The Importance of Policies to Reduce Gender Inequality

Despite significant progress globally, gender inequality remains a major problem. It continues to impact women’s lives in many ways, ranging from economic wellbeing (including income, education, health, and social mobility) to mental well-being and family life. Women are particularly impacted by indirect forms of discrimination, including discrimination in legal and societal norms and customs.

Gender equality policies can address both the direct and indirect causes of these inequalities. They can include laws, regulations, and practices, as well as more indirect interventions such as awareness campaigns, cultural changes, or quotas for female representation in politics and business.

While the focus of gender policies has evolved over time — with some gaps closed, while others emerge and attract the attention of the public and policymakers — the need for them is as great as ever. Gender gaps continue to affect the world in areas such as school enrollments, labor force participation, and leadership positions. In addition, the effects of the pandemic have exacerbated existing gaps and exposed more gender vulnerabilities (Albanesi and Kim, 2021; Bluedorn and Kim, 2021).

One issue that often arises when addressing gender inequalities is the view that reducing them is a zero-sum game from an economic point of view. For example, if female tertiary enrollment rates are higher than those of men, there is no need to increase male tertiary enrollment rates in order to close the gap, since doing so would only result in lower overall welfare.

This perspective is flawed, however. The direct and indirect benefits of addressing gender inequalities – from economic development to greater social cohesion – have enormous potential to benefit both men and women, and they are likely to improve overall welfare, regardless of whether the gender gap is closed or not.

Moreover, policies that help narrow gender inequalities in one area may indirectly influence social norms and gender bias, the root causes of those inequalities. For instance, the introduction of laws to protect women’s rights to land ownership in developing countries has also influenced the norm that land is not for sale or transfer to men (Le and Nguyen, 2021).

This distinction is important because policies and their design matter a lot for reducing gender inequality. It is essential to distinguish between gaps that reflect preference/comparative advantage between genders and those in which there is a genuine need for intervention (gender inequality). This will make it easier to identify policies with a clear gender lens, but it also highlights the need for more analytical work geared towards disentangling gender inequality from gender gaps.