Gender & Globalization

Gender & Development Economics

Feminism has been vital in the struggle for solutions at the decentralized, local, and institutional level; it has fought discrimination and inequalities at many levels; it has changed institutions and decision making processes; it has incorporated new agendas in the politics of daily life; it has affected national policies; it has made an impact on international agendas; and it has been influential in first bringing human welfare to the center of debates on economic and social policy. (Beneria 2003, 89)

In development economics, concerns for gender equality, power imbalances, societal and cultural relevance, and female empowerment have been recognized as issues of importance to successful growth strategies. However, the gendered perspective has failed to embed itself inside the mindset that somehow seeks convergence without confronting the social and economic relations that create and continue inequity. Rather, gendered economics has often become a peripheral issue addressed as a side concern; at others times, abandoned in the spectrum of development economics. Indeed, though economics is often at the forefront of women-related issues, it has proven to be ‘the least open of the social sciences to the challenges raised by feminism’ (Beneria 1995, 1839). The current course of market liberalization pursued has created a chronic condition where gender disparities are prolonged and further institutionalized, rather than alleviated, by development policy. Pervasive male-dominated social and cultural norms have persisted, continuing the asymmetrical access to economic and institutional capabilities that would be ideally evenly distributed under globalization. Future development economic paradigms must incorporate the gendered standpoint to ensure connexion towards parity, equal access to increased economic, social, and political resources, and overall female empowerment.

One of the most heavily discussed aspects of economics has been the framework of the microeconomic household unit that originates around the idea of family and intra-household relations. The cornerstone of household neoclassical microeconomics – and the most aptly critiqued by feminist economics – has been the concept of household altruism. The neoclassical familial notion also bases itself on joint utility, where household members share, attain, and maximize equal amounts of utility. Economists of both Marxian and classical viewpoints treat the household as a wholly cooperative unit, indifferent to gender power imbalances in the attempt for gender neutrality (Folbre 245). Though most economic schools often address gender issues and would regard themselves as ‘gender neutral’, this neutrality arises from an explicit disregard of including gender in their framework of analysis. Pointed out by Diane Elson, “Most economic theory, whether orthodox or critical, is also male-biased, even though it appears to be gender neutral. The male bias arises because theory fails to take adequate account of the inequality between women as a gender and men as a gender” (38, 39). Neutrality, however, in the sense of freedom from all social values, is neither possible nor desirable and permits standard analytic techniques of mainstream economics to obscure the exercise of power (Harding 10).

While able to recognize the importance of the household, feminist economists have also picked up where others have not: that within this unit, issues of imbalance are stoked by overarching social and cultural normatives that formulate the basis and justification for intra-household economic disparities. Paradoxically, most neoclassical and critical economics see the household as an oasis, free from the dictations and ambitions that motivate the markets and as a construct built around a distinctly ‘non-market’ orientation of selflessness and collaboration. Indeed, it seems that “the invisible hand swept the moral economy into the home, where an imaginary world of perfect altruism could counterbalance the imaginary world of perfect self-interest in the market” (Folbre 252). In the same sense, the ability of money to monopolize labour power for ‘productive work’ depends on a system of non-monetary social relations to assemble labour power for ‘reproductive work’ (Elson 40). The orthodox tradition in economics has continued to rely on this basic link without questioning the consequences of its corresponding institutions and norms on human behavior and social goals (Beneria 2003, 68). Indeed, it appears that the neoclassical method seems unable and unsuitable for ‘capturing the relatively autonomous behavior’ of the reproductive economy (Walters 1877). The over-reliance and concentration of classical economics on the economic man as a self-interested organism has led to a conception failure of organizations and units, including the household, that are oriented primarily by other motivations.

Feminist economists have posited that intra-household relations must be seen as a continuation of patriarchal social normatives that seep into household economies. Rather than the gender division of labor, income, and access to other resources in the family as an optimal outcome of free choice, it may be seen as “the profoundly unequal accommodation reached between individuals who occupy very different social positions with very different degrees of social power” (Elson 38). The experience of subordination makes people less likely to have a well-defined preference function and dispose people to shape their preferences to what is available, rather than for what they want. Social norms constrain the choices that people make about division of labor in the family (Elson 38). Access to resources has also remained skewed along gender lines, including access to education and nutrition. Girls and mothers in particular in areas of the developing world receive a smaller proportion of necessary calories and protein than do men (Folbre 249). Typically, the division of labor in the household remains rigid along gender lines and consequently women often encounter a double-work burden scenario when they enter the productive economy, yet still remain entirely responsible for the reproductive economy (Blin 5). Even if displaced from the productive sector, men do not usually take on the responsibilities of reproductive work, leaving women to the substantial burden of both productive and reproductive work (Walters 1977).

