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Women shall develop the world

Achieving gender equality by 2030 is a global sustainable development goal. This was established by the UN in 2015. The goal is number five on a list of 17 and sits above clean water and climate action. But why is gender equality so integral to development? Can’t we just solve world problems as we are?

Professor Shirin Rai from the University of Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies explains: “Fifty per cent of the population is fifty per cent of the potential. Achieving gender equality is integrally linked to global development as it has the potential not only harness the energies of all but also change our understanding of development itself." sara_bergstrom_winner_2014.jpg

The balance sheet

Looking at women’s position in the world as a ledger book, there are substantial inputs on the credit side of the balance sheet. In terms of political rights, women have the right to vote and stand for elections at all levels of government in most countries now. As early as 1985, 90 per cent of countries had either established formal national machineries or policy agencies for the advancement of women or less formal governance systems to address gender inequalities.

Around forty countries operate some sort of quota for women in parliaments and around fifty in major political parties; from 1945 to 1995, women increased their presence in parliaments four-fold. 185 countries have signed the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), though many with opt-out clauses, are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. The signatories are legally bound to put its provisions into practice and to present a report every four years on the measures they are taking to comply with their treaty obligations.

But there is a long way to go, according to Professor Rai, who is academic co-lead on International Development, one of Warwick’s Global Research Priorities.

“On the debit side of this balance sheet, however, we notice that despite these significant gains in institutional politics, the 2010 UN Report on the State of the World’s Women shows that women continue to be underrepresented in national parliaments, where on average only 17 per cent of seats are occupied by women. The share of women among ministers also averages 17 per cent. The highest positions are even more elusive: only seven of 150 elected Heads of State in the world are women, and only 11 of 192 Heads of Government. In business, of the 500 largest corporations in the world, staggeringly, only 13 have a female chief executive officer,” she says.

Positive force

Ahead of International Women’s Day and British Science Week, the University of Warwick held a panel event which gave students and women in scientific roles the chance to discuss the challenges and opportunities women face as scientists, and the contribution that they have made in addressing urgent problems. Speaking at the event were the University of Warwick’s Professor Jane Hutton, winner of the Suffrage Science award, as well as Professor Faith Osier, winner of the Fifth Annual Merle A. Sande Health Leadership Award and a member of the Royal Society and Professor Charlotte Watts, founder of the Gender, Violence and Health Centre and Chief Scientific Advisor at DfID. The event was chaired by Professor Swaran Singh from Warwick Medical School.

Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, Associate Professor in public health at Warwick Medical School, organised and introduced the event.

“There are fewer women in science than men worldwide,” she explains. “Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers in most countries. But this fact may be more of a problem for Low or Middle Income Countries (LMIC). There is a leaky pipe where women scientists are concerned – which means that as your progress from PhD to junior researcher, to senior researcher and professorship more and more women are lost from science careers. This is exacerbated in LMICs where both cultural and economic issues make it more difficult to establish careers.

“The brain drain happens anyway across both genders. Educated and talented individuals leave their home country for better pay and career prospects. But emigration of highly skilled women is higher, the poorer their country of origin. Given that women still face reduced access to higher education in many LMICs, it appears that women are over-represented in the brain drain.”

Women work

When it comes to the socio-economic ledger entry, the detail is perhaps even more complex according to Professor Rai.

“The indicators of economic inequality pertaining to gender have continued to persist and even grow,” says Professor Rai. “The UN Report on the Status of the World’s Women 2016 reported that in 2013, the male employment-to-population ratio stood at 72.2 per cent, while the ratio for females was 47.1 per cent. But roles continue to be segregated – both vertically and horizontally – by sex and that has resulted in a persistent gender pay gap everywhere. The World Bank reports that in all developing countries, women still earn on average about 22 % less than men after taking into account differences in observed skills.”

Worldwide women still bear the burden of most of the domestic responsibilities. The same UN report shows women in all regions spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work. Women who have paid work often also take on the family responsibilities and the UN reports that when unpaid work is taken into account, women’s total work hours are longer than men’s in all regions. There also continues to be gender disparity in primary and secondary education according to Oxfam.

Culturally, son preference also continues in some countries, disadvantaging girls within households and putting the lives of women in danger through abortions and foeticides. In many countries the pressures of dowry place women in vulnerable positions and the right to choice is denied, in both the choice of partners (often through practices of misnamed ‘honour crimes’) as well as in sexual orientation.

Changing perspectives

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“The context of social and cultural pressure in LMICs is part of the reason that it is difficult for women to have a career in science,” notes Dr Oyebode.

“Those based in LMIC educational institutions, unfortunately have less opportunity and may suffer professionally. Studies show women working in science in the LMICs have fewer international contacts, which means their work is less likely to impact globally.

“But this is not to say their work is not globally important. Women working in these countries have the potential to change perspectives; they can formulate the questions that science should answer and in this way drive development.”

This is true of women generally. A study conducted in the USA in 1999 interviewed 335 current and former science, mathematics and engineering majors on seven campuses between 1990-1993. Women expressed more altruism than men and were more likely to switch to career paths that reflected humanitarian goals or offered more satisfying work. They were also more concerned than men about making the various aspects of their life relate to each other in a way that was personally meaningful.

“Women make up half the world, and if they are discouraged from scientific careers for outdated, so-called ‘soft’ reasons, or worse, that is talent going to waste which could otherwise drive progress in science and technology. Women can bring new perspectives to scientific endeavor. They can make more progress and make it in a different direction. The potentially unique contribution by women to science can help us to rise to global challenges. So we need gender parity in science across the globe in order to make the most progress that we can,” concludes Dr Oyebode.

World view

Professor Rai adds: “Our complex historical ledger, recording the progress of women in the world also reveals continuing political challenges, of fragilities and vulnerabilities as well as courage and vision. It is important to observe that much of this is not unique to the LMICs – sometimes referred to as the Global South. If we were to tot up the figures for sexual violence against women, or the gender wage gap, political representation or cultural acceptance of gender inequality, we will find similar patterns of exclusion and inequality for women in the North as well as those in the South.

“So, perhaps the first thing to do is to acknowledge the histories of oppression - gender and colonial - that have affected the lives of women North and South of the equator. And then to develop difficult conversations about how to build alliances to address gender inequality.”

Dr Oyinlola Oyebode Oyinlola Oyebode is Associate Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School. Her research interests include non-communicable diseases, nutrition, obesity, cardiovascular disease, neurological disease, mental illness, Sub-Saharan Africa, low and middle-income countries, urbanisation and health policy.


shirin_rai.jpg Shirin Rai is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research covers the feminist international political economy, gender and political institutions and politics and performance. She has written extensively on issues of gender, governance and development.

Image of girl attending school by Sarah Bergstrom, winner of the University of Warwick GRP International Development photography competition, 2014/2015

Find out more on the UN report, The Status of the World's Women, here.