men perform. Although progress has been made in collecting time-use statistics, data are limited and trend data are lacking (UNDESA 2006). Yet available evidence suggests that women and girls spend more time on unpaid work than men and boys, and when both paid and unpaid work is taken into account, women and girls have a longer working day than men and boys. Jacques Charmes (2006), for instance, finds that females in Benin spent 7.5 hours a day in paid employment compared to 5 hours a day for men in 1998, yet females spent almost 3.5 hours per day on unpaid work, while men spent just over 1 hour. Moreover, a number of studies suggest that womens performance of overlapping activities has intensified with globalization (Floro 1995).


The development economics literature is divided about the policies that promote growth that is pro-poor, with some arguing for greater liberalization of trade and financial capital markets and others arguing for greater control over markets and attention to policies that create domestic demand for goods and services. Most of the gender and development literature takes a skeptical position toward the view that gender equality can be achieved in a context of export-led growth (Benería 2003; Elson 2002).

In this vein, Stephanie Seguino and Caren Grown (2006) propose shifting economies from profit-led, export-oriented growth to wage-led, full-employment growth. This entails state-level industrial and agricultural development strategies to promote both articulation with the domestic economy and an export product mix that permits rising female wages without a (large) negative effect on exports, as well as policies that stabilize the economy, including limits on physical capital mobility (inward and outward foreign direct investment) and capital controls that act as speed bumps, reducing financial volatility. Elissa Braunstein (2006) notes a number of other policies specifically targeted to foreign direct investment and gender equity simultaneously, including restrictions on entry of foreign direct investment in key strategic industries, support to domestically owned firms for technological and human capital upgrading with priority for women workers, and the enforcement of core labor standards.


The goal of gender and developmentgender equality and womens empowermentis now institutionalized in policy and organizational mandates. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the international community endorsed gender mainstreaming as a key institutional response for promoting gender equality and empowering women. In 1997 the UN Economic and Social Council defined gender mainstreaming as:

the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making womens as well as mens concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality. (UN ECOSOC 1997)

This definition makes clear that gender mainstreaming is a means toward the achievement of gender equality and womens empowerment. It is both a technical and political process requiring shifts in organizational culture and ways of thinking and in the structures and resource allocations of organizations (Oxaal and Baden 1997). As currently understood, gender mainstreaming encompasses all aspects of planning, implementing, and monitoring any social, political, or economic action.

Feminist scholars have pointed out a number of problems with the way that gender mainstreaming has been operationalized in development institutions. Some claim that doing gender has reduced a fundamentally political process aimed at social transformation into a technical process reliant on tools, checklists, and training (Mukhopadhyay 2004). Other critiques focus on the gap between governmental policy commitments and actual implementation (Verloo 2001). Within multilateral and bilateral development organizations, the process of gender mainstreaming has stopped short of operationsof the very dimension that impacts development on the ground and can show results in terms of development effectiveness (Hannan 2004; Moser and Moser 2005).

Others point out that gender mainstreaming has not been pursued fully or systematically enough to support definitive conclusions about its success or failure (Woodford-Berger 2004). In most cases, the process is incomplete or not properly implemented. Since it is likely that mainstreaming will continue to be the dominant strategy for incorporating gender equality issues in development policy institutions, more work will be necessary to understand the conditions under which it can successfully achieve its objectives.


There are many development challenges to be tackled in the early decades of the twenty-first century. The field of gender and development has much to offer for developing both new analytic paradigms and new institutional practices.

SEE ALSO Development Economics; Economic Growth; Female-Headed Families; Feminism; Gender; Hierarchy; Inequality, Gender; Poverty; Work and Women


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Caren Grown

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