Further, the dominance of females in the household economy has led to an invisibility of productivity that is done outside of the formal markets, creating a significant gap in amount of work done primarily by females and work recognized by formal economic channels. This is most recognizable on the macro level, where economic data excludes the reproductive economy and on the meso and macro levels, where neo-classical analysis excludes gender (Elson 36). Macroeconomics includes paid work but excludes unpaid work, an important consideration because of the rigidities associated with both. Gender has a predominant influence on the organization of the reproductive sector because of inflexibility in the division of labor and its coordination in informal, noncommercial spheres (Walters 1870). According to a survey done by the United Nations Development Programme in 1995, unaccounted work done in the reproductive economy accounts to $16 trillion, or 70 percent, of total world output. Of this $16 trillion, $11 trillion or 69 percent, represent women’s work (Beneria 2003, 74). In parallel to market expansion and the process of globalization, a large proportion of the population engages in unpaid production that is only indirectly linked to the market. Women are disproportionately concentrated in the unpaid sector that includes agricultural family labor, particularly in subsistence farming in developing economies (Beneria 2003, 74). Through this gap comes profound underestimation of household work, leading to public policy that undercuts this economy through the debilitation of social welfare programs that increase expenditure and exertion in the ‘invisible economy’.
Though the success of the macro economy is often reliant on the household economy, macro policy is typically formulated without regard to implications for healthcare, nutrition, and other aspects that will affect the reproductive economy. Macro-policy generally takes the reproductive economy for granted, assuming it can continue to function adequately no matter how its relation to the productive economy is disrupted. Economic policy that stress rolling back the state and liberating market forces give scant consideration to how this will impact the reproductive economy (Elson 41, 42). Since it is women who undertake most of the work in the reproductive economy, this is equivalent to assuming that there is an unlimited supply of unpaid female labour, able to compensate for any adverse changes resulting from macro-economic policy, so as to continue to meet the basic needs of their families and communities (Elson 42). When social services are reduced, eliminated, or privatized, programs that give women the ability to enter the labor market, such as state-funded healthcare or childcare, are diminished and women’s incomes tend to decrease (Howes 1907). Ironically, shortage of labor, specifically female workers, has been a frequent ailment of rapidly growing economies like those in Singapore and Mauritius (Walters 1876).

The efforts of policy and market reform fail to include a gendered perspective as well. While individual and micro-economies can be explicitly gendered, markets and firms are not characteristically conceptualized as gendered in a comparable way, though they may operate in ways that are particularly constraining and disadvantageous to women (Elson 38). Political, cultural, and social institutions and monetary relationships that are not in themselves intrinsically gendered nonetheless become bearers of gender (Elson 39). At the meso and macro level, the operation of markets, firms, and public sector agencies are gendered via the social norms and networks which are functional to the efficient operation of institutions (Elson 39). Policy reform, often trying to ameliorate gender role rigidity, will reflect a male hegemony by the social norms they situate themselves on (Elson 40). Even though policy reforms may not be male-biased by design, they will be male-biased indirectly by omission (Elson 40). This provides a difficult basis for seeing substantive change: 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 (Grown 204). Often the current development economics field sees an unequivocal link between macro-level economic growth and alleviation of poverty and social problems. At times the economic development and its resulting social transformations are ambiguous at best: the progress that has been made toward gender equality and women’s empowerment is partial, has benefits and costs, and may not be sustainable (Grown 204). Policy reform aimed at aiding the disadvantaged and disempowered, who are often female, typically leave out the gendered perspective, creating a considerable gap where macro-oriented development transformation will fail.

