The Challenge of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is a persistent challenge in modern societies. It persists because of deeply entrenched beliefs, habits, and assumptions that continue to shape people’s everyday interactions and decisions in ways that systematically disadvantage women and benefit men. These stereotypes are often unconscious and hard to break, but they can have major consequences for individuals and society.

Gender equality enables people to better make decisions that improve their lives and those of their families, communities and the world. Gender equality is important for many global goals, including economic development, education, and access to health services. In many countries, it is still too hard for women to get the education and employment they need to be healthy and economically productive. In other places, the lack of access to health care services for women and girls results in lower-quality medical treatment than for men and boys.

The most obvious symptom of gender inequality is the gender pay gap, with women earning less than men in most countries (click on the chart for a full view). The gap is larger in developing than developed countries. It is also a symptom of other inequalities, such as fewer women than men in higher level jobs and a smaller proportion of women who are heads of household or members of national legislatures.

Although there has been great progress on many aspects of gender inequality, we have a long way to go. For example, global female disadvantage in education has not been eliminated and women remain much less likely than men to be a member of parliament or to hold top managerial positions in private sector companies.

One reason is that reducing the gender gap requires addressing root causes. The main root causes of gender gaps are gender bias and social norms, as well as preference or comparative advantage between men and women. Eliminating these biases and norms would require educational programs that expose people to the evidence on gender equality, as well as governmental policies that address social norms and preferences by removing tax penalties and subsidies for secondary earners.

Another obstacle is that some of the institutions that promote and support gender equality are dominated by ideas of market-based efficiency and growth that do not fully recognize the benefits of achieving gender equality. Some of these organizations, like the World Bank, search for “business reasons” to justify investments in gender equality, such as those supporting women’s health, family planning and micro-credit. These initiatives are important and should be supported, but they cannot be the only solution to a global problem that is rooted in cultural attitudes and practices that are not serving us. We need to work toward a more holistic view of development that includes promoting gender equality as an important component. Until this happens, we will not be able to achieve the sustainable, equitable and prosperous future that we all want. Adapted from an essay by Cecilia L. Ridgeway, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School and author of Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World.