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Feminist Economics, review on "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World", by UNRISD, Geneva, 2005; "Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty", by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), 2005; and "The World's Women 2005: Progress in Statistics", by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), 2006

20 May 2009

  • Source
  • Title: Book Review: Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World
  • Author(S): Caren A. Grown
  • Date: 2 Apr 2007
  • Publication: Feminist Economics

Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World, by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). Geneva: UNRISD, 2005. 340 pp. ISBN-13: 978-92-9085-052-6, ISBN-10: 92-9085-052-3 (pbk.). US$32.00.

Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty, by Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, Renana Jhabvala, and Christine Bonner. New York: United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), 2005. 112 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1-932827-26-2, ISBN-10: 1-932827-26-9 (pbk.). US$17.95.

The World's Women 2005: Progress in Statistics, by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. New York: UN DESA, 2006. 168 pp. ISBN-13: 978-92-1-161482-4, ISBN-10: 92-1-161482-1 (pbk.). US$25.00.

Three recent reports by different United Nations agencies provide an important picture of the world's women. All three were published in 2005 – 6 to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and to galvanize public attention and government action for women's empowerment. Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World (hereafter GE), published by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), surveys the changing global landscape for gender equality, with a strong emphasis on macroeconomic and social policy issues. Progress of the World's Women 2005 (hereafter PWW), published by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), explores women, work, and poverty. And, The World's Women 2005 (hereafter TWW), published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), examines the progress made by countries in the collection and use of sex-disaggregated statistics.

Although each report has a different focus, together they present a remarkably consistent picture of women's status. All three reports point out the positive changes for women that have been made over the past two decades, especially in the areas of education and health and in the collection of statistics in these areas. Yet the overall message of the reports concerns the “ambivalent nature of achievements," to use UNRISD's phrasing (p. 7). In other words, the progress that has been made toward gender equality and women's empowerment is partial, has benefits and costs, and may not be sustainable.

All three reports highlight how gender inequality remains entrenched in key domains, especially in the labor market and in political decision-making, which is critical for developing the policy environment for gender equality. Both GE and PWW highlight the rise of informal employment
(jobs without secure contracts, benefits, or social protection) and cross-border migration, especially for women who are vulnerable to exploitation. They also note the lack of social protection for the most vulnerable women and the reduced capacity of the state to provide infrastructure and public services that are so necessary for poverty reduction and sustainable growth. And TWW documents the shocking lack of progress in sex-disaggregated statistics, especially on women's economic status and key demographic variables.

Of the three books, GE contains the most penetrating political economy analysis of the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. In four sections ("Macroeconomics, Well-Being and Gender Equality;" "Women, Work and Social Policy;" "Women in Politics and Public Life;" and "Gender, Armed Conflict and the Search for Peace"), the book shows the gains that have been made in women's status since 1995 and the gaps that remain to be addressed. For instance, while women have greater access to paid employment in most countries, the terms and conditions of work have been simultaneously deteriorating. The book is quite clear that the neo-liberal policy environment, which rose to prominence in the 1980s, is largely responsible ("disabling," to use its words) for this outcome.

The analysis in Chapters 2-4 ("Liberalization and Deregulation: The Route to Gender Equality?", "Liberalization, Labour Markets and Women's Gains: A Mixed Picture," and "Consolidating Women's Gains: The Need for a Broader Policy Agenda") may be familiar to readers of Feminist Economics, as it draws heavily on the work of feminist economists, several of whom were commissioned to write background papers for the book1. These chapters present a detailed critique of the orthodox view that economic liberalization will lead to higher rates of economic growth and poverty reduction, with gains for both women and men, and elaborate a set of heterodox-feminist policies that aim for macroeconomic stability and take heed of development and social/economic justice goals. These chapters show that women's low wages are a source of competitive advantage for many countries, and why it is therefore so difficult to implement policies that increase women's market power.

PWW' offers a fresh look at employment and globalization. In five chapters, it reports new statistics and research on women's work; employment, gender, and poverty; informal work; and women's organizing in the informal economy. The last chapter, "A Framework for Policy and Action," discusses concrete ideas for increasing the assets, access, and competitiveness of the working poor; improving the terms of trade and securing appropriate legal frameworks for the working poor; and addressing the risk and uncertainty faced by poor workers.

A core innovation of PWW is Chapter 3, "Employment, Gender and Poverty," which presents a new way of conceptualizing and measuring the feminization of the labor force, the informalization of labor, and the feminization of poverty - and the links among them. Economists who contributed to the report developed a technique that connects the characteristics of employment, measured at the individual level, to the risk of poverty, measured at the household level. This technique enabled them to go beyond the usual focus on poverty and headship and to calculate relative poverty rates for different types of workers. Background papers applying this technique were commissioned for Costa Rica, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, and South Africa. The results, summarized in this chapter, confirm that gender-based differences in average earnings and poverty risk among poor, working men and women are complex, but that women are concentrated in forms of employment associated with low average earnings and high poverty rates. Since they are more likely to be own-account or unpaid workers in family enterprises than micro-entrepreneurs who hire others, average earnings among women working in non-agricultural, informal activities are lower than among men, a result that is consistent across all countries. The report also identifies a hierarchy of average earnings and poverty risk associated with the segmentation of the labor force, with formal wage employees at the top (highest average earnings and lowest poverty risk), the self-employed in the middle (with employers doing better than own-account workers), and casual wageworkers at the bottom (lowest earnings and highest poverty risk).

