Gender inequality is a global issue where men and women enjoy different levels of representation in various spheres of life. Generally predisposed against females, multiple factors conspire to limit their opportunities for education and employment, as well as, in more extreme cases, lead to violence. The causes of such inequality can stem from biology, culture, and technology. This essay will examine some of the causes that affect the gap in the treatment of men and women, and its ramifications, particularly regarding developing countries. One particular metric that will be used is female labor force participation (FLFP).
Humans are sexually dimorphic species; males and females exhibit different physical characteristics. While these differences have led to often oppressive cultural norms, they are impossible to reject. Large parts of developing nations are pre-industrial, where “individuals do not receive any education and primarily work in agricultural jobs as unskilled workers” (Hiller, 2014, p. 457). The labor efficiency in such jobs affects the roles available to men and women. For instance, some regions of India have soil that is more suitable for deep tillage and, therefore, the use of plows — heavy tools that require upper body strength to operate. As a consequence of this, “in parts of India with soil suitable for deep tillage, there is lower FLFP and a more male-skewed sex ratio” (Jayachandran, 2015, p. 72). In these regions, men had a physical advantage, which led to their higher representation in the labor force and positions of power.
For comparison, China’s agricultural areas provide a different example: regions that specialize in tea production. There, women have a “comparative advantage in picking tea leaves” (Jayachandran, 2015, p. 72). After economic reforms in those areas, various improvements have been noted regarding gender equality, as female children became more desirable and women more financially independent. These findings suggest that physiological differences, but also opportunities to make the best use of the advantages posed by these differences, play an important role in creating gender equality or inequality.
Culture, society, and law
While physical differences may have caused an initial degree of gender inequality, cultural norms always form in response to them, strengthening this imbalance for the future, when physical differences are no longer relevant. Usually, this takes the form of a strong patriarchal tradition under which men take on a more proactive role in society. In contrast, women are relegated to more subservient and supportive positions. As a result of such traditions, women can face opposition when they seek education or employment or attempt to act outside of their society-mandated roles.
Girls’ education opportunities are not necessarily enforced explicitly by existing laws or regulations. The choice to educate a child is primarily made by their parents, according to social and cultural norms. Hiller (2014) explains that “if a ‘strong norm’ exists, according to which husbands should be the primary breadwinners of the family, parents grant a low value to the education of their daughters” (p. 457). Therefore, young women are often denied the schooling necessary to find better work.
Tradition and religion still play a significant part in women being underrepresented. While laws may be proposed that seek to create opportunities for women, they are turned down for such reasons. Nigeria is one such country, where “customary and religious arguments were the major justifications put forward by [local] legislators for their rejection of bills to promote women’s rights and gender equality” (Para-Mallam, 2017, p. 28). This legislative issue reinforces the existing inequality, keeping women in a disadvantaged position.
Technology and Infrastructure
The points listed above concern pre-industrial societies, but as they develop, technology and improvements to infrastructure present new circumstances that can increase gender equality. As women tend to be engaged in various domestic chores in such cultures, making said chores easier and more efficient frees up their time. For instance, work such as fetching firewood and water is generally performed by women — therefore, providing plumbing and electric heating “will disproportionately free up women to work outside the home more or enjoy more leisure” (Jayachandran, 2015, p. 74). This change, in turn, would allow them more opportunities for education or work.
Advances in medicine are another change that improves women’s opportunities, mainly when it concerns obstetrics. Jayachandran (2015) notes that “childbearing is not only more common in developing countries; it is also more dangerous” (p. 74). It has been observed that improvements in this area in several countries reduced maternal mortality and complications at childbirth that might have had long-term effects. This change led to an increase in women’s ability to return to work after giving birth (Jayachandran, 2015). Similarly, access to contraception has been observed to free up women’s time available for education and work, consequently allowing them to gain more equal positions with men and creating a quantitative increase in FLFP.
Improvements in infrastructure can serve to increase gender equality in rural areas. Parents in these regions tend to be protective of their daughters. However, Jayachandran (2015) notes that “it is difficult to say how much of the limited mobility is out of genuine concern for women’s welfare … and how much is simply a way to stifle female autonomy” (pp. 77-78). This protectiveness makes parents less likely to choose to educate their daughters, especially if a school is not available nearby. Studies have observed that “a village school essentially closes the otherwise-large gender gap in enrollment” (Jayachandran, 2015, p. 78). Therefore, a single school can serve to educate boys from a significantly larger area than girls.
A significant difference in the treatment of men and women has significant consequences, most of which are negative. Since the causes persist in families, discrimination starts there, as parents consider investing in sons seems to be the better option than daughters. In day-to-day life, Para-Mallam (2017) found that Nigerian “rural men spend approximately two hours less than women doing work … and have one hour per day more for rest and recreation” (p. 28). In the distribution of a community’s shared resources, Agarwal (2018) points out that often, “female-headed households with few family members to help them are the most disadvantaged” (p. 282). Finally, common property in countries with a high level of gender inequality is “a high level of violence against women and girls perpetuated by individuals, groups and the state” (Para-Mallam, 2018, p. 29). All of these effects not only harm women’s lives and limit their opportunities, but also perpetuate the inequality already present, making it more difficult to create more equal conditions.
Gender inequality is still an issue even in First World nations. Current research in developing countries allows examining its causes and ways to reduce the gap in treatment. While simple biological reasons can initially explain inequality, culture and religion can perpetuate it into modernity. However, it has been noted that advances in technology, medicine, and infrastructure act as a countermeasure, gradually shortening this gap. Effects of gender inequality can range more work and less leisure time for the disadvantaged gender to limited education and employment opportunities, to violence.
Agarwal, B. (2018). Gender inequality, cooperation, and environmental sustainability. In J-M. Baland, P. Bradhan, & S. Bowles (eds.), inequality, cooperation, and environmental sustainability (pp. 274-313). New York, NY: Princeton University Press.
Hiller, V. (2014). Gender inequality, endogenous cultural norms, and economic development. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 116(2), 451-481.
Jayachandran, S. (2015). The roots of gender inequality in developing countries. Annual Review of Economics, 7(1), 63-88.
Para-Mallam, F. J. (2018). Gender equality in Nigeria. In A. Örtenblad, R. Marling, & S. Vasilijević (eds.), Gender Equality in a Global Perspective (pp. 23-53). New York, NY: Routledge.