Significantly, social and cultural normatives have continued to foster economic inequities between males and females in the developing world, despite rapid market liberalization and neoclassical belief that barriers to entry and discrimination would be eradicated with free markets. The process of globalization for the developing world has often meant engaging in export oriented industries, inducing a feminization of the labor force, primarily facilitated by the growth in manufacturing and service industries. This has meant a transformation of the labor force that on the surface implies a greater access to relatively high paid labor for females. The classic example has been the clothing industry, that’s global work force is two thirds female, and accounts for one fifth of the total world female labor force in manufacturing (Joekes 20). While women possess a competitive advantage in the feminization of the labor force, the advantage stems from negative gender norms, discrimination, and exploitative conditions (Blin 5). Indisputably, feminization has been connected to the “deterioration of working conditions and as part of the race to the bottom resulting from global competition” (Beneria 2003, 82). Thus, although women may formally be able to participate in markets, they tend to find themselves excluded from the traditional business-social networks. Similarly, although women may formally be able to participate in paid employment in the private sector, they tend to find themselves excluded from skilled and professional positions, which obtain higher incomes (Elson 40). Caren Grown sees a inherent hierarchy of average earnings and poverty risk associated with the segmentation of the labor force: formal wage employees are at the top (highest average earnings and lowest poverty risk), the self-employed in the middle, and casual wageworkers at the bottom (lowest earnings and highest poverty risk) (205). Women in developing countries are crowded into the casual wageworker bracket, creating a situation that possesses a dual hazard, as women’s low wages are often a source of competitive advantage for developing countries, illustrating therefore why it is so complicated to implement policies that increase women’s market power (Grown 206). Walters recapitulates this quandary succinctly, stating that gender segmentation is maintained in developing economies regardless of large numbers of women entering the labor force because increased female participation that ‘does not undermine male power’ in the formal and informal economy is seen as acceptable (1877). Despite the belief that globalization would bring about social modernization and homogeneity, markets and economies continue to reflect harmful gender normatives that are embedded and entrenched.

Persistent gender inequalities are particularly exemplified in regional contexts where cultural and social-wide reactions to globalization have adjusted or pressured existing relations. In the oft-heralded free-market prototypes of East Asia, economic growth was often correlated to the degree of gender wage gaps and the Asian economies with the most rapid growth had the widest wage gaps (Beneria 2003, 83). In the Islamic societies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), rejection of the free-market, globalized ideal has originated from disdain for the culturally transformative powers associated with it. Islamic societies often openly reject what they view as the “imposition of Western values and norms, many of which are transmitted through channels associated with global markets” (Beneria 2003, 69). Cultural preferences and limited job opportunities have kept many women out of the educational systems and labor force (Roudi-Fahimi 16). In 2006, 17 percent of the labor force was unemployed in MENA, compacted by a much higher rate of 30 percent among young women. Though the percentage of women in paid employment in MENA rose from 25 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2006, this still falls significantly lower than the world average of 52 percent (Roudi-Fahimi 15). Of the 10 million illiterate youth in MENA, 66 percent are female, symbolizing the unequal distribution of economic and educational resources between male and females in the region (Roudi-Fahimi 16). In Africa, where development sought to incorporate women into the economy, globalization has pushed them out, with the result that many African women now scrape together a living in the ‘survival economy’ of the informal sector (Horn 111). Crowding and segmentation also remain a severe problem, meaning that in Latin America, female labor force participation remains isolated in the service sector, while in Africa, women remain clustered in the agricultural sector (Howes 1905). A persistent global problem continues to be that developing countries themselves often do not recognize gender-based inequities as a source of failed development. Indicative of this is the fact that from 1995 to 2003, of the 125 reporting data on the economically active population, only 69 reported such data by sex or education (Grown 206). As hypothesized by Beneria, the links between gender and globalization should not be seen as responding only to structural and economic forces: they are also shaped by interaction between these forces and the different ways through which gender constructions have been reconstituted (2003, 77). Undeniably, employers and men benefit from low-cost female labor, with occupational segregation, labor market segmentation, and gender wage differential reproducing and perpetuating traditional patriarchal inequalities both within modern capitalist systems and developing economies (Folbre 251). The process of globalization and free market expansion can accelerate the transformation of gender roles, though this is often not a benevolent process. It often intensifies sexist or gender-based discriminatory and exploitative practices and reinstitutes tensions regarding individual freedom and collective security (Beneria 2003, 84). Though norms for gender roles have at times changed very rapidly, they have tended to changed in ways that ‘preserve male power’ (Walters 1877). Gender roles have continued to play an intrinsic role in substantiating and institutionalizing inequalities that persist in the developing regions.

