Challenging gender inequality in economic decision making is one of the most powerful ways to change who benefits the most from the economy. If a group of decision makers are entirely made up of one particular group in society, then it is unlikely that they will reflect a broad range of perspectives and priorities.
Traditionally, economic theory and policy has been male dominated, meaning it often fails to analyse how women and men experience the economy in different ways.
Feminist economics gives an alternative, being based on the understanding that gender shapes the way people act, the choices they make, the economic roles they play and crucially the level of power and influence they have over these decisions.
Economic policy for women's rights
Today, the IMF is hosting a conference on fiscal policy and gender equality, reflecting that economic policy is far from gender neutral, and is in fact a key tool in achieving women’s rights.
When government spending priorities ignore this reality, women, especially those most marginalised in the economy, tend to lose out. For example, cut backs in expenditure on public services often result in an increased share of unpaid domestic work that women carry out to fill in the gaps, as recognised recently by the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment.
Feminist movements have also challenged the impact of spending cuts on reducing the services needed to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.
New IMF research shows that a gender budgeting approach – which involves analysing how government spending is directed towards reduce gender inequality, is being used successfully in many countries around the world. For example, in India and Mexico, it has led to increases in education, health and infrastructure spending.
This chimes with Oxfam’s experience that having gender equality at the heart of economic decision making results in better outcomes for women and girls. However, a process of gender budgeting on its own is not enough to drive gender and fiscal justice.
There are three key areas that also need to be addressed to reduce economic and gender inequality through fiscal policy.
1. Firstly, any approach which looks at gender equality in economic decision making should ensure increasing women’s transformative leadership is at the heart of efforts.
Women need to be at decision making tables in order to influence them, and women who are not in those spaces must also have their voices and priorities heard, so services and spending are accountable to them. However, we know that women, especially the poorest women, experience multiple barriers in influencing economic decisions. These range from the social norms that undermine women’s voices on the economy, to the lack of time women with care responsibilities have to engage, to an increased exposure to violence that women in public life report. In Oxfam’s experience, approaches that address these across the political, social and personal levels are needed to be effective and ensure women’s priorities are raised.
2. We cannot talk about the need for governments to invest more in gender equality without also talking about tax justice.
Progressive, well designed tax systems can ensure that revenue is raised from those that can afford it the most. Currently this is undermined for many of the poorest countries – for instance, developing countries are losing $170bn a year to tax havens, money that could be used to fund vital access to public services.
3. The type and design of public investment matters as well as the quantity.
Investments in girl’s education are still needed to see every girl go to school, and the removal of school fees saw many countries make advancements towards this goal. However, a recent Global Campaign for Education report noted worrying trends in donor investment in low fee private schools, the fees of which create barriers for girls in some of the poorest communities of the world. And investments in infrastructure that could reduce unpaid work responsibilities for women need to be designed in consultation with those women, in order to understand their needs.
Toward women's economic equality
There are many ways the agenda for women’s economic equality needs to be taken forward.
The IMF has made several welcome commitments as part of their membership of the UN High Level Panel, and we hope to see them continuing to develop this work through:
- The outcomes of this conference feeding into the next phase of the UN High Level Panel’s work, including developing recommendations for how economic policy can support gender equality
- Further research to understand the impact of government spending on gender equality, and what types of investment will best ensure that access to services is prioritised for the poorest women and girls. Broadening the analysis of gender equality in the economy to look beyond women’s participation in the labour market to look at the quality of economic opportunities for women and wider gender inequalities in society, and policies that address these issues.
- Translating research findings on the impact of economic policies on gender equality into concrete changes in its lending policy, surveillance and technical advice.
This entry posted by Francesca Rhodes, Oxfam Gender Policy Advisor, on 7 November 2016.
- Tika Darlami (45) participates in a meeting of the 'Nari Utthan' (translation: women ascending) Community Discussion Class. Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam, Nepal, Surkhet District, Mid Western Region
- Bertina* 13, studying with her classmates at school. Haiti. Oxfam has installed toilets in five schools which will be used by 504 children. Previously children had to defecate in the open areas which presented health issues and deterred many from attending lessons. Credit: Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam (*name changed)
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