Women, Growth and Generational Change

If it could rid itself of gender discrimination, the average developing country would grow at least two percentage points faster every year. That would generate enough public resources to double the size of most social protection programs, fund pre-kindergarten education for all children or maintain just about every road. So, if it is so important, why aren't we making progress toward gender parity? Actually, we are -- but not nearly enough. The problem is best stated in four propositions.

Proposition One: There has never been a better time to be a woman. Women have slowly gained access to employment, education, property, credit, justice, contraceptives and power. Over the past three decades alone, female participation in the labor force has increased by ten percentage points; today, six in every ten women work outside their homes. Except for West Africa, fertility rates -- the number of babies born per mother -- have fallen everywhere. Half a century ago, the average Latin-American mother had more than six children (yes, really); now she barely has two. Many countries report higher school enrollment rates for girls than boys, especially in upper grades. Ditto for university graduation rates. Political representation has never been larger -- the proportion of female parliamentarians is larger in Rwanda than in Sweden. And yet...

Proposition Two: Our daughters' world can, should and probably will be better than our sisters'. It is true that access has vastly improved. The issue now is what happens after access. More women join the labor force but, once there, become "occupationally segregated" -- stuck in lower productivity, lower technology jobs. Their general absence from the ICT industry is a conspicuous example. They get title to their homes, but find local police slow in enforcing their ownership when no-longer-welcome partners refuse to leave. They have fewer children, but they cannot afford child care. They are present in parliament, but their votes rarely swing legislation. And every year six million of them go "missing" from the demographic radar -- terminated by parents who prefer sons to daughters, or killed by lack of medical care when giving birth. You get the picture.

Proposition Three: Treating women fairly would make everyone richer. Imagine an economy in which half of all machines were misplaced: tractors were sent to hospitals, brain scanners to barber shops, hair-driers to construction sites, cranes to car factories and crash-test dummies to farms. To make the misallocation worse, imagine that some of your best and most powerful computers are kept locked in a depot. Now, imagine that you undo this madness. Just letting your assets go where they can be most useful would make you a lot more productive. Well, what is true for physical assets is true for human ones too. Removing the barriers that keep women from doing the jobs they are best at will expand the economy's production capacity -- even at the same level of investment. It will also save you from being wiped out by your competitors in the global market -- how do you expect to succeed if you only deploy half of your brain power? Gender parity is not only a moral priority; it is also smart economics.

Proposition Four: Better policies and bigger projects will not by themselves achieve gender parity -- we also need cultural change. Plenty of new laws and institutions have been put in place, and billions of dollars have been spent, across the developing world to ensure equal opportunities for women, especially in the past ten years. Most of it has been pretty successful. (For a top-of-the-line example, check what property titles did for Peruvian women living in the slums outside of Lima.) Some long-postponed or long-incomplete reforms are still necessary: we still need to put a doctor at every birth, provide child care to poor mothers, pay for disadvantaged girls to finish high school, teach youngsters about reproductive health, make family planning free to all and see affirmative action through in politics, courts and unions. But real change will come about only when gender becomes as integral and natural to development as, say, environmental protection or fiscal transparency.

Today, nobody would construct a dam or a highway without thinking of its environmental impact. And in most countries crooked civil servants lose their jobs -- and their freedom -- if they are exposed. But, only three decades ago, we rarely spoke about pollution or corruption. What changed? People did, especially young people. A mix of social activism and public education campaigns convinced a new generation to do the right thing, and to vote accordingly. Politicians and their technocrats listened. Think of Greenpeace in the 1980s reaching into kindergartens with its "Be Kind to Earth" message. Those kids are now adults and would think twice before backing a party that stands for forest-cutting, whale-killing or SUV-driving. The time has come for the same to happen to gender parity. Cultures will need to change and value women and men equally. And once again it will be our children who lead the way.