The Root Causes of Gender Inequality

The world is still plagued by gender inequality – discrimination on the basis of sex that causes one sex to be routinely privileged or prioritized over another. Gender discrimination violates people’s right to equality and has major consequences for individuals, families and communities. It limits children’s lifelong potential – and it has particularly serious consequences for girls, who are the victims of this injustice from birth.

Gender discrimination occurs in all aspects of life: it affects education, health and nutrition, livelihoods and economic development. It prevents women from getting good jobs and retaining them, it makes it harder for them to access finance and markets, it increases their vulnerability to violence, and it restricts their participation in society. It also impedes governments’ ability to deliver on the Global Goals and reduce poverty, hunger, disease and malnutrition.

Significant progress has been made in reducing gender gaps in some areas, such as enrollment in primary and secondary education, employment and wages. But, while important, it is not enough to end poverty, inequality and marginalization. The remaining gap is still wide in all areas, and has widened even more during the COVID-19 pandemic as women took on additional household responsibilities (Albanesi and Kim, 2021).

Closing this remaining gap will be challenging because: it may be easier to ignore sex bias/cultural barriers to gender equality than preference/comparative advantage; it is often less tangible and may take longer to make headway; it can be difficult to distinguish between these types of inequality and the root causes that are social and cultural in nature; and tackling these root issues requires changing mindsets, which can be incredibly difficult.

Many countries have a significant gap between what men and women earn, even in high-income countries. This gap reflects the fact that societies have very different ideas about the roles and values of men and women, which in turn influences their decision-making in all areas – from legal systems to economic policy. This is why it is so important to understand the roots of these gender inequalities and address them if we want to see significant and lasting change.

It’s common to treat women as a monolithic group, which can lead to policies and interventions that don’t resonate with the majority of women’s experiences. It is equally important to recognise that these experiences are determined by intersecting identities, including ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation and disability status.

Getting to a world where everyone is equal will require political leadership, investment and comprehensive policy reforms. This should include addressing gender inequality and identifying ways to remove systemic barriers to the implementation of the Global Goals, especially Goal 5. The stakes could not be higher. There are just 9 years left until 2030, and the time to act is now. Gender equality cuts across all the Global Goals, so it must be a priority for all governments, and all stakeholders.