Columns - Pushing forward on gender equality

20 Apr 2015 / 20:17 H.

    EVEN in today's rich societies, there is continued inequality between the sexes; women tend to be in lower-paying jobs, be less well represented in politics and the upper levels of business and bear the brunt of domestic violence. But the situation in parts of the developing world is much worse; traditional cultural norms mean that many girls receive little education, are married and bear children while still adolescents and cannot even open a bank account.
    In Malaysia, women still only make 81% of men's salary for the same work, according to data from the World Economic Forum. For every woman in Parliament, in senior public or private positions, there are more than three men.
    Fifteen years ago, the global community committed to an ambitious set of Millennium Development Goals. There has been some success in meeting the targets for reducing gender differences – for instance, girls are much more likely to go to school now – but women in the developing world still suffer the highest levels of poverty, poor health, lack of education, unequal rights and violence. The UN is planning for the next set of international goals, to take us through to 2030, and we have to ask, which targets should we include? With limited resources of time, money and trained people, we need to focus on where we can do the most good.
    So, should targets to increase gender equality be on our priority list? One way to help decide this is to compare all the options by analysing how much each will cost and how much good each will do. This is what my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus has done with 60 teams of top economists across education, hunger, energy, violence and now gender equality.
    Gender equality is a big issue with a number of important components. Reproduction is one of them, and allowing women control over pregnancy means fewer deaths in childbirth, reduces infant deaths and gives mothers more time to devote to bringing up their family and earning an income. That's why putting money into family planning programmes turns out to be such a good investment. But this is not the only way to think about gender equality. The best way to reduce violence against women, ensure they have equal rights and lift them out of poverty is to get out of the cycle of early marriage and childbirth, and empower them to be full members of society.
    This is easier said than done, of course, but one good approach is to keep girls in school for longer and to make sure that well-paid jobs are available for them when they finish education. For example, in rural India, recruiters for well-paid back-office jobs for businesses visited randomly-selected villages over three years. Those villages saw more female employment and women aged 15-21 were 5-6 percentage points less likely to get married or give birth over this period. Moreover, the better job opportunities gave an incentive to get better educated, with younger girls staying more in school and women enrolling in after-school training courses.
    When we look at the evidence across a number of different studies and countries, each dollar spent on improving women's access to economic opportunities does US$7 (RM25.37) of good.
    Improving female education is also a good target, but one that is notoriously difficult to achieve. In studies, it is shown that for each dollar spent, the benefits are likely to amount to about US$5 of social good.
    There are plenty of other possible targets which seem self-evidently a good thing, but for which we do not have estimates of costs or benefits. For example, ensuring women have equal rights to inherit, sign a contract, register a business or open a bank account would cost very little, but would have far-reaching benefits, but we simply do not have the data to quantify them. Increasing women's political representation would also carry little cost, whereas the benefits would often be welcome but difficult to quantify. Essentially, the different priorities of women would begin to take equal precedence with those of men.
    Female equality is a complex issue and is not going to be achieved using a set of neat, standardised solutions. However, economic analyses can help show where we can do the most good. Clearly, family planning can be one of the best targets we can put on the UN list of priorities, because it will do US$120 of social good for each dollar spent. But many other ways, like education, economic opportunity, along with female rights and more equal opportunities vie for a place among the other priorities of nutrition, health and poverty.
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