An IMF that promotes gender equality? A long road lies ahead…

Sargon Nissan Gender, Her Series, Participation and Leadership, Women's Economic Empowerment

How can global institutions ensure tackling women’s economic empowerment is done in the most effective way? Sargon Nisson from the Bretton Woods Project, argues that the IMF could think differently.

Gender is rising up the agenda of economic policy making. This year we have seen a step-change in how global economic institutions consider women’s economic empowerment. However the nature of this change may create risks to fulfilling the rights of women and girls as well as opportunities. Examining the ‘gendered’ approach being taken by major institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reveals the complex challenge of making gender equality, as set out by SDG 5, a reality.

The January launch of the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (HLP) included a cross-section of global leaders, including Oxfam’s CEO Winnie Byanyima as well as the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. The Panel’s report to the UN General Assembly next month will add weight to the growing recognition that gender is inherent to economic policy.

How can policies shape an economy so that it serves the rights and needs of women and girls?

Probably the most unlikely institution to champion gender’s economic importance has been the IMF under Christine Lagarde’s leadership. Lagarde has been lauded for putting gender into the mainstream of the Fund’s work on macroeconomic policy, calling it a “macro-critical” consideration for economic policy making. As she put it in her keynote speech to the September inauguration of the G20’s W-20 in Ankara  “empowering women boosts economic growth …”, pointing out that if as many women worked as men in India it could boost GDP by “27 per cent”. This is surprising perhaps because the IMF is historically associated with imposing draconian cuts to social and public spending by countries in the grip of financial crises.

The Fund took the bold step to publish research making the case for putting gender into the core of economic policy making, including acknowledging what the women’s rights movement and civil society has long known. This showed the importance of considering that women’s economic role is conditioned by factors such as bearing a disproportionate burden of unpaid work, especially care provision, that women are excluded economically due to legal discrimination and social norms, and that they are also more far more affected by and vulnerable to cuts in social provision and public investment.

The IMF arguing that gender equality is inherent to the mission of institutions concerned with economic growth and stability is of course welcome. A focus on the economic value of gender equality no doubt helps to change the culture of an institution unfamiliar with gender considerations. However such an economy-first approach also poses a problem. Asking ‘how can equality and empowerment benefit the economy?’ will lead to a narrow set of policies focusing only on the role of women and girls in the economy. Focusing instead on the primary goal of equality and empowerment requires a different question: ‘how can policies shape an economy so that it serves the rights and needs of women and girls?’.

The IMF’s attempts to operationalise the research findings reveals why this matters. The IMF began piloting analysis of gender gaps in its 2015 surveillance reports (annual reports assessing countries’ economies) for a cross-section of 10 countries including India, Chile and Sweden. The gender-related recommendations that emerged focused overwhelmingly on narrowing the gap in women’s participation in the workforce.  What the surveillance reports did not address was the wider question of how orthodox economic policy has failed to address the unequal and exploitative economic role of women. In effect this suggests “that women’s economic equality can be realised through reforms focused purely on increasing women’s economic participation” rather than challenging the model they are being brought into, as Oxfam’s Francesca Rhodes pointed out last year.

Orthodox economic policy has failed to address the unequal and exploitative economic role of women

Bretton Woods Project’s recent study draws on the work of women’s rights and feminist organisations which have demonstrated time and again that women’s economic empowerment is not just about focusing on gender gaps. It requires economic policies to confront the structural barriers to achieving gender equality. This includes addressing labour rights fulfilment, healthcare and education provision, higher wages and asking who bears the burden of paying taxes when richer people and multi-national corporations often do not pay their fair share. These are essential to achieve the goals of SDG5. To do so requires policies that change the structure of the economy itself, not just a focus on women’s role in the economy.

Lagarde’s Ankara W20 speech included the important points that “greater gender quality … helps to reduce income inequality” and “female empowerment can reduce poverty”. In July Lagarde committed to “deepen” the IMF’s commitment to gender and inequality. Whether the IMF can truly contribute to overcoming the factors that drive gender inequality and poverty will shortly be tested in a lending programme for the first time. In Jordan, a country that has faced significant economic challenges not least related to the considerable responsibility it has accepted for refugees coming from the Syrian conflict, the IMF has proposed a loan agreement which includes targets requiring “…measures to facilitate women’s participation in the labour force and part-time employment.” A a gender-related target is unprecedented. This approach implies, however, that the IMF’s concept of gender equality will remain narrowly focused on a woman’s economic role.  Though things are changing for the better, judging by the IMF’s approach so far suggests that confronting the structural barriers that block gender equality and achieving SDG 5 requires a yet more radical re-think.


Caroline van Koot - Hodges