Symposium on Gender Inequality in Emerging Markets
Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and the fifteen or so smaller countries we call emerging markets are so culturally, socially and politically different that but for their shared economic attributes1 we would not speak of them in the same breath. Conflicting threads of contrast and consistency undermine many generalisations about them but major exceptions include the assumptions, norms and practices that lie at the heart of sexual attitudes and associated behaviours.
This symposium focussed on issues that influence or determine the economic status and roles of women in emerging markets. Some of these issues are closely associated with the peculiar characteristics of emerging markets; others are shared with wealthier and poorer countries. The core theme was women, work and wealth, considered against the background of gender economics and evaluated in light of cultural attitudes, beliefs, norms, mores and institutions that perpetuate economic disadvantages for women.
Gender and Economic Discrimination
The gender economics of emerging markets are shaped by cultural, political and social differences and dynamic forces that include the rapid growth of middle classes in middle income countries. Yet there are widely held cross-cultural beliefs that the economic role of women is to provide reproductive services (child-bearing, child-rearing, homemaking and other reproductive work) and that women should either be excluded from the formal economy or should do both paid and unpaid work.
Discriminatory attitudes towards women also induce social behaviours that frustrate efforts to initiate reform: girls drop out of school as a consequence of reproductive exchanges; girls are forced into early marriages for the sake of a bride price; girls become pregnant from exchange sex; girls are trafficked into the sex trade. Such outcomes are rooted in the notion that girls are of economic value only for their reproductive capabilities.
Within formal economies, attitudes about the reproductive roles of women affect their ability to advance in jobs and careers: working women who marry or become pregnant may be summarily dismissed; workplace tensions may lead to sexual harassment; excessive hours may discourage mothers from working. Even in wealthy households, familial norms, especially those on marital status, govern inheritance, property rights, and the control of assets. As a result, policies ranging from educational parity to financial access to parental leave may be linked responses to the core belief that the role of women should be limited to reproductive services.
The discussion on gender economics focussed on: (i) Assumptions and behaviours that contribute to economic inequality for women in emerging markets; (ii) Barriers to attitudinal and behavioural change; and (iii) Policies and practices that could diminish or eliminate these barriers.
The topics included issues arising from the facts that: (i) Many women are not free to choose or even participate in decisions about the timing and frequency of their pregnancies; (ii) Youth and adult pregnancies invariably have a negative impact on women's education and derived potential opportunities; (iii) Even if they do not become pregnant girls may have limited (or no) access to education, may be barred from some kinds of education and thus denied many job and career options; (iv) Women and girls may be subjected to sexual slavery, forced in to prostitution or become victims of sexual trafficking in a large and thriving illegal global economy; (v) Families may force girls in to marriage for economic reasons; (vi) Women migrate from emerging markets to wealthier countries in search of jobs and remit incomes to support children who remain in their countries of origin until (if ever) they are able to follow their mothers.
Women, Work, and Wealth
The discussion on gender economics was the background to an extended debate on issues associated with women, work and wealth. Here too the objective was to identify and evaluate (i) The nature and causes of systemic problems; (ii) Barriers to change; and (iii) Policies and practices that could help eliminate these barriers (taking account of historical, institutional and cultural differences and the distinctive and complementary roles of governments and the public and private sectors). The themes included:
Workplace Equity: (i) The causes and consequences of the fact that women are often paid less than men for equal work; variations in this practise between economic sectors and different emerging markets; obstacles to change including cultural and political constraints; legislative, administrative and other measures that have been taken (in emerging markets and elsewhere) to promote workplace equity including legislation governing equal pay for equal work; (ii) Discriminatory workplace behaviours including discriminatory hiring practices (within firms and between industries); discrimination against hiring or retaining pregnant women or women of reproductive age; the interface between the reproductive roles of women and rules governing workplace conduct (such as whether it is legally permissible for employers to ask women about their family plans in job interviews or to base hiring, retention or promotion decisions on answers given); and the experience of emerging market and other countries that have adopted measures to protect women against discrimination; (iii) Sexual harassment in workplaces; (iv) Workplace safety including protection against violence in workplaces and on journeys to and from workplaces.
Work/Life Balance: (i) Challenges and choices faced by women attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of reproductive and paid work; (ii) The social and health consequences of problems associated with the achievement of work-life balance such as sleep deprivation, physical and emotional disorders and the lack of leisure; (iii) Variations in these challenges within and between emerging markets and comparisons between emerging markets and wealthier and poorer countries; (iv) The impact of social changes associated with urbanization in emerging markets, the fragmentation of nuclear families and the decline of familial child support systems provided by traditional family structures; (v) Changes in the cost and availability of domestic servants and child care providers associated with rising incomes and expectations and the growth of the middle classes in many emerging markets; (vi) The impact of government policies designed to attenuate pressures on women striving to balance reproductive and paid work including, inter alia, policies governing maternity leave, maternal healthcare, child benefit payments and childcare support systems; (vii) The impact of private sector practises such as employer provided childcare facilities in workplaces and support for remote working, working from home and job-sharing; (viii) The impact of policies and practises that encourage the division of reproductive work (including homemaking and childcare) between mothers and fathers.
