Diminished Returns

By Joekes, Susan | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Diminished Returns


Joekes, Susan, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Women have always done "economic" work - growing crops, collecting wild food, and producing useful goods and services for sale - along with the work of preparing food for their families and caring for children and the elderly. Societies have long recognized and accepted the contrast between the multiplicity of roles that women undertake and the more single-minded application to paid work that men adopt. Less well known is the fact that in developing countries, economic activity, whether in agriculture, small-scale business ventures, or wage employment, is much less rewarding for women than it is for men.

Text:

Increasing Women's Access to Capital Resources

Women have always done "economic" work-growing crops, collecting wild food, and producing useful goods and services for sale-along with the work of preparing food for their families and caring for children and the elderly. Societies have long recognized and accepted the contrast between the multiplicity of roles that women undertake and the more single-mind application to paid work that men adopt.

Less well known is the fact that in developing countries, economic activity, whether in agriculture, small-scale business ventures, or wage employment, is much less rewarding for won-ten than it is for men.

At least three factors have contributed to an income disparity between genders. Because women work longer hours than men do in total, the return on their time is low at the margin and so their average return, for each hour worked, is reduced. A second explanation is based on the universal tendency for discrimination against women in pay merit of wages. A systematic undervaluation of women's efforts coincides with the common social practice of labeling women's work as "less skilled" than men's work. The strength of this ideological practice is nicely captured in an Indian male worker's remark that "the women taught me how to do" the unskilled work." Without pervasive discrimination of this kind, the "economic" explanation cited above would not make sense; instead, people supplying extra work at the margin would demand more, not less, economic reward. The third reason for lower female earnings relates to the logic of the market. The low return to women's labor is partly attributable to the lack of command women have over the resources needed to increase human productivity, such as financial capital and human capital. Women, in both poor and rich households, have limited access to property, capital, and skills, the assets that can raise returns on their labor. Their lack of access to these resources is compounded by other obstacles to their engagement in markets, which undermine the returns they can achieve. For example, women face substantial time-scheduling and mobility constraints due to their familial responsibilities.

Fully understanding women's current situation requires focusing on changes in women's access to these resources. In particular, women's access to land, to capital under the "microcredit" revolution, and to human capital and skills are critical requirements for improving returns to female labor. Considerable changes are taking place in the creation and distribution of these assets for two main reasons. First, the economic orthodoxy in the management of national economics has changed markedly over the past two decades. Under the influence of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, economic reforms have promoted a revised view of the relative roles of the state and private sector in development, giving much greater weight to the latter. This shift has affected policy toward asset ownership and distribution in both land and capital. Second, changes in education for women can be related to globalization, or the processes of integration and rapid growth of international markets in traded goods, services, and finance. Globalization is a new and intense form of market development that increasingly demands new skill types in the workforce.

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