The author is a Research Associate of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, 29 November 2004.

A common reaction among economists when one mentions gender is, “Gender? Aren’t there more important things in this world?”

This reflects the common notion that gender equality is something one
should be concerned with only after what are perceived to be “more
fundamental” problems have been addressed. From this point of view, the
more fundamental problems include eradicating poverty, narrowing income
inequalities, protecting the environment and ending hunger, among

Of course, these are all valid and certainly desirable social goals.
What some economists do not realize, however, is that in each of these
goals, gender-based inequalities significantly influence policy
outcomes. Furthermore, the narrowing of gender equalities contributes
towards the achievement of these goals.

It is in this sense that gender is often described as a cross-cutting
issue. After all, “the poor” and “the marginalized” are really
comprised of poor and marginalized men and poor and marginalized women,
who experience poverty and social exclusion differently. They have
different expectations of their entitlements, duties and aspirations,
and face different challenges. However, by ignoring gender as an
analytical category, one simply assumes that these groups are
homogeneous and are affected by policies in the same way.

Gender equality as a social goal

Gender relations interact with policy in both directions. On the one
hand, gender equality is a human rights issue, and should be among the
goals of policy. Narrowing inequalities does not only refer to income
or class-based inequalities, but also inequalities arising from gender,
race, ethnicity, and other forms of discrimination. Sustainable
development cannot be achieved without the full and equal participation
of all individuals – including women – in the development process.

On the other hand, existing gender relations – how men and women relate
to each other – and the inequalities arising from such relations
influence the impact of policy. Therefore, policies that ignore the
influence of gender may not yield expected results.

A very clear is example is the case of public health services. For
example, fiscal austerity measures that squeeze public health spending
may be thought of by policy makers to be affecting the poor
symmetrically. However, this type of policy affects women more, not
only because they have greater health needs due to childbearing, but
also because they are primarily responsible for the health care of
their families. Thus, any policy that attempts to “correct” the
negative impact of reduced public health services on the poor, but
which ignores the disproportionate impact on women, cannot be effective.
A gender-informed view of the economy

There is little debate on the significance of gender in micro-settings,
such as the household or the labor market. However, many economists
find it difficult to see the relevance of gender at the aggregate or
the macro-level. This springs from the deep-seated belief that
macroeconomic policy instruments (fiscal policy, monetary policy, etc.)
are gender-neutral – that is, they affect both men and women in the
same way.

The contrary view, however, is that gender is crucial to our
understanding of the economy as a whole, not only in household
economics or microeconomics. In addition, gender-aware economists
question the very foundations of economics as a discipline. Rather than
defining economics as a study of choices of market participants, as an
acclaimed introductory economics textbook by Mankiw asserts,
gender-aware economists propose a broader framework as a starting point
– one that examines the “provisioning of material needs to support

To see how gender informs our view of the economy, it is important to
realize that the household is not merely the site for consumption, but
is a key production sector of the economy. Renowned feminist economist
Diane Elson presents a schema for a gender-aware economy in the United
Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) report, “Progress of the World’s
Women”. She notes that if indeed economics is concerned with the
provisioning of material needs to support life, then it should follow
that goods and services made available through unpaid work within the
household are just as important as those produced by paid labor and
acquired through the market. However, household production activities
have been traditionally rendered “invisible” because of the focus on
market processes.

In recent years, there have been attempts to make unpaid work visible,
such as the valuation of unpaid family work in agriculture. However,
there are inherent limitations to approaches of mainstream economics
because of its underlying view of work as an activity that creates a
marketable good or service. Although domestic chores may be deemed
marketable – one can hire another person to do these tasks – a
significant part of what feminist economists call “caring work” or
“social reproductive work” is not marketable.

