Root Causes of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is a complex phenomenon, manifesting itself in many different ways. In the workplace, it may show up as unequal pay, disparity in promotions or incidents of sexual harassment or discrimination against women. In the home, it may take the form of women shouldering the bulk of household work (and the related health problems) or being less likely to have access to quality healthcare or other forms of social support. The root causes of gender inequality are often not easily identified or even acknowledged, despite their pervasiveness and impact on individuals, families, communities and societies.

A major factor in gender inequality is the way that society defines and values men and women, which plays a role in every area of life. It shapes what kinds of roles are deemed suitable for women and men, which helps determine whether a woman is allowed to pursue a certain profession or career path and the kind of healthcare she receives. It also impacts how much money people are able to make, which in turn determines the kinds of housing and education they can afford.

In a variety of countries, women continue to be significantly underrepresented in leadership roles and paid less than men for the same job. These kinds of differences are sometimes difficult to quantify, but the United Nations’ Human Development Report includes a measure called the Gender Inequality Index (GII), which provides a snapshot of the overall gender gap using data from three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation. The GII measures each of these factors in relation to the other and gives a score, country by country.

Gender bias/social norms and preference/comparative advantage play a significant role in gender gaps in wages and employment (List, 2004; Alesina and others, 2013). In addition, a lack of women’s education and work opportunities makes it harder for them to earn more and reduces their chances of having adequate healthcare (Jayachandran, 2021).

A large share of the global workforce is employed in low-wage jobs, with a larger proportion of these workers being women. This contributes to the fact that, in rich countries, women are overrepresented among those at the bottom of the income distribution (the blue dots on this chart).

The gender gap in household spending is driven by the fact that women are often responsible for doing more of the household work, which leaves them with less time to spend on other activities. It also reflects the continuing legacy of a culture in which men and women were assigned distinct roles at home.

One of the most important things to do to reduce the gender gap is to increase investments in girls’ education. The benefits of this go far beyond women’s own lifetimes, with each additional year of schooling raising a girl’s future earnings by about 20%. This is a key element in ending extreme poverty, promoting economic growth and peace, and fighting climate change. To tackle the global gender gap, we need to focus on these and other initiatives that will help create a world in which men and women’s choices and chances are neither constrained or favored by their sex.