Rethinking Economics By Using A Gender Lens

OECD Development Centre Gender Economist Gaëlle Ferrant chats with Ananke’s Editor, Sabin Muzaffar about gender gaps in healthcare, education, care work, inclusion and the importance of gender-centric economics.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your work at the OECD?

I currently work as an economist and gender expert at the OECD Development Centre and lead the gender programme. In this role, I oversee policy dialogue and policy-oriented research on gender and development issues including measuring gender-based discrimination in social institutions notably through the Social Institutions and Gender Index(SIGI).

The Gender and Development Programme at the OECD Development Centre focuses on the underlying drivers of gender inequality (discriminatory social institutions), which are discriminatory laws, social norms and practices, in both OECD and non-OECD countries. While other indicators can give you the number of women in the labour force or of girls enrolled in secondary education, the SIGI explains you why despite increasing attention and investment in closing gender gaps in outcomes such as education and employment, the efficiency of standards policies is not as good as expected: because of neglecting deeply entrenched discriminations in social norms and practices.

According to OECD, ‘overall, women make up the majority of the health and social workforce: across the OECD, around 3/4 of people working in this sector are women, i.e. 20 million women compared with 6.3 million men. But women often work in lower-paid jobs’. We have the data, what – in your opinion – needs to be done to address this?

OECD Development Centre Gender Economist Gaëlle Ferrant

We need to look at social norms and expectations on women’s role in the economy. What strikes me is that, even in countries where we close gender gaps in school enrolment rates, gender inequalities in education are persistent. When looking at education programmes, you already see a gender segregation, explaining not only the horizontal segregation at work (more women in health sector than in engineering) but also the vertical one (higher share of female nurse than female doctors).

Yet, this is due to social expectations and norms internalised by girls. In US middle school, 74% of girls express interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but only 0.4% of high school girls choose computer science as a college major.

Moreover, most of people underestimates women’s leadership abilities. This adds to the fact that for high responsibilities jobs, employers often prefer men who have less caring and domestic responsibilities at home. Therefore, discrimination in hiring process are pervasive, explaining also part of the glass ceiling.

Tackling discriminatory social norms and expectations on women’s role and abilities is essential for eradicating gender occupational segregation through:

  • The implementation of a gender transformative approach in public policies and programmes that puts social norm change at the core. Shifting discriminatory social norms can lead to catalytic change the way jobs are structured. It implies changing social expectations on what it means to be a man or a woman. Policies should include elements to address the root causes of gender inequalities, such as advocacy campaigns and/or educational curricula to address or prevent negative gender stereotypes in the labour market.
  • The establishment of family-friendly working conditions that enable women to balance their working hours and caring responsibilities.A flexible work schedule or teleworking allows women and men to choose working hours that better accommodate their caring responsibilities.
  • Engage men: if maternity and paternity leave would have the same impact on mothers and fathers’ career pathways, discrimination would decrease, offering more opportunities for women to be promoted and get high-paid/responsibilities jobs.
  • Mentorship and leadership programmes that increase women’s participation in male-dominated industries and occupations. Traditionally male-dominated sectors such as construction, infrastructure transport, mining often provide skilled, well-paid and high status jobs.

While in many countries, there is a huge gap as far as a woman’s or girl’s education is concerned, there are other countries, where there is a good percentage of literacy among females; yet very low percentage in the labour market – what possible solutions can we adopt to encourage more women’s participation in the labour market?

The marketplace is much more complicated than the theory says: the school-to-work transition is much more difficult for women than for men. Moreover, this not school enrolment or literacy rates make you “recruitable”. Your likelihood to be hired depends on the education programme you followed, the school you were and more importantly your ability to sale yourself during interviews. The recruitment process does not only depend on the candidate’s skills but also on the employer’s expectations that often differ for female and male candidate.

Finally, depending on her age, a female candidate has also the stigma of being a future mother. If you look at female labour force participation by age cohorts and motherhood status, you will clearly see differences. Mother of children less than 3 years old do not face the same challenges than other women.

We need to consider all these gender specificities. This notably includes looking at what happen within the family. There is a strong negative relationship between the hours spend per day in these activities and women’s participation in the labour force. For instance 75% of the burden of unpaid care domestic work falls on women. Women in OECD European countries spend an average of 4 hours in domestic chores a day compared to 2 for men, while in OECD non-European countries women spend 5 hours and men spend 1 hour and half in unpaid domestic work. Therefore, governments should:

  • Implement measures aimed at promoting work-life balance such as free or affordable early childcare services, particularly for low-income families.
  • Provide employees with paid maternity, paternity or parental leave benefits and progressively increase the length of these entitlements. Longer child-related schemes reduce the burden of women’s unpaid care and domestic work.
  • Challenge social norms that make caring work as a female prerogative and engage men.

Ideally, we should make the recruitment process gender neutral: meaning that it is not influenced by the gender of the candidate.

Motherhood and care work are seen as impediments to women’s financial and bodily autonomy, what are your thoughts on this?

