Invest in women, it pays

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With just one caveat: Let’s also be critical of unbridled capitalism.

Sometimes, in a rare and surreptitious confluence, what’s good for global economies is also good for women. Generally, capitalist practices put profits over human rights, but as economies are interconnected and the global workforce expands and changes there can even be an economic argument to be made in support of human rights.

A few days ago, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon made just such an argument. He asked business leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to increase their investment in women’s education and health to ensure their well-being and encourage their participation in the world economy.

“Investing in the health of women and girls is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do for national economies and global stability. The business community can help. Your partnership is crucial in preventing unnecessary suffering for women and girls everywhere… Last year, more than 300,000 women died giving birth. The vast majority of those deaths could have been prevented.”

Mr. Ban spoke during the Davos Economic Forum, which is a time when world economic leaders get together at a Swiss ski resort and confer about the state of the world economy. As it turns out, the mood at Davos this year was somber, given the state of many world economies. Notably, a topic at this year’s forum was the ever-expanding income inequality in the global economy and the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor. Also notably, there was an entire session at Davos called “Women as the Way Forward.”

This argument, asserting the importance of investing in women, is being made far and wide.  As exemplified by Nike’s Girl Effect campaign, there is clearly an argument to be made about the importance of investing in girls and women as a social strategy. It is indeed inarguably important to increase access to health care and education for girls. But there are also some troubling, and vaguely articulated assumptions at the base of this argument for investing in women as economic strategy.

First, there’s a bit of uncritical gender essentialism at play here. Somehow, investing in women is investing in us all because women are inherently more caring and nurturing. Instead of reinforcing the notions of women’s work and men’s work, we might want to invest in dismantling gender essentialism. Second, global poverty is deeply structural. It is predicated upon centuries of colonialism and inequity between countries in the global North and South. To lay, even rhetorically, the burden of pulling nations out of poverty upon women workers is ahistorical at best and disingenuous at worst. And while we’re on the topic of disingenuous arguments, I take issue with the idea of investing in women for the sake of the global economy and not simply for the sake of the women themselves. Finally, it has not escaped my attention that many of the biggest and best funded efforts to change the lives of the girls in the global south come from the industrialized West.

All this lead us, finally, to the big question: is all this it resulting in tangible change for the world’s women? It’s a complicated answer, as it turns out. Yes and no. But this much is true: we’re moving far too slowly.

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