In a world where transformative economic policy is often created by neo-liberal economists in the West and enacted by government actors in the developing countries, strategies have been conspicuously absent of a holistic approach to the social and cultural pressure created and exacerbated by such significant transformations. In the words of Lourdes Beneria, for economists, “the task of building a socially relevant economic theory should be a priority” (2003, 88). Classical and critical economics alike have departed from successfully incorporating the sociological, psychological, and cultural issues that continue to affect economics. As Horn bemoans, “caught in the simplicity of economic equations, planners have failed to see the social structures, power relations and knowledge systems embedded in communities where development theory is applied” (110). Feminist economics, which is socially and culturally pertinent, and the accompanying gendered view provide the opportunity for economics to be ‘socially relevant’. In order for development economics to work towards alleviating the poverty that plagues the third world and continues to most acutely affect females, the gendered outlook must be incorporated into mainstream economics.


Beneria, Lourdes. “Gender, Development and Globalisation” Chapter 2. Routledge London. 2003.

Beneria, Lourdes. “Toward a Greater Integration of Gender in Economics”. World Development. Volume 23 (11), pp. 1839-50. 1995.

Blin, Myriam. “Export-Oriented Policies, Women’s Work Burden and Human Development in Mauritius”. SOAS working papers. 2004.

Brainerd, Elizabeth. “Importing Equality? The Impact of Globalization on Gender Discrimination.” IZA Discussion Paper No. 558, August 2002.

Brennan, David. “Defending the Indefensible? Culture’s Role in the Productive/Unproductive Dichotomy”. Feminist Economics. Volume 12 (3), pp. 403-425. 2006.

Cagatay, N., Diane Elson and C. Grown. “Gender, Adjustment and Macroeconomics”. World Development. Volume 23 (11). 1995.

Elson, Diane. “Gender Awareness in Modelling Structural Adjustment”. World Development Volume 23 (11), pp.1851-68. 1995.

Elson, Diane. “Micro, Meso, Macro: Gender and Economic Analysis in the Context of Policy Reform”. 1991.

Folbre, Nancy. “Hearts and Spades: Paradigms of Household Economics”. World Development, Volume 14 (2). 1986.

Grown, Caren. “Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World.” Feminist Economics. Volume 13 (2), pp. 203-207. 2007.

Harding, Sandra. “Can Feminist Thought Make Economics More Objective?”. Feminist Economics. Volume 1 (1). pp. 7-32. 1995.

Horn, Jessica. “Looking from the South, Speaking from Home: African Women Confronting Development.” Development, Volume 43 (4). pp. 32-39. 2007.

Howes, Candace and Ajit Singh. “Long Term Trends in the World Economy: The Gender Dimension.” World Development, Volume 23 (11). 1995.

Joekes, Susan. “Trade-related Employment for Women in Industry and Services in Developing Countries”. Occasional Paper 5, UNRISD and UNDP, Fourth World Conference on Women, Geneva. 1995.

Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh and Mary Mederios Kent. “The Middle East Population Puzzle”. Population Bulletin. 2007.

Walters, Bernard. “Engendering Macroeconomic: A Reconsideration of Growth Theory.” World Development. Volume 23 (11): pp. 1869-1880. 1995.

Written by Alec at SOAS for his MSc Political Economy of Development.

Related: Morality and Markets, “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier, IMF: Nations should use public funds to strengthen global financial system, Paul A. Volcker Address on Future Challenges, If I Were A Shill for Industry…., and Reproductive Tourism.

[tags]gender, globalization, africa, development economics, feminism, morality and ethics, distribution, females, inequality, politics, diane elson, alexander baldwin, SOAS, feminist economics, political economy[/tags]


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  1. Change is slow. I read somewhere that if the pace for equality in wages continued as it has since the women’s movement of the 1970s, it will take more than a 1000 years for truly equal pay. Plus the majority of families living in poverty in the USA are headed by single women.

    Still with more women working, getting better educations, and earning more than in the past, women in the USA are getting more attention from marketers.

    Most marketers now recognize the buying decisions that women control or influence, and market segmentation considers gender in creating marketing messages and activities.

    With money comes visibility and recognition. As long as women in third world nations are poor, they will be disadvantaged culturally and politically. Yet for them to improve economically, they need cultural and political support. It’s a vicious circle for women in many nations, and a problem for women everywhere.

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