In Nicolas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide they describe a presentation by Bill Gates at a university in Saudi Arabia. Gates spoke before an audience where four fifths were men on the left side of a curtain separating the hall, and one fifth were women wearing black abayas on the right side of the curtain. During the question and answer period one of the men in the audience asked Gates if Saudi Arabia’s goal to become one of the top ten countries in the world for information technology was realistic. Gates responded: “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half of the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”
Gates was right. Women’s status as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia and countries around the world has dramatic affects on a nation’s economic growth. According to a study conducted by the World Bank gender inequality significantly reduces economic growth and hinders development.
Famed economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that the “overarching objective” of development is to maximize people’s “capabilities” — their freedom to “lead the kind of lives they value, and have reason to value.” Without an investment in gender equality exhibited through promotion of girls’ education and health neither economic nor human development will be realized. Girls and women will certainly never realize their full capabilities.
Although I prefer to regard gender equality, in fact all forms of equality between people, as a human rights issue, it is nonetheless useful to view it as an economic issue because perhaps it is via this argument that women’s education, health and empowerment will be realized. When girls and women are not educated there is a direct correlation on the lowering of a country’s economic progress. World Bank economist Stephan Klasen found that “between 0.4-0.9 % of the differences in growth rates between East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East can be accounted for by the greater gender gaps in education prevailing in the latter two regions.” More specifically, Kristoff and WuDunn take the example of Pakistan where women make up only 9 percent of the workforce in comparison to China where women represent 40 percent! It’s no surprise that China’s economy is growing much faster than Pakistan’s. Without singing the praises of the Chinese government, which is less than perfect in its human rights record, I will commend its prioritization of girls’ education and inclusion of women in the workforce.
Counting the financial cost of women’s subordination in various countries just might be the most effective method for changing the discriminatory and oppressive policy towards women. Since 1948 human rights, gender equality being one of them, have been a “priority” on the international agenda and arguably little progress has been made in achieving them. Perhaps, now that concrete data demonstrating the negative impacts of gender inequality on economic growth exists, realizing some of the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might just happen faster.
However, as we know, from my last blog post “Equal pay for equal work?” simply allowing women to enter the paid workforce is not enough. They must be given equal pay for equal work. And this is still a long way off in the United States and most countries around the world.