Around the Halls: The State of Gender Equality on International Women’s Day

Tomb of Khaled Nabi, Iran. Photo by Hasan Almasi via Unsplash.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th, is an occasion for the world to come together to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness of gender discrimination and take steps toward gender equality. 

While women’s rights have made remarkable progress in some respects, there is still much progress to be made. In honor of International Women’s Day, Human Capital Initiative (HCI) experts affiliated with the Program on Women’s Empowerment Research (POWER) reflect on recent developments across women’s labor market outcomes, reproductive rights and economic empowerment and identify opportunities for solutions. 

Read their thoughts below:

Gender Norms and Labor Market Inequalities

The converging roles of women and men in the labor market is one of the most significant economic and social developments of the past century. Nevertheless, gender equality in labor market outcomes has remained elusive, even for the most developed economies in the world. A growing literature emphasizes the role of children, documenting a sharp divergence in labor market trajectories driven by women’s universally dominant role in childcare and non-market work. 

Why is it that women remain the main providers of childcare even as their economic roles have converged to that of men’s? A natural explanation is the persistence of gender norms that constrain women’s behavior. Yet, we know little about how these norms are formed and perpetuated. 

In a recent working paper with coauthors, I studied opinions regarding the labor supply decisions of mothers using hypothetical scenarios presented to a representative sample of respondents drawn from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Survey of Consumer Expectations. The scenarios specifically ask respondents about their own recommendation and their perceptions of the recommendations of those living in the same state as them about whether a mother with a young child should accept a job offer to return to work (and send the child to a free, high-quality preschool). 

We find that individuals systematically overestimate the extent of gender conservativeness of the people around them. Exposure to information on peer beliefs leads to a shift in recommendations in favor of the mother working. Furthermore, receiving information that does not conform to what respondents believe increases donations to non-profit organizations advocating for women in the workplace.

The study suggests that the presence of information gaps provides a possible rationalization for the stickiness of gender norms, even as women have made considerable progress in the economic sphere. This new research highlights the promising role that policy interventions targeted at information provision can play in helping to speed up the evolution of norms, and through them the narrowing of the still existing gender inequalities in the labor market.

Reproductive Rights

On International Women’s Day, the world will come together to remember the significant advances and achievements of women over the last year and in recent decades. As much as there may be to celebrate, this year’s event is also an opportunity to recognize that women and girls around the world continue to remain marginalized in their homes and communities. 

With the recent Dobbs vs. Jackson ruling in the United States, reproductive rights and access to comprehensive sexual health services are increasingly at risk. Globally, women continue to face numerous social and economic barriers to high quality care, with the poorest and most vulnerable women bearing the largest burdens. In 2019, an estimated 111 million women in low- and middle-income countries experienced an unintended pregnancy, and 35 million women in these settings had an unsafe abortion, contributing to pregnancy-related complications and maternal deaths. These disparities, many of which are driven by structural inequalities and their longstanding root causes, have continued to adversely impact women and their families. 

As global and local efforts continue to tackle these systemic challenges, it is important to reiterate that reproductive rights are fundamental human rights, and conferring these rights to all people, not just to the privileged, is an essential step toward achieving universal health equity and sustainable global well-being.

Women’s Economic and Political Empowerment

This International Women’s Day requires us to engage with the women whose rights have been rolled back at an unprecedented speed and scale, under what is arguably the most restrictive regime in the world for women, with over 80 edicts limiting women’s fundamental human rights: Taliban-governed Afghanistan. What occurred after the “abrupt and uncoordinated” US military withdrawal in August 2021 is directly linked to the nature of the withdrawal, with a lack of US accountability for weapons sent to Afghanistan that left more than $7 billion in military equipment under Taliban control. 

In the first year of their rule, the Taliban’s systemic exclusion of women from public and political life increased women’s suicides and mortality rates, particularly of mothers. Country-wide economic costs are estimated at $1 billion dollars (5 percent of GDP) due to women’s exclusion from employment, according to an August 2022 UN Women report. As of December 2022, the Taliban banned women from all universities, expanding their prior ban on girls’ middle and high school attendance. The Taliban also banned women from working for NGOs, limiting vital income and assistance for the 90 percent of the country’s population below the poverty line, according to United Nations projections.

In this context, the Boston University Global Development Policy Center and Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies have partnered with the US State Department to launch the Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience, an initiative aimed at advancing the economic security and well-being of Afghan women both within Afghanistan and the diaspora. At a time when women’s rights are being diminished worldwide, the Alliance is an opportunity to advance research and policy solutions to gender inequality in Afghanistan and around the world. 

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