Gender Equality, Economic Growth, and Women’s Agency Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Gender Equality, Economic Growth, and Women’s Agency: The “Monotonous Similarity” and “Endless Variety” of Patriarchal Constraints

Naila Kabeer

Macro-econometric studies on the relationship between economic growth and gender equality have found strong evidence to suggest that gender equality in measures such as education and employment makes a positive contribution to economic growth. By contrast, findings from studies into the reverse relationship, the impact of economic growth on gender equality, are generally weak and inconsistent. The highly aggregated, cross-country regressions that characterize these studies make it difficult to explain this puzzling asymmetry in impacts. Consequently, Naila Kabeer turns to studies carried out at lower levels of analysis in search of causal mechanisms that might provide an explanation. She suggests that these mechanisms are well captured by Gayle Rubin’s memorable reference to the “endless variety and monotonous similarity” of the structures of patriarchal oppression (1975: 160).

Impact of gender equality on economic growth is positive. The positive impact of gender equality on economic growth appears to reflect one aspect of the “monotonous similarity” of patriarchal relationships across the world: women’s primary responsibility for unpaid care work within the family. The most robust finding that emerges from the studies Kabeer reviewed is that an increase in women’s access to valued resources, including education and employment, is more likely to translate into investments in children’s well-being and education, and hence the productivity of future generations of workers, than similar resources in the hands of men. This positive impact can materialize, regardless of whether the increase in question is absolute or relative to men. However, their ability to contribute more directly to economic growth through their productive activities does depend on greater gender equality in access to the necessary resources and opportunities, including equality of opportunity to participate in forms of work that are counted in estimates of Gross National Product and hence in estimates of growth. Paradoxically, of course, one of the main factors holding them back from these “counted” forms of work is their disproportionate responsibility for unacknowledged and unpaid care work.

Impact of economic growth on gender equality is varied. Turning to the reverse relationship, the impact of economic growth on gender equality, Kabeer suggests a number of reasons why it appears to be less consistent. The first is that it is the patterns, rather than the pace, of growth that determine the gender distribution of new economic opportunities. For instance, growth that is based on capital-intensive, extractive industries, such as oil and timber, is more likely to generate male-dominated employment opportunities while labor-intensive, export-oriented growth is more likely to favor women. The second is that the state has played a greater role in some countries than others in actively redistributing the gains from growth through, for instance, legislative reform and social expenditure. And finally, to go back to Rubin’s phrase, the impact of growth on gender equality is mediated by the “endless variety” of patriarchal structures across the world, some of which make it more possible than others for women to exercise voice and agency in claiming their share of the gains from growth.

The upshot. Kabeer argues that as long as women continue to take disproportionate responsibility for the unpaid work of caring for their family members, thereby reproducing their country’s labor force, they will make a positive contribution to growth. But as long as this work is not acknowledged and distributed more fairly, their ability to benefit from the processes of growth will continue to lag behind that of men. Women’s gains from growth are greater where job growth favors, or at least does not discriminate against, women, the state pursues redistributive policies, and patriarchal constraints are weaker.


Rubin, Gail. 1975. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter, 157–210. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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