In the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Background Paper
“Trade, Gender and Poverty,” Nilufer Nagatay highlights three main
conceptual starting points for a gender-aware approach to

Labor is a produced input

Just as capital is a produced input, so is labor. An economy’s labor
force does not simply reproduce and maintain itself costlessly. Rather,
labor needs to be reproduced on a daily and an intergenerational basis
through non-market processes. This process of social reproduction rests
on the unpaid work of families and communities, and is often socially
ascribed as “women’s work”. The scope of macroeconomic analysis must be
broadened to account for those costs, and make explicit the interaction
between production and social reproduction. By disregarding the
“reproductive economy”, Nagatay emphasizes that what may appear to be
“efficient” from a market-focused analysis may in fact be socially
inefficient once full labor accounting and time-use are considered.

Gender is a relation of power and social stratifier

Comparable to class, race and ethnicity, gender is a stratifier of
social life. It influences the economic behavior of agents and affects
the distribution of output, work, income, wealth and power. Men and
women do not necessarily respond to the same economic phenomena in the
same way.

Institutions bear and transmit gender biases

Institutions cannot be assumed to be gender neutral. Many
economists take for granted the fact that institutions mediating
between the micro and the macro levels of the economy – including “free
markets” – bear and transmit gender biases. The mere fact that gender
wage gaps still persist even in the flexible labor markets of developed
countries demonstrates this. Gender relations are not given or
exogenous, existing independent of the economy. Rather, they permeate
all economic activities and are constantly being redefined.

These observations taken together translate to a totally different
macroeconomic picture than what is suggested by standard economic
Gender-blind policy constrains development

In addition to all the points raised above, gender is important for
policy because gender inequalities carry a financial and social cost
not only for women, but also for men, and for society in general. The
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Report “The State of the World
Population 2000” emphasizes that inequalities between men and women
result to lost opportunities and prevent mutual gain. To be able to
design policies to eliminate gender biases, it is essential to
recognize the costs of gender inequalities, and make them visible.

The report notes that in general, gender discrimination:

  • “Diverts resources from women’s activities, sometimes in favor of less productive investment in men;
  • Rewards men, but also some women, blinding them to productive alternatives;
  • Obstructs social as well as economic participation and closes off possible partnerships; and
  • Reduces women’s effectiveness by failing to support them in meeting their responsibilities, challenges and burdens.”

“En-gendered” policymaking

The simple recognition of social reproduction as a separate sector of
economic activity, as suggested in Diane Elson’s framework, is a good
starting point for gender-informed policy discussion. This enables one
to ask the same policy questions, but with the important difference of
being able to identify gender-differentiated impacts and gender biases.
Incorporating gender analysis into policymaking makes explicit the
interaction between the goals, processes and achievements of policy on
the one hand, and gender relations on the other.

It should be noted that incorporating gender analysis into the
policymaking process requires a different set of information. These
include: (i) sex-disaggregated data for all standard data currently
collected, (ii) sex-disaggregated time use data, and (iii) monetary
valuation of household production.

Promoting gender equality in the Philippines

To its credit, the Philippines has made substantial gains towards the
mainstreaming of gender in policymaking. A prime example is the 1992
Women in Nation-Building and Development Act (RA 7192), which requires
each government agency to allocate 5 percent of its budget to Gender
and Development (GAD) programs. However, compliance has been low and
enforcement difficult, reflecting a general lack of appreciation for
the objectives of the policy on the part of government agencies.

More than mere allocation of guaranteed funding, however, it must be
emphasized that the success of the GAD policy lies in the quality of
gender analysis that motivates the specific programs and policies it
funds. Ideally, projects and programs under GAD aim to promote the
equal status of women with men either by compensating for existing
biases, or by correcting for biases perpetuated or created by its own
programs. Gender analysis is necessary in identifying which areas need

Much has yet to be achieved in terms of systematizing gender analysis
in policy dialogues and in the policymaking processes. Although they
cannot change attitudes towards the issue of gender overnight, it is
imperative for government to consistently push for better GAD
compliance and initiate gender-aware policies if only to provide strong
signals for its commitment to the goal of gender equality.

Most importantly, these steps are strategic in providing women with an
institutional framework within which they can demand their rights. Over
time, expanding the realm of possibilities for women will contribute
towards transforming gender relations in a way that is just and