Invest in women, it pays

Photobucket
Pic via.

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.

and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

7 Comments

  1. Posted January 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post. It summarizes really well what I always think, when reading this argument, which deeply disturbes me. It is unfair to make women or girls responsible for taking care of a whole community while also being unfair to many men to suggest they don’t care about their families or communities at all.

  2. Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. This is important, since gender essentialism can perpetuate oppression by trapping women into caretaking roles and out of other opportunities. It also traps men.

  3. Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Good post and you raise an important point about how utilitarian the idea of “investing in women” can become. However, I find it a bit strange to use “invest in women, it pays” as the title of this post and not even mention the stellar maternal health advocacy organization, Women Deliver, whose tagline is just that! They have done an amazing job of delivering the message that investment in women is a cost-effective development strategy AND it’s the right thing to do. You should really check them out! http://www.womendeliver.org/

  4. Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    The points that the author criticizes always struck me as a little odd too.

    I remember I was in an introductory level 300 economics course (less math than “normal,” and more chit-chat than “normal”). I remember the professor stating that micro-investments in women and their small textile/carving/whatever businesses in developing nations did the most good. I raised my hand and asked why similar investments in men did not have a similar effect, to which the professor responded with something similar to “men tend to spend the money on beer and food, not on businesses or making money.”

    As the author of this post points out this still does not answer the question of WHY all that satisfactorily. Yes, giving micro-loans to women appears to work for now, but it is quite prejudiced, gender-essentialist, and likely contributes to some potentially horrifying perceptions of men for generations.

    - Why do women feel the need to buy risky, expensive money in order to build a business?
    - Why don’t men feel similar needs more often?
    - Which societal mechanisms are at play?
    - Do implicit biases, explicit biases, or both dominate in this situation and how so?

    All the above are important, but they all seem to be swept away by a “throw money at women in developing nations and let the rest work it out” message.

    If anyone knows of any answers to the above PLEASE share the knowledge/link to it. I would love to read it.

  5. Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    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.
    As someone who studies developing nations, I have some serious problems with this post. Sadly, I don’t even think I can address them all in one post. I have never heard any researchers make the argument that “investing in women is investing in us all because women are inherently more caring and nurturing.” Instead, what I have heard from researchers and executives from the World Bank is that there are sectors of developing industries in which women play a huge role; oftentimes they are not paid for their work because they do not have access to larger markets, like many other people in developing countries, or they are otherwise discouraged from doing so. The fact of the matter is that in the recent research I have read on the subject of investing in women in developing nations does not feature gender essentialism; instead it works within the reality of many developing nations which accept 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.
    I do agree that the situation in which developing countries find themselves is the result of the systemic disenfranchisement of developing nations as well as the mishandling of economies by new (sometimes corrupt, sometimes incompetent) leaders. Keeping that in mind, we understand that donor nations do not care about poor people or women, especially in the current economic climate. The way the data is presented is meant to appeal to the leaders of a patriarchal, capitalist global system. That is the reality. The rhetoric is not meant to lay the responsibility of development solely on women; the suggestion is that women can (and in many cases, already) do a fair amount of the work that men in developing nations are doing, especially in agricultural sectors. To integrate women into a developing nation’s economy increases the work force, making larger agricultural and manufacturing sectors possible. THAT is what donors and investors want: growing markets and expanding economies. The UN and US objective is development, pure and simple. The notion that donor nations and business looking to invest should be interested in the justice of gender equality is wishful thinking.

    This comment may look like anti-feminist, pro-capitalist trolling, but that is not my intent. I am only trying to put Pandit’s comments into the proper context. The problems of women in developing countries cannot be put into a Western anarcha-feminist context. Many developing countries actually accept gender essentialism; and, certainly, if there aren’t already, there will be people to counter that mode of thought. Meanwhile, the rhetoric used to gain investment is less an approval of the current system than a means to appeasing donor nations to the end of giving women living in miserable conditions the opportunity to gain an education, proper healthcare and the chance for financial independence. Personally, I see no problem with taking advantage of the system with the hope of eventually subverting it to make it something better. Sadly, I am aware that this comment is not comprehensive enough to properly inform about the way the development works and its potential to bring about a more stable international community as well as improving the lot of women in those countries. Some change happens slowly. And, honestly, none of the developing countries I have in mind would be able to foster a radical feminist movement (let alone a successful one) without such investments in women to get them the resources they need to educate themselves and organize. The reason I wrote so much is that the economic development of developing countries (especially African countries) are of particular interest to me. I think that investment in women increase the potential for women in those countries to educate themselves and create their own feminist movements.

  6. Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Sadly decisions on whether to help women is still considered based on, “how will this benefit men?” (ie. the global economy) But as long as women are getting helped in the end, I guess I’ll keep my criticisms to myself…

  7. Posted February 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for these thoughts, Snikki Gr. I take your points about the importance of understanding that donor nations (and individuals and corporations, for that matter) are not going to be swayed with the call for a more authentic feminist agenda. I don’t actually expect them to be. Further as a longtime women’s health advocate, I’m not opposed to taking advantage of the system to subvert it and make it better, as you say. That’s what policy change (which is incremental and system-oriented) is all about, if you ask me.

    My aim, in this post, was to call out the reification of gender essentialism and capitalism in these kinds of calls to action, and global policy initiatives. Even (and sometimes ESPECIALLY ) as they advance traditional development goals of stability and security for different groups of people. I think we do a disservice if we go along with development goals, particularly in the global South and particularly insofar as they purport to be about advancing the interests of marginalized communities. But I do take your point about the way global development is indeed a double-egded sword – I’m just trying to ensure that we do understand that there IS a double-edge.

    The one point that you make that I’d like to take issue with though, is this one: “And, honestly, none of the developing countries I have in mind would be able to foster a radical feminist movement (let alone a successful one) without such investments in women to get them the resources they need to educate themselves and organize.”

    I simply disagree. Think of Egyptian women in Tahrir Square, taking on both their government and the sexism within their broader movement. Consider movements like the ones organized by Chinese women to end the practice of footbinding, by Indian women movements against Sati, African womens’ powerful envirionmentalism (for which several of them won the Nobel Peace prize just a few months ago) and there are many, many others. I just do not believe that women around the world need the support of global capital and uncritical development models to fight for their rights – it’s not borne out by history or fact. In some of these cases these movements were supported by “Western” resources, it is true. It is also true that many of these movements, especially ones that occur at the local or village level, often are not. And it’s also true that funding from the “West” is fickle, and is subject to the whims of donor nations and corporations. And in the face of such changing whims, women around the world keep finding ways to organize, successfully. In fact, let it not go unsaid, that some of the world first intentionally intersectional movements have come from women organizing in the global South — something for which many of our movements today, owe them a great debt.

    That said, I think the question that this conversation raises is a deep one: what is the nature of global feminism? How do women’s movements around the world embrace or oppose using the term “feminism” as they create and sustain movements for equality and justice? Is there is difference in “Western” feminism and “Eastern” versions? These are interesting and ongoing questions for me and I hope to keep having them here at Feministing.

Feministing In Your Inbox

Sign up for our Newsletter to stay in touch with Feministing
and receive regular updates and exclusive content.

179 queries. 0.669 seconds