Even if we believe we have come a long way regarding gender equality, the fact is that up to today, women tend to hold lower-paying jobs, be under-represented in politics and the upper levels of business and bear the brunt of domestic violence.
Dr. Bjørn Lomborg
In parts of the developing world, women have it even harder; traditional cultural norms may mean that many girls receive little education, are married off and bear children while still adolescents and cannot even open a bank account.
In Zimbabwe, the World Economic Forum finds that women still only make 74% of men’s salary for the same work. And for every female in the senior public or private legislative positions, there are nearly four men.
Simple morality dictates that men and women should be treated equally, but the more difficult question is what does gender equality do to improve lives? Are women just equally free to live in poverty, or are they freer to help families and societies lift themselves out of poverty? What are the most cost-effective ways to achieve better treatment of women? It is tough questions like this that my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, is trying to answer.
Working out the costs and benefits of a programme is a complex enough task for something concrete like providing clean water, but for a wider issue like women’s rights, it is fiendishly difficult.
Despite this, it is possible for some specific targets, and it turns out that investing a dollar in family planning programmes can produce benefits worth $120, an amazingly high return. But before we can say this is the best we can do for the developing world, we need to compare this with other worthy goals.
With the United Nations planning for the next set of goals to follow the Millennium Development Goals and take us through to 2030, we have to ask: which targets should we include?
Because having hundreds of targets is like having no priorities, and as resources of time, money and trained people are limited, we need to focus on where we can do the most good.
So, should targets to increase gender equality be on our priority list? One way to help decide this is to compare all the options by analysing how much each will cost and how much good each will do. This is what the Copenhagen Consensus has done with 60+ teams of top economists across education, hunger, energy, violence and now gender equality.
Gender equality is a big issue with various important components, including reproduction: allowing women control over pregnancy means fewer deaths in childbirth, reducing infant deaths and giving mothers more time to devote to raising their families and earning an income.
But that is not the only way to think about gender equality. We should also think of reducing violence against women, ensuring they have equal rights and lifting them out of poverty by getting out of the cycle of early marriage and childbirth, and empowering them to be full members of society.
This is easier said than done, of course, but one good approach is to keep girls in school for longer and to make sure that well-paid jobs are available for them when they finish their education. For example, in rural India, recruiters for well-paid back-office jobs visited randomly-selected villages over three years. Those villages saw more female employment and women aged 15-21 were 5-6% points less likely to get married or give birth over this period.
Moreover, the better job opportunities gave an education incentive, with younger girls staying in school longer and women enrolling in after-school training courses.
When we look at the evidence across a number of different studies and countries, each dollar spent on improving women’s access to economic opportunities does $7 of good. Enhancing female education is also a good target, but notoriously difficult to achieve. Studies show that for each dollar spent, the benefits likely amount to about $5 of social good.
There are many other possible targets which seem self-evidently good, but for which we lack estimates of costs or benefits. For example, ensuring women have equal rights to inherit, sign a contract, register a business or open a bank account would cost very little, but would have far-reaching benefits – but we simply do not have the data to quantify them.
Female equality is a complex issue and is not going to be achieved using a set of neat, standardised solutions. However, economic analyses can help show where we can do the most good.
Clearly, family planning can be one of the best targets we can put on the United Nations list of priorities because it will do $120 of social good for each dollar spent. But many other ways, like education, economic opportunity, along with women’s rights and equal opportunities vie for a place among the other priorities of nutrition, health and poverty reduction.
l Dr Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, ranking the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. His new book is How To Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.