Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Engendering Progress?!

Progress in achieving gender equality has been greatly enhanced through the growth in ICT technologies: women’s burden of labour has decreased, new income generating opportunities have opened up, and ICTs can improve access to services. Now, the next revolution is looming: the development of WEB 2.0 inspired social networking sites, which offer innovative ways to share information, collaborate and mobilise populations across the world. While many people discuss if these networks have a spill-over effect on business activities, an interesting question from a development perspective is if, and how, these tools could be useful for advancing and accelerating efforts towards achieving gender equality. Wikigender is one example of the possibilities offered by Web 2.0 technologies, and the upcoming blogs will focus on this precise question. But first let’s start by thinking about what gender equality might mean for the idea of progress.

Looking at gender equality today, you might argue that there has been much progress in the last 50 years or so. In particular in the field of education, many things have changed for the better: school is no longer a privilege for boys alone, and the literacy ratio – an indicator of equal advancement in education between boys and girls – is constantly narrowing, signalling that girls are catching up, and even surpassing their male counterparts in some countries (see for more information). Women are also increasingly represented in politics, with some developing countries such as Rwanda leading the way with almost 49% female parliamentarians – have a look at if you want to know more about women’s political participation. What is more, while this debate was the lonely fight of human rights groups and feminists only a decade ago, it has now become more fashionable and mainstream and has even entered the boardrooms of Wall Street. You want examples? The financial and social crisis, many argue, is also a cognitive crisis: one hears arguments such as if Lehman Brothers was managed by a female CEO, than the bust would never have had happened. There is also now a lot of talk about “womenomics” . In a simplified way, the argument goes that in today’s complex knowledge societies, soft skills such as emotional intelligence, lateral thinking and consensus-building are more important than risk-taking, alpha male behavior. In the developed world we have witnessed a silent revolution with more and more women joining the labor force, reaching the bar of 50% of the labor force in many OECD countries such as the US (see article). Equally, in the developing world, the important economic roles played by women are being highlighted, with some suggesting that the best way to fight poverty and extremism is to educate and empower women and girls (see article).

So everything is on track, no more worries with gender equality? Unfortunately, a closer look reveals a much more daunting picture. Despite eliminating some barriers to access in the workplace and political sphere, glass ceilings still exist and gender inequality remains a significant obstacle to improving the lives of men and women. In many countries, women are still discriminated against in nearly every aspect of life, and are deprived of their full economic, social and political rights and opportunities. Clearly, progress isn’t bringing the same benefits to women and men, and this is something that needs closer attention. Have a look at and join this debate if you are interested.

Also check out the Gender, Institutions and Development Data-Base (GID-DB) – here you will find up-to-date statistics in the fields of health care, political and labour force participation. The GID-DB contains data on a range of issues linked to women’s socioeconomic development, such as women’s access to bank loans, literacy rates and freedom of movement. Another tool, the Social Institutions and Gender Index, gives a summary of potential factors that drive persistent discrimination against women worldwide in areas such as civil liberties, physical integrity and ownership rights. What the database and index show is that prevailing norms and traditions play a role in mediating progress, particularly for women in the developing world. In turn, these norms and traditions are themselves transformed by progress, in both positive and negative ways which then impact on gender equality.

As the blog discussion heats up, some interesting questions to consider are:
· How can the progress agenda support gender equality, and vice versa?
· How do social networking sites and WEB 2.0 technologies shape gender outcomes?
· Do you have any good examples to share?

Please join the debate.

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