This International Women’s Day (IWD), we’re invited to ‘be bold for change’ – to step up and take the lead on forging a more gender inclusive world in the areas where we can most make a difference.
In celebration of IWD 2017, we’re putting the spotlight on why gender matters for inequality – and for research on inequality – drawing on examples from the 2016 World Social Science Report: Challenging Inequality: Pathways to a Just World. Gender inequality – and how it relates to other dimensions of inequality – is a concern and common thread throughout the Report. Here, we highlight five reasons why:
The issue of inequality has not gone unnoticed in recent years, with everyone from Stephen Hawking to the World Economic Forum concluding that current levels of economic inequality are a risk to our future prosperity. Reducing inequality is notably one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders in 2015. Yet many of the most frequently cited reports on inequality tend to focus on inequalities around income and wealth, without explicitly considering how different kinds of inequality relate to each other, such as how gendered power structures may relate to responses to climate change.
Inequality interacts across different dimensions and axes of discrimination. More than being just a question of income or wealth, inequalities interact across economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, knowledge and spatial dimensions. Looking at inequality from the starting point of gender provides a helpful way in to understanding these dimensions – and ultimately to addressing them.
For example, looking at socio-economic inequality through the gender lens helps raise different questions, and examine the drivers of gender inequality in the workplace and wider economic domain. When women’s achievements in education are the same as men’s (or in some cases better), why are their earnings not yet the same? Closer consideration of how labour markets are shaped by power dynamics, social norms and stereotypes can shed light on the formal rules and informal practices that mean women’s labour is valued differently to men’s.
Gender inequality is cross-cutting – it affects the very richest as well as the very poorest. But the overlap between gender and other forms of inequality means that women and girls from poor and socially marginalized groups are often the most disadvantaged in their societies.
Naila Kabeer, introducing her article for the Report, says:
‘When it intersects with income, politics and space, [gender] intensifies forms of inequality. So for instance, if we look a little bit at some of the data from places like Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa (where data is available), we find that while race divides or predicts inequalities in income or likelihood of poverty […], at the bottom of the wage earning or the poverty hierarchy are women from those discriminated groups. […] Gender intensifies and exacerbates these inequalities at the bottom.’
3. A gender lens on inequality can highlight the less obvious or ‘hidden’ practices that perpetuate inequity and discrimination
The promotion of women’s inclusion does not always result in gender justice. As we celebrate IWD for the 41st time, progress in closing the gender gap in the labour force has stalled in most regions, and the World Economic Forum predicts that it won’t close entirely until 2186.
While the number of women at all levels of government is rising around the world, findings in the Report show why a ‘seat at the table’ is not enough. We need more research on how informal institutions, such as norms based on customs, can affect the inclusion of women in all spheres of decision making, and what women do when they get into those spheres.
4. Tackling inequality requires us to tackle knowledge inequalities – including with regards to gender
Findings in the report show that women typically make up around 55% of all students enrolled in social science, business and law courses worldwide. This ranges from 74% in Belarus (2011 data) to 23.8% in Uzbekhistan (2006 data). However, women remain less well-represented in senior academic posts in all countries, and we recognize that we only partially succeeded in achieving gender parity in publication of the Report (47% of the report’s authors are women; the team directing the Report included two women and two men).
The Report highlights the urgency of addressing knowledge inequalities in the production of knowledge (including about inequality), and of promoting research that treats inequality and equality as a normative concern. There are long traditions of social science research that seeks to inform struggles for social justice, including from feminist perspectives, and we highlight a number of instances in which transformative social science is informing action on inequality.
Looking closely at the vicious cycles of multiple, intersecting inequalities can be a depressing experience – especially when it comes to an issue as deep-rooted and long-standing as gender inequality.
Yet the future of inequality is unwritten.
We highlight instances where inequalities are being challenged across all levels. Throughout the Report, authors highlight examples of ‘seeds of change’ – such as individuals and groups who are standing up for a more inclusive world, and creating the pathways that will take us there. What’s especially exciting is that many of these initiatives are led by women.
These initiatives may start small, from the grassroots organizations giving marginalized women farmers in India a chance to sell, process and market milk, but they can multiply, spread and scale up to create lasting change.
The Report highlights the creation of the International Domestic Workers Federation, which has built relationships with established trade unions, employers and other groups to mobilise for social change at multiple levels. The vast majority of domestic workers are low-paid women, frequently from marginalized racial, ethnic and immigrant backgrounds.
Through alliances and convergence around shared goals, small initiatives can have large-scale impacts, especially when combined with ‘rule changes’ involving states and market actors.
What’s more, these initiatives can set the discursive foundations for future struggles – and foster the kind of personal transformations that can galvanise social movements over the long term.
So tell us – how are you going to #BeBoldForChange?