Women’s Enterprise: There is broad international endorsement of the idea of women’s entrepreneurship and strong support for women-focussed microfinance schemes. Yet only a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets are headed by women and their growth lags that of male-headed SMEs. The contrast is conventionally attributed to institutional and regulatory issues, lack of access to finance, relatively low rates of business education or work experience, risk aversion, confinement of women’s businesses to slower growth sectors, and the burden of household management responsibilities. Yet there are numerous other obstacles and in some countries the actual magnitude of female enterprises is overstated by the use of such indicators as percentage measures of women-headed corporations. The constraints include: (i) The inability of women who lack property rights to access financial systems; (ii) The inability of women to enter into legal contracts without approval from fathers or husbands; (iii) The failure of government and private sector programmes to improve the ability of female agricultural entrepreneurs because women (a) may do most of the work but own little if any land and (b) are allowed to sell only a fraction of what they produce; and (iv) The fact that women who are trying to develop small businesses may be obstructed by the lack of such basic needs as dedicated sanitary facilities (critical during menstrual periods). The debate explored the nature, implications and consequences of these constraints, the success and failure of public and private sector initiatives to promote the growth of female enterprises and the potential replication of successful schemes in other political and cultural environments.
Women’s Leadership: The fact that the commanding heights of business, government and politics in most emerging markets are occupied by men gives rise to such questions as: (i) Why do women account for disproportionately large numbers of university graduates in some emerging markets but far fewer leadership positions? Are women less ambitious than men? Do women have different (or distinctive) leadership skills? Are work-life conflicts a primary constraint to the development of female leadership? (ii) Do women face comparable constraints in business, politics and society (including religious institutions); are there different constraints in different domains and if there are what can be learned from experience in one domain that may be applicable in others? (iii) To what extent do economic constraints facing women in emerging markets stem from religious norms and practises and if they exist could they be mitigated by political action? (iv) How can the common and condescending presumption that women must be taught to be leaders be corrected?
Women and Wealth: Many women in many emerging markets suffer from inequality in the ownership and control of wealth. Questions arising included: (i) What are the consequences of inheritance laws and property rights that prevent women from retaining ownership of even personal earnings and assets? (ii) Whereas restrictive laws and codes most obviously affect asset-owning women how do they affect poorer women who may be deprived of financial support from wealthier women in the form of ‘angel’ investments for female entrepreneurs, scholarships for girls or initiatives that provide economic stability for poor households after the deaths of fathers? (iii) How and why do women’s rights of inheritance, equality of employment opportunities, legal protection against discrimination and access to credit, equality of compensation and employment benefits, vary between emerging markets? (iv) What can be learned from the experience of emerging markets and other countries that have introduced reforms to create equal economic conditions for men and women; to what extent do the enabling conditions for change depend on cultural factors; and is it possible to identify cross-cultural solutions?
Rights and Wrongs
The third task for the symposium was to consider how cultural attitudes, beliefs, norms, mores and institutions perpetuate economic gender disadvantages in emerging markets. Allowing for inter-country contrasts the aim was to reach conclusions on how and why the economic behaviour of women grappling with the competing demands of reproductive and paid work are influenced (in different ways in different socio-economic groups) by fears and threats of disapproval, shame and exclusion, the potential loss of reputation for themselves and their families and notions of morality that punish or victimize them in ways that do not apply to men.
Many of these mechanisms cluster around sexual vulnerability and are anchored in deeply held male (and compliant female) beliefs about ‘right’ (i.e. correct, acceptable) behaviour and notions of sin and virtue. For example, in some societies, women who undertake factory work may breach local gender norms and as a result, may be disparaged or subjected to sexual violence en route to and from work and may even find police actions enforce such behaviour.
Human and legal rights in such cases are often subordinated to familial ‘rights’ and economic interests such as the prerogative of fathers to sell daughters or of husbands to beat wives. Efforts by national governments and international organizations to legislate against such practices are often ineffective, partly because they conflict with local beliefs and partly because they ignore underlying economic realities. Two examples: (i) Female infanticide may be attributed to the expectation that sons will support their families in old age whereas daughters will not; and (ii) Bride burnings may be attributed to dissatisfaction with dowries. The same systems may attempt to protect victims by restricting their mobility thereby constraining their economic mobility - rather than focus on the perpetrators of gender violence.
The issues discussed included: (i) Sources and origins of male (and female) beliefs about the relative status and distinctive roles of men and women; beliefs about and attitudes towards women in economic (and social and political) leadership roles; beliefs about and attitudes towards professions and occupations that should (and should not) be open to women; (ii) The impact of religious teaching and dogma on the economic status and rights of women, particularly as it affects perceptions and beliefs about proper limitations on the roles of women in economic life and women’s participation in political and social activities. (iii) The impact of media and social networks on women’s roles in emerging market economies including their roles in shaping, promoting or discouraging changes and in creating enabling conditions for change; (iv) The role of (primary, secondary, tertiary and lifetime) education in creating conditions that equip women to participate equally in economic life; (v) The role of political institutions and organizations in creating changes that enable women to participate equally in economic life; (vi) The role of legal frameworks in protecting women, gaps between the promise of legal protection and actual experience; (vii) Contrasts between emerging market cultures that seek to strengthen women’s economic rights and those that ignore them or sanction violations.
1 These attributes include relatively strong financial institutions, energetic private sectors, open trade and investment regimes, robust legal systems and strong prospects for sustianable growth.