“There was only one man out of the 40 audience members!” my old colleague emailed me immediately after she led a lecture on gender diversity and corporate governance in Lahore. “We can’t talk about gender diversity with only women! What’s the point in raising awareness about this issue if only one side of the party is interested?”
Her frustration still resonates with me whenever I read anything related to gender and development. The World Bank recently published its annual World Development Report, and this year’s focus is gender equality. Interestingly, this report sheds light on a topic that hasn’t been discussed much: how economic growth doesn’t automatically help eliminate gender gaps if it is not accompanied by meaningful reforms and dialogue on gender issues.
While women today participate in the economy as much as men do — women now represent 40% of the world’s total labor force — this has not led to equal employment opportunities or equal earnings for men and women. Gender-based income disparity occurs because women continue to have more responsibilities with child care and household chores than men. Women subsequently pursue jobs that allow them to do both: make money and take care of the home. Such jobs are usually lower-paid, part time, or in the informal sector.
As a result, many economies fail to reach their fullest potential because they under-value a large portion of their labor force. The report suggests that policymakers should close differences in access to economic opportunities by looking at various challenges. That includes lifting women’s time constraints by providing child care (such as Colombia’s subsidized daycare program), improving women’s access to productive resources (such as land titles), and tackling information problems and institutional biases that work against women (such as the use of quotas or job placement programs in Jordan).
But I would like to make another suggestion: we also need to incorporate men into the conversation. Resolving this issue shouldn’t just take the path of empowering women by passing women-friendly laws or creating more daycare centers. Men must be challenged to reevaluate traditional gender roles. Resources should target initiatives that encourage men to appreciate the benefits of gender equality. Policymakers should frame gender-related topics as socio-economic issues affecting everyone, not just half of the population.
Beyond my colleagues disappointment with the lack of male attendance at her event, unless both men and women work together to understand the causes of gender inequality, many economies – and societies – will remain unable to realize their full potential.