Global Policy Forum

Canada: Women’s Continued Economic Inequality

Center for Social Justice
February, 2001

Globalization has impacted upon gender relations in complex and contradictory ways. The centralization of power within the sovereign State that has been fragmented by globalization was not predicated upon, nor necessarily supportive of, equality between women and men. The power structures of the nation State have been organized around patriarchical assumptions that have accorded to men monopoly over power, authority and wealth. A number of structures have been erected to achieve this imbalance that have disguised its inequity by making it appear as natural and universal, for example, constructions of citizenship that concentrated upon civic duty (payment of taxes, military service, public office) from which women were excluded through the public/private dichotomy and the subordination of women within the family. At the same time, the role of men in the public sphere has been supported by divisions between productive and un(re)productive work, presenting women's work as lacking economic value. Emphasis upon the normative impact of the public/private divide has been legitimately criticized for universalizing a western model of social ordering. While recognizing the fluidity of any demarcation between public and private spheres, the undervaluing of women's contributions and the primary responsibilities of women within the family impeded their advancement across many, if not all, societies.

The opening-up of new spaces by the apparent weakening of the nation-State holds open the possibility of undermining the traditional gender hierarchies and devising new bases for gender relations. However, the reality that the State is no longer the sole institution that can define identity and belonging within it has denied women the space to assert their own claims to gendered self-determination. Power has become fragmented through the emergence of new social formations demanding loyalties from members of the group and presenting their claims internationally through their collectivities, often to the detriment of individuals, most notably women.

Another aspect is the dispersal of power through what has been termed the non-democratic forces of "globalization from above" -- corporate enterprises, markets and movements of capital.

These have weakened the effective decision- and policy-making power of the nation-State, notably in economic and labour policies. Governments are unwilling to assert the rights of their workers, where to do so would discourage investment. Consequences such as social exclusion, unemployment or low paid employment and weakening of trade union organization have had gendered dimensions. According to the Preliminary Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, "economic systems which value profits often do so at the expense of female labour".

Women are seen, and hence favoured, as a passive, compliant workforce that will accept low wages without demanding labour and human rights. The traditional sexual division of labour (the location of women in employment to which they are regarded as inherently suited, for example, the caring professions or textiles industries) has been furthered through the addition of new locations and forms of work (services industry, tourism, work in free trade and export process zones). What remains constant is the low economic value accorded to work performed primarily by women in conditions of exploitation, no job security and violations of human rights. The last occur both directly through prohibitions on labour organization and indirectly through further abuses where women have claimed rights such as to organize or to be free from sexual harassment.

It is an oversimplification to assume that the consequences have been exclusively detrimental or that they have been the same in all locations. In some situations, global pursuit of profit has enhanced employment opportunities for women, where previously they had not existed. While these may have been exploitative, they have nevertheless facilitated some degree of economic independence for many women. This, in turn, has provided the space for them to assert their own agency and has generated the self-esteem that comes from such independence. In other situations, the consequences have led to powerlessness and sexual exploitation. For example, reports of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women have highlighted the linkages between countries in economic transition and the increase in trafficking and forced prostitution of women.

Social exclusion, loss of previously accepted benefits (for example, affordable childcare and maternity leave) and personal insecurity, coupled with the greater mobility of persons facilitated by ease of communications, including some more open borders, have contributed to this increase. Economic liberalization has encouraged organized transnational enterprises, including those for sex and pornography. One of the most adverse consequences has been the construction of ideas about the market and free movement of capital as natural and inevitable, making challenge difficult. This was seen in Beijing, where there was no alternative voice offered in opposition to the benefits of market policies: the goal was to ensure women's participation in and access to the dominant structures of the market, not to question their underlying assumptions or even to consider alternative models. It has distorted priorities, for example, pursuit of global profits rather than gender equality.

However, the global social movement of human rights has acquired an irresistible force, bringing the language and beliefs of human rights to all parts of the globe into all aspects of social, political and economic life, and exposing the falseness of the public/private divide. Affirmation of the universality of legal norms prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex and affirming women's equality have provided them with international standards to raise against adverse national or local codes. The technological and communications revolutions have added new dimensions to women's long-standing organizational methods. In one manifestation of "globalization from below", groups working for the recognition of women's human rights have furthered their skills and strengths in campaigning and communicating globally. Instantaneous communications have facilitated the formation of alliances and coalitions, lessened isolation for women in remote or secluded areas, allowed for rapid mobilization over issues and provided support on a global basis. At the same time, there are concerns that women's strategic organization is formulated and centred in the North, while primarily targeted at the South. Electronic means of communication have heightened the gap between those who have such access and those who do not. There is a danger that international non-governmental organizations operate to their own agendas and to the detriment of grassroots organizations.

Another area where revolutionary technologies have had particular consequences for gender relations is that of reproductive technology. Again the picture is mixed. On the one hand, this has allowed women, especially those economically affluent, greater freedom and choice with respect to reproduction. On the other, it has created innumerable health problems for those who are not given adequate attention by State agencies or the medical establishment. Women's health conditions, especially gynecological ones, that could be relieved with little expenditure are frequently overlooked or remain untreated through cultural taboos.

Other problems arise when technologies are used alongside State policies with respect to women's fertility, for example, reproductive technology that allows predetermination and selection of the sex of a child alongside a national "one child" policy, or a policy demanding sons for the continuation of a national struggle. "Modem technology has been the means of liberation and choice for many women, but for others it has resulted in death and exploitation," says the Preliminary Report by the Special Rapporteur. Indeed, the twentieth century has repeatedly demonstrated the fragility of gains in women's advancement that appear to be threatened by change. Gender relations are fluid and subject to constant negotiation within the family, the workforce and the community. On many occasions, women have participated in national self-determination movements, but the social reconstruction that has followed upon national liberation has not included guarantees of their rights.

Transition to democracy and market economies in Eastern Europe resulted in lowered public office participation for women and loss of a range of economic rights. More generally, economic downturn within a State has a particularly harsh impact upon women through high unemployment or the introduction of austerity measures and structural adjustment programmes. Continued stereotypes of men as the primary breadwinners with family responsibilities lessen women's employment security, even in the face of statistical evidence of women-headed households. Reconstruction after conflict often focuses on the need to find employment for men who were formerly in military or paramilitary units rather than on the continuation of female employment. Armed conflicts, whether internal or international, have caused women to be targeted for forms of attack by opposing forces and be subjected to policies within their own community that place the interests of the collectivity above those of women -- for example, the importance that is attached to reproduction to ensure the continuation of the group; the promotion of the "family" as a sub-unit of the State that is to be protected as such, and the presentation of women's role as restricted to within that family. Control of government by religious or other extremists that introduce a form of sexual terrorism also lead to substantial reversals of women's advancement.

What has become apparent is that forms of inequality exist regardless of a State's prevailing political ideology. Their manifestations may differ, but the reality of women's subordination remains constant. Advancement in women's interests is susceptible to being lost through political, economic and societal changes, both those that are deemed generally progressive and those that are destructive.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.