Extreme wealth is threatening women’s fight for equality

Francesca Rhodes Gender, Inequality


Women are multiply disadvantaged in the global economy. Tackling gender injustices could lead to both women’s economic empowerment and wider economic growth, but as Francesca Rhodes explains this must be done carefully to ensure that it results in a more equal society overall.

Worldwide, women are at an economic disadvantage compared to men. Whether this is women in India earning on average 32.6 percent less than men, women in Latin America owning less and mostly insecure land, or women globally who carry out 2.5 times more unpaid care work than men do. The benefits to challenging these inequalities and increasing women’s economic empowerment are multiple: including increasing women’s incomes, decision making power and wellbeing. Time and time again, Oxfam has seen that this is a powerful force against gender inequality and poverty.

A new Oxfam paper looks at the links between economic and gender inequality. We find that increasing women’s involvement in the economy could also lead to higher economic growth. Indeed $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025: by increasing the number of women in the
workforce, increasing their working hours and reducing the concentration of women in low paid sectors. Figures such as this are often quoted as the ‘business case’ for women’s economic empowerment – the argument being that we are all poorer due to gender inequalities holding women back. This is definitely true. Increasing women’s paid labour would certainly add to GDP and add talent to the workforce. But these new trillions of dollars are supposed to incentivise who, exactly?Extreme economic inequality is spiralling; and
women’s underpaid and unpaid work is identified as central to this.

Oxfam’s research shows that wealth is increasingly being concentrated with those who are already rich. Extreme economic inequality is spiralling; and women’s underpaid and unpaid work is identified as central to this. Between 1998 and 2011, the richest 10 percent of individuals received 46 percent of global growth; and the top one percent received more than the entire bottom 50 percent put together Although many
women stand to gain from more equal economic participation, we can fairly assume that unless the pattern changes, this $12 trillion would unfairly benefit those who are already very rich – the majority of whom are men. The poorest women, who in some senses stand to gain the most, would see very little.

The causes of such extreme economic inequality – market fundamentalism and political capture – exploit and make gender inequality worse. Ignoring this when trying to achieve women’s economic empowerment risks not getting to the root of the problem, and not properly challenging the power imbalances which keep many women poor.

A fair amount of economic growth can and should be benefiting the poorest women and girls. In order for this to happen, their work needs to be rewarded with a fair, living wage, and a secure contract. Unpaid care work, which women are predominately responsible for, needs to be recognised, reduced and redistributed between men and women, but also between households and wider society. Public services, such as healthcare and education, need to be
invested in so they are publically delivered, free, high quality and accessible. To fund this we need gender sensitive and progressive tax systems, which focus on raising enough money from those that can afford it the most.

…we need gender sensitive and progressive tax systems, which focus on raising enough money from those that can afford it the most.

Our current economic model is undermining all of these requirements. In Myanmar for example, the emerging garment industry is booming, attracting multinational buyers and clothing chains. While this is creating new job opportunities for women, their wages are not enough to pay basic living expenses, or allow for savings. Whilst four of the 62 richest people in the world made their fortunes in high street fashion, between 2001 and 2011 wages for garment workers fell in real terms. The majority of these low paid workers in this industry are women.

Gender equality and women’s rights won’t come for free. UN Women has found that there are up to 90% funding gaps in investments that countries need to meet their commitments to gender equality. 

Public services and spending such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, care services and social protection are all essential for women’s economic equality and rights. And yet at the same time it’s estimated that poor countries lose a staggering $170bn of taxes every year because of tax havens. If a company isn’t paying their fair share of tax, or supporting a living wage in their supply chains, can they really be taken seriously in
their commitments to gender equality?

So how do we put the benefits of economic growth, driven by women, fairly back into women’s hands? Implementing living wages, the expansion of social protection, universal public services as well as the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work are essential, and obtainable. Some countries are beginning to take up these policies to simultaneously tackle economic inequality and gender inequality. Public pressure will be key in encouraging global leaders to make these progressive changes.

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Author: Francesca Rhodes
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.