Saturday, May 8, 2010

How do we measure gender equality?

"We Measure what we Value."

I really like this creed. It's being thrown around a lot lately, with the wave of soul-searching that has swept over us in the 'aftermath' of the financial crisis. It makes a lot of sense. After all, the indicators that we choose to measure progress ultimately describe how we define that progress. Very often I hear this creed being used to raise questions about the relevance of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a tool to measure a nation's progress. The Economist just recently closed a live online debate on this subject, which I think squeezes the nuts and bolts of the wider discourse into one compact, accessible discussion. You can check it out here:

As a part of this same wave, I recently attended a workshop on measuring the progress of societies and gender equality, hosted by UNESCO and the OECD's Development Centre in Paris. The context? Gender equality and development. The aim? To consider the link between what we choose to measure, and how this can help us to create lasting change.

Persistent injustice against women rears its head in a myriad of ways. I'm sure you all have examples. At the workshop, one woman talked about being empowered as an actor working for social change in the public sphere, yet subordinated behind the closed doors of her home, because her husband had been taught that her value as a woman didn't equal his as a man. Others expressed disappointment at an economy that valued their work so long as it generated an income, forgetting the hours they consecrated gratuitously for the benefit of their families and communities.

We've lived through an era where economic solutions have been the social scientist's lab test of choice for solving complex social problems. Maybe the time is ripe to concede that the solution to gender inequality does not lie in simply legislating to give women greater access to land or building more schools to educate more girls. These structural inequalities are but symptoms of a more profound injustice. This is not to imply that material solutions are futile; rather that the prevalence of this injustice, in spite of longstanding attempts to eradicate it, suggests that we cannot remedy these inequalities without understanding the reasons they exist in the first place. The desire to set a process of genuine transformation in motion begs the question: what's going on beneath the surface? What should we be measuring when we talk about gender equality as an aspect of development?

One of the tools presented at the workshop was the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). Rather than measure outcomes (e.g. how many girls go to school, how many women have a place in parliament, how many women receive health care...), the index measures the prevalence of social institutions that promote gender inequality. Social institutions are defined as long lasting codes of conduct, norms, traditions and informal and formal laws, and are considered the building blocks of human behaviour and social interaction. The SIGI indicators range from violence against women or inheritance rights to the practice of female genital mutilation or women's lack of access to land, and is being pitched as a new way of thinking about gender equality. And it's an interesting premise. Instead of asking, how many women are going to school, the SIGI asks: why aren't women going to school? Let's measure that, find out more about it. It's an inquiry that aims to drill deeper and this to me seems to be the SIGI's strength: it attempts to embed culture and the economy within society, and recognises the organic link between social conditions and development. No quick bandaid solution here. And it does feel like a genuine attempt to get to the heart of the barriers preventing true social and economic development by pushing us to think more profoundly about the root causes of injustice, and the beliefs, values and cultural norms that vindicate this injustice.

Earlier on we discussed how the eradication of all injustices is an indispensable part of development - an enabling aspect even, for both social and economic progress. Yet perhaps this injustice permeates deeper than these social institutions - as deeply as the eyes and minds of the human beings who created them. For how can both men and women become truly empowered when the sources of disempowerment rest primarily in the relationships and expectations of their own families and communities - and within themselves?

Once we start measuring in this way, it becomes clear that the solution to gender inequality must lie in raising consciousness of the nature and capacities inherent in every human soul and empowering each individual to set off on a path of learning to discover their social implications. Conceiving spiritual education as an integral complement of material education opens up the possibility of unleashing human potential to become active champions of justice. Such education could offer humanity a nobler vision of how the world should be, and thus empower it to take action to implement justice in the institutions and structures of the world.

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