Indeed,social expectations on what being feminine and masculine mean are deeply embedded in society, with men still being seen as the breadwinners and women as the caretakers limit gender equality opportunities:

  • For instance half of the world population stigmatise working mothers, believing that children suffer when their mother works (36% of population in Europe and 33% of OECD population);
  • 27 % of the global population believe that it is problematic if a woman earns more than her husband;
  • This is why it is crucial to challenge these social norms and redefine the definition of femininity and masculinities through training and awareness-raising campaigns targeting men in order to “de-feminise” care giving and reshape existing gender norms that prevent men from assuming equal caring responsibilities.
  • A good example on how to challenge this is the “Men in the Kitchen”television programme, implemented by Rede HOPEM (Men for Change Network) in partnership with the Institute for the Promotion of Small and Medium Companies (IPEME). The programme applies a gender-transformative approach and challenges masculinities by training more than 600 men on care work such as childcare and domestic work and information on sexual and reproductive health rights. A survey revealed that after receiving the training, 90% of participants were in favour of equal sharing of domestic responsibilities between women and men.

In the healthcare sector, reports also suggest that women doctors earn less as they are under-represented in the most highly paid specializations like surgery: e.g., female doctors in the United States were paid nearly USD 20,000 a year less than their male colleagues, even after accounting for factors such as age and years of experience (OECD), do we need better, more inclusive, policies, or policies are in place and there are gaps in implementation? What is the roadmap to bridging the gender divide in healthcare?

First, we need to start closing the gender gaps in medical schools and research centers. Universities and research centers need to address the gender imbalance by quantifying how poorly/well women are represented in medical graduate programs and take adequate measures such as offering scholarship or sponsorship programs to increase women’s enrollment in these study areas.

Second, understanding the needs and experiences of female physicians at the workplace is key to address gender inequality and gaps in this field. Mentorships programs can be one of the most important determinants for women’s career advancements in medicine. These programs offer female physicians the advantages of having access to networking alliances, training opportunities, information about equal pay and transparency procedures in hospitals and clinics.

What do you think are the impediments to gender equality?

At the pace we are going, it will take over 200 years to achieve gender equality. Political commitments, legal reforms and gender-sensitive programmes in many countries are still not being translated into real changes for women and girls. The number of girls married each year throughout the world has stagnated at 12 million and women’s labour force participation has stagnated in the last 40 years.

Why is this progress so slow?Legal discriminations and loopholes continue to constrain women’s opportunities. For instance, 88 countries — nearly half — prohibit women from entering certain professions and while almost all countries have criminalised rape, perpetrators can escape prosecution in 11 countries if they marry the victim.What’s also slowing down progress is the inadequacy of existing laws and programmes:legislation on violence against women, for example, does not evolve at the same pace as the diversity of violence available to predators. New forms of violence have emerged with digitalisation, such as online harassment and stalking, that laws do not cover. Furthermore, discriminatory customary laws and social norms continue to weaken the implementation of policies. Dowry, which is banned by law, is practiced in almost all betrothals in some African countries, and 80% of people will not abandon the custom because of religious or traditional beliefs.

This is the month, we celebration International Women’s Day, what are your thoughts, how do we move upwards and forward?

First, achieving gender equality requires changing the way we think and act. This whole-of-society shift can best happen through better data collection, better analysis and better sharing of innovative approaches.

Second, feminism has also to change, shifting its focus away from women to the issue of masculinities. While mainly focusing on policy loopholes to promote women’s empowerment and social expectations on what should be a woman, this report also calls for greater attention on masculinities. Greater incentives for men to take part of the path towards gender equality as well as reshaping the social contract around masculinities would represent a quantum leap for gender equality.

Below are some more of our policy recommendations:

  1. GO BEYOND TRADITIONAL ‘’MAINSTREAMING’’: The way mainstreaming has been advocated and at times implemented has fallen short of expectations. Public policies and programmes should go beyond standard gender mainstreaming strategy, embracing a multi-sectoral and integrated approach to address all women’s issues from a full-lifetime perspective. This calls for a better understanding of the political economy.
  2. GO BEYOND SDG 5: Gender equality means tackling gender discrimination in all the SDGs and involving several government ministries. Instead of separate policies for gender equality or adding gender-equality concerns to pre-formulated policies, a gender political economy analysis should be introduced from the very beginning into national development strategies, including identifying multiple entry points for change and gender budgeting.
  3. WE ARE ALL IN IT TOGETHER: even with laws and policies in place, everyone has a role to play in empowering, mobilising and implementing change. A “whole-of-society approach” is needed to achieve this agenda.  Development co-operation stakeholders, local civil society, community and religious leaders, teachers, health professionals, justice and police officers, the media, foundations, and the private sector all have roles to play.
  4. WE MUST TRACK PROGRESS AND BE ACCOUNTABLE: Accountability and monitoring processes are necessary to make sure the policies and programmes we put in place are and remain gender-responsive. Additional and even more granular evidence and data are needed to strengthen the case for gender equality and to highlight its pivotal role in achieving Agenda 2030 and the sustainable and inclusive development.


About OECD

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) promotes policies that improve economic and social well-being of people around the world. The OECD provides a forum in which governments can work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems. We work with governments to understand what drives economic, social and environmental change. We measure productivity and global flows of trade and investment. We analyse and compare data to predict future trends. We set international standards on a wide range of things, from agriculture and tax to the safety of chemicals.

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