TWW reviews progress over three decades in collecting data disaggregated by sex on population, households, and families; health, education, and training; work; violence against women; and poverty, decision-making, and human rights. The report documents that a number of countries have begun to collect data on topics important to gender analysis; for instance, sixty-eight countries conducted at least one survey on violence against women between 1995 and 2004, and thirty-eight of the surveys have national coverage. However, data collection on this topic remains largely ad hoc and has not been incorporated into the regular statistical work programs of national statistical offices. Severe gaps in data collection continue to exist on wages, births, and deaths, all of which are critical for feminist economic analysis. Reporting is highest among European countries and lowest among African countries. For instance, well over half of African countries provided sex-disaggregated data on population and educational enrolments at least once between 1995 and 2003, but less than one-third were able to provide data on births, deaths, and the economic characteristics of the population by sex.

Chapter 4, “Work,” is particularly depressing. Between 1995 and 2003, 125 out of 204 countries reported the economically active population at least once from either surveys or censuses, yet only sixty-nine countries reported such data by sex, age, and education level. Although 114 countries reported unemployment data by sex, only eighty-seven countries reported unemployment disaggregated by both sex and education level. Data on occupational distribution is similarly limited: between 1995 and 2003, only 105 countries provided statistics on the employed population by occupational group and sex at least once. Progress in the area of wage statistics is practically non-existent. Between 1995 and 2003, fifty-one countries or areas reported data on wages by major industry group from a labor-related establishment survey but only twenty-seven of these reported the data by sex. Twenty-three reported data on wages from a labor-related establishment census but only eight reported the data by sex.

Yet data collection has improved in some areas. For example, following the adoption in 1993 of an international definition of the informal sector, country reporting on employment in this sector increased considerably2; sixty countries have produced statistics on employment in the informal sector since 1995. In 2003 the ILO adopted an expanded job-based definition of informal employment that captures all forms of informal employment as described in TWW and PWW. To date, few countries have measured informal employment using the 2003 definition. It will be important for feminist economists to monitor whether data collection on this broader definition is improving, as this information will be particularly valuable in tracking the trends in women's economic status. TWW also notes that progress has been made in collecting time-use statistics. Since 1995, at least one time-use survey has been conducted by seven countries in Africa, eighteen in Asia, eight in North and Central America and the Caribbean, twenty-nine in Europe, three in South America, and two in Oceania.

Clearly, huge challenges remain in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. All three books address these challenges and give some ideas for how to surmount them. Implementing the policy suggestions in each report will take organizing, perseverance, resources, and political will. Section 3 of GE ("Women in Politics and Public Life") and Chapters 5 and 6 of PWW ("Women's Organizing in the Informal Economy" and "A Framework for Policy and Action") profile countries where transformation has begun and provide a good discussion of the institutional requirements to make that transformation sustainable.

I would be remiss if I did not raise a few quibbles with these otherwise very fine books. First, the dry, UN style of TWW unfortunately obscures the important information that is presented. I also would have liked more analysis of the data. By their nature, global reports always suffer from a lack of regional and within-country disaggregation, and this is true to some extent of GE’s analysis. And, while PWW's focus on the nature and conditions of informal employment is welcome, it gave short shrift to the role that unpaid reproductive work plays in the nexus between work and poverty.

All three books would be appropriate for a course on gender and development. Each publication is also a must read for policy wonks and activists seeking insights into the ways that international agencies view gender equality and women’s empowerment. PWW and GE, for instance, provide a strong counterpoint to other recent global reports such as Engendering Development, published by the World Bank in 2002, which takes the view that growth is unambiguously good for women. Both PWW and GE present solid evidence and analyses showing this is not the case and demonstrating to policy-makers that they have a wider array of policy tools to promote growth, decent employment, and gender equity than those generally recommended by the Bank.

Although these books can be read separately, I recommended reading them together, as their analyses are complementary. For instance, the UNRISD discussion of macroeconomics describes the policy environment that is necessary to provide the kind of employment opportunities that the UNIFEM report seeks for women workers; the macroeconomic policy analysis of GE complements the micro and meso-level interventions proposed in PWW; and TWW goes into great depth on the type of employment statistics that need to be produced in order to understand women’s work and poverty.

In conclusion, these three books are timely and important. They provide compact syntheses of existing knowledge and offer some excellent ideas that can be used for advocacy on women's rights in the years ahead.

by Caren A. Grown, The Levy Economics Institute, Bard College,
Gender Equality and Economy Program, Annandale-on-Hudson,
New York 12504, USA
e-mail: cgrown@levy.org

Notes :

1. Background papers can be found on www.unrisd.org.
2. The informal sector is defined as private unincorporated enterprises that produce at least some of their goods/services for sale or barter, have less than five paid employees, are not registered, and are engaged in non-agricultural activities.

This review is posted with permission of the “Feminist Economics”, Volume 13, Number 2, 2007.