IN 1994, Ms. Universe Sushmita Sen gave her award-winning answer to the question of a woman’s true essence. Ms. Sen said, “Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate. The origin of a child is a mother, who is a woman.” Her reply implies that a woman’s reproductive role centers on being a biological bearer of infants—something that is expected and natural.
Often, the various expectations that people, groups, and civilizations have of women define their gender and roles. When society divides what the appropriate type of work is for a man or for a woman, we also socially establish gender roles on what is considered suitable work for each sex. These appropriations of gender roles result in inequality and discrimination against women.
According to savethechildren.org, gender norms and gender roles describe how people of a particular gender and age are expected to behave in a given social context. Harmful gender roles result in many types of inequalities between girls and boys. However, while gender norms can affect all children, they are proven to disproportionately affect girls. More than 575 million girls live in countries where inequitable gender norms contribute to violations of their rights, such as health, education, marriage, and gender-based violence.
Gender norms are social principles that govern the behavior of girls, boys, women, and men in society and restrict their gender identity into what is considered to be appropriate. Gender norms are neither static nor universal and change over time. Some norms are positive (e.g., that children should not smoke), while others lead to inequality (e.g., that household chores are performed more by girls than boys). Gender roles are behaviors, attitudes, and actions that society feels are appropriate or inappropriate for a man or woman, boy or girl, according to cultural norms and traditions.
In many countries all over the world, women are not treated fairly. In terms of global literacy, female literacy rates lag behind that of males (Unesco Institute of Statistics, 2010). The current global labor force participation rate for women is a little under 47 percent, whereas the figure for males is 72 percent (International Labour Organization, 2022). This means that women around the world struggle more than men do to find employment, and when women find employment, they generally land in low-salary and dangerous jobs with little indication that their situation will improve.
The impact of these disparities have been a major topic of study in the social sciences. However, this has been less true in economics than in many other subjects because economic studies have concentrated primarily on market interactions throughout history.
By contrast, much of women’s economic activity has occurred outside formal markets (Lundberg, 2022). Their labors are considered invisible or missing. In 1990, Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen examined the conditions of these so-called “missing women.” Every year, six million women are considered “missing”—23 percent were never born; 10 percent disappeared while still in infancy; 21 percent disappeared while in their reproductive years; and 38 percent of those over 60 disappeared (World Bank, 2011). The data suggest that for every missing woman, many more women were denied access to education, career, or political positions that they would have had if they had been men (Duflo, 2012).
In recent years, countries, institutions, and several organizations have realized that underinvestment in women in education bears significant opportunity costs. If women are provided the same access as men, and if their voices are heard, poverty situations could be readily addressed. If the potential of women can be harnessed, enormous gains for the family, society, and country are at hand. No less than the United Nations firmly believes that gender equality is the key to achieving sustainable development.
Some international agency reports have shown pockets of progress in bridging the persistence of gender inequality, albeit at a very slow pace. Some have stood up to challenge the inequality. Some are doing it individually. Others are fighting through their agencies, affiliations, as well as organizations. While there is still a long way to go before having a truly egalitarian society, many women are already several steps ahead in making sure that their future is what they want it to be without being confined to their gender roles or their labor being rendered missing or invisible.
We can all look forward to a hopeful future if we allow women and girls to participate fully in society and decision-making, manage productive resources, engage in decent work, be in charge of their own time, lives, and bodies, and encourage significant participation in economic decision-making. An empowered woman contributes to the productivity of her family, organizations, society, and country.
Happy women’s month!
Ms. Mildred M. Estanda is a graduate student at the Department of Economics of Ateneo de Manila University.