Globalization: Has it Helped or Hurt Women?

12/16/2011 11:36 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012
  • Marcelo Giugale Senior Economic Adviser at the World Bank - Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration - Author of "Economic Development: What Everyone Needs To Know".

The idea sounded good. Faced with competition from cheap imports, employers would ditch their prejudices and start hiring workers strictly for their skills -- irrespective of gender. Foreign investors would come in and set up corporations eager to recruit the best local talent, regardless of sex. They would bring with them new technologies that would require less brawn and more brain to operate, cutting into men's physical advantage. A college degree would become a lot more valuable, favoring the legions of women that had gotten one -- mostly because they had been discriminated out of the labor force. Banks from other countries would give loans to our biggest firms, forcing domestic banks to focus on our smaller enterprises -- a business segment where women are overrepresented. Even social norms would change when we established more contact with the rest of the world, when we saw that other societies do just fine despite having female leaders and female drivers. Globalization, that is, freer movement of people, money, goods and ideas across borders was bound to do wonders for gender parity. That was the early 1980s. Thirty years later, it's fair to ask: Did it happen?

New research shows very mixed results. In countries where new industries sprang up, women found more employment opportunities -- think of Mexico's maquilas. But they remained "occupationally segregated," i.e., unable to branch out into the better-paying jobs like computer programming. And in economies with little or no manufacturing -- like most of Africa -- most women remained stuck in subsistence farming. Yes, their families were paid more for their crops thanks to the rise in the international prices of commodities, but the money continued to be controlled by their husbands. And still today, women do not work in the booming oil, gas or mining fields.

This also puts a question mark on graduate education. There is little evidence -- granted, it is difficult to collect -- that globalization tore down the walls that kept women out, or at a low rank, of the professions. The image of the gender-blind foreign manager or foreign client may have proved to be too optimistic. Female accountants, doctors and architects rarely operate solo, and the firms, hospitals or studios where they work, face less competition from abroad -- and therefore less incentive to change. If you don't believe me, just visit the website of any of the major Latin-American law firms, check the gender balance of their partner list and, after you recover from the shock, remember that this is the region of the developing world were women have made the most progress.

How about finance? What did the free flow of capital in and out of countries do for gender? It certainly opened the door to more credit for women, but only in countries that also took care of the legalities that make female borrowers less attractive, things like a lack of title to their houses or a clear claim to inherited land. It expanded banking services, giving women a safer way to save, receive remittances and make payments. More subtly, financial globalization forced governments to keep inflation low -- if they don't, investors quickly take their money abroad. Women have been big beneficiaries of this, as it is they who do the shopping for their families.

Ironically, where globalization may have had the largest gender impact is at home -- literally. As women got more jobs and bigger incomes, the power-balance within the household shifted. In places where it happened, the "feminization" of export industries raised the cost of forcing women to stay at home to care for children and the elderly -- when Mom or Big Sister can make a decent wage outside the house, their time suddenly becomes conspicuously valuable to the whole family. The same happens to female entrepreneurs that gain access to credit. Not to mention that when the bread-winner in the house is a female, more is spent on children's food and education. [There are plenty of studies showing this, even across countries that are culturally very different from each other, like Ghana, Brazil, China and India].

Does this all mean that globalization did not help women? No, it did. By raising income levels throughout the economy, it helped everybody -- men and women. Things of course vary a lot from country to country and from city to village, but on the whole globalization made people richer. What the opening of frontiers has not really done is to promote gender parity, that is, to end -- or at least push back on -- discrimination. This raises a worrisome question: Were gender disparities exacerbated by freer movement of goods and capital? They may have been, especially in agriculture-based societies where the cultural norms inside the household are particularly strong. The lesson is simple: foreign influence by itself does not change who we are, or how we treat each other.