Why a research program on women’s economic empowerment?

Last year, IDRC with DFID and the Hewlett Foundation launched a global research program on women’s economic empowerment. Here are some personal reflections on the why and how, particularly on how research can and should make a difference.

Most reports show that there has been much progress in gender equality, globally. Gaps between girls and boys in school enrollment have been narrowing, and on average women live longer and healthier lives. Often following long advocacy campaigns, women now have equal rights in more domains. Access to employment opportunities has become more equally divided.

But persistent gender gaps remain. Women with similar education and jobs, often do not earn the same income. In developing countries, women are over-represented in the informal sector, with worse working conditions and social protection. Even within the informal sector opportunities are unequally divided. Women often are disadvantaged on access to land and agricultural inputs. In a majority of countries, legal differences on the basis of gender exist.

If these are well-established, why is more research needed? I can think of five reasons. First, while gender discrimination is a world-wide phenomenon, and some of these indicators are addressed through the Millennium Development Goals, the nature of barriers for women is different in each context, in each country, and often for different socio-economic groups. Evidence on these constraints, causes and consequences, are critical to help promote the case for gender equality, and shape policies.

Second, while on average there is less gender inequality in richer countries, it is not necessarily the case that economic growth and empowerment go hand in hand. China’s rapid economic growth, for example, has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but women have been increasingly challenged to combine their role as care givers and income earners. As policy makers in China now have recognised, it is essential to address the constraints women face, even as economies grow rapidly.

Third, there is a growing interest in the role of women in the economy. Hillary Clinton has been among a growing number of advocates who stress that discrimination against women is holding entire economies back. The persuasive power of this win-win argument needs strengthening, with evidence on where and how this potential can be realised, what obstacles might exist (‘if it was that clear, why has it not yet happened?’), and how they can be overcome. A critical questions is women’s primary role as care-givers, and what policies need to be put in place to promote more equal divisions of care responsibilities between men and women, and to enable women to explore potentials in the same way men can.

Fourth, as much as it is critical to have more evidence on the questions above, what really matters is how this knowledge is translated into action. These are not competing priorities, but it is important that research projects are shaped in a way that research connects to policy making, and that the research is organised and communicated in a way that it’s most useful for, and likely to be used by people and institutions that can make a difference in reducing gender inequality.

Finally, an international research program provides a tremendous opportunity for learning across countries. Most researchers and policy makes are firmly embedded in their own context, of course, and opportunities to learn from experience elsewhere are rare. For example, what can Tanzanian and Indian policy makers learn from each country’s experience with empowering women? And what can practitioners in Burkina Faso learn from Kenya, and vice-versa, regarding the reasons why women are less likely to succeed in businesses and jobs.