Far more valuable than oil or precious metals, there’s a secret resource that every country in the world has to bolster economic development. From the world’s poorest country, Afghanistan, to its growing economic powers throughout Africa and Asia, there is a major growth factor that has not even come close to its full economic potential.
This extraordinary growth factor is the world’s women, who are still prevented from reaching their full economic potential in many countries. They represent a full half of the world’s human capital and are all potential entrepreneurs, managers, and scientists with the ability to drive forward a country’s economy. As countries look to create more rapid and inclusive growth, it is imperative that female education and employment be a major part of any growth policy.
Empowering women has countless economic benefits for developing countries. As Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 and Sheryl WuDunn write in “Half the Sky,” educated and empowered women are able to contribute to a country’s development by working in productive jobs, reducing the growth rate of the population, financing education for their younger relatives, and improving the health, nutrition, and financial decisions of their families. They remark that it could be called the “double X” solution, and it certainly is a unique factor that separates wealthy countries from struggling ones.
It is impossible to imagine a developed country without women having careers, deciding how many children to have, and raising a healthy family, and, indeed, economists from the World Bank and investment banks alike have argued that countries cannot grow at full potential when they suffer from gender inequality. In a seminal 2008 report, Goldman Sachs argued that “narrowing the gender gap in employment” in developing countries could “push income per capita as much as 14 percent higher than our baseline projections by 2020.”
The major methods of empowering females are educating girls and, along with that, making it easier for them to work. Through education, girls gain the skills and knowledge to seek productive employment and raise healthier, smaller, and wealthier families. In the developing world today, “girls are disproportionately kept out of school… And the girls who do attend primary school are far less likely to complete it than are boys in Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey.” The education gap in many developing countries only gets worse as girls get older.
There are numerous policies that countries can implement to increase the education of women. Most importantly, they can combat the costs associated with families losing their girls’ ability to do work at home by paying families to send their girls to school, as both Brazil and Mexico have done with considerable success.
Along with educating girls, governments must make it easier for women to work. Anti-discrimination laws are often on the books, but they must be strictly enforced if they are to be effective. Especially when a country is trying to remedy a long-standing gender discrimination problem, companies should be given incentives for hiring women. Private industry, governments, and nonprofit groups can make it easier for women to access credit so that they can gain financial independence and become entrepreneurs, as they have notably done throughout South Asia.
These changes in education and employment won’t come without major changes in cultural attitudes. Two summers ago, I worked in India, where the business world often seemed a giant boys’ club. Sure, there were exceptions here and there, but I could go to meetings and work for weeks without substantive interactions with women. I was not too surprised: India is a country where old cultural male chauvinist attitudes persist at almost every level. Families are far more excited to have sons than daughters, sex slavery is rampant, and domestic abuse is a huge problem.
Working in China, however, my experience could not have been more different. Throughout the workplace at my organization, equal gender participation was the norm. It was surely not perfect, but with women working everywhere, it was clear that China had made a conscious and successful effort to elevate the status of women throughout the economic and domestic spheres of society.
These are just anecdotes, but they are supported by the evidence: Women only constitute 28 percent of the labor force in India, but they make up 44 percent of the labor force in China. At every level of education, there are more girls in school in China than in India, and, surely enough, Goldman Sachs reports that a one percent increase in female education raises Gross Domestic Product by 0.37 percent and GDP growth rates by 0.2 percent.
These numbers explain much of the difference between China, now the world’s second-largest economy, and India, which still has hundreds of million people living in starving poverty. China has transformed Chairman Mao’s words that “women hold up half the sky” into reality and has displayed that until women are equal partners in the learning, work, and future of a society, a nation cannot achieve prosperity.
Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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