By: Ekaterina Shaleva

2018-01-29 16:48:59

Working Paper: The Pursuit of Gender Equality

While the concept of development is hardly new, our modern conception of it began to take shape after the end of the Second World War when Europe was in a dire need of reconstruction assistance and when the period of decolonization, legitimizing ‘civilization’ interventions, was starting to go underway.[1] Therefore, historically, development as a project has largely been understood as synonymous to the promotion of economic growth.[2]  The drive to include women in development discourse began a few decades later with the conceptualization of the ‘women in development’ (WID) approach in the 1970s when the 1975 World Conference of the International Women’s Year at Mexico City as well as the United Nations Decade for Women from 1976 to 1985 took place.[3] This approach called for “women’s inclusion in the processes of modernization,” focusing on their exclusion from the free market.[4]  A more nuanced and comprehensive critique of gender inequality is to be found within the ‘gender and development’ (GAD) literature, which began to recognize the power relations and structural inequalities, implicit in this inequality.[5] However, as Chant (2012) points out, the current trend of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in development remains fixated on women as ‘smart economics’, which promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment in simple economic terms.[6] Drawing from the work of Sylvia Chant, Caroline Sweetman and Kalpana Wilson on ‘smart economics,’ as well as on Amartya Sen’s ideas of what constitutes development, I will contend that the development community’s emphasis on the functional over the intrinsic value of ‘investing’ in women has fallen short in achieving gender equality because it has placed unrealistic demands on individual women who face a myriad of structural constraints, only a righteous state could disentangle. This, in turn, has led to development policies that despite their pragmatism in the short-run, may not be sustainable in the long-run, as they continue to reinforce traditional gender roles and neoliberal ideas of feminism, rooted in an unjust system of material distribution.

Before I can explore to what extent the incorporation of gender and feminist ideas in development frameworks is a welcome strategy in the pursuit of equality, I must first consider an important caveat in its framing and provide working definitions of gender equality and development to guide my analysis. First, by asking the question in this manner, we tend to implicitly assume that the discipline of development has successfully incorporated gender and feminist ideas in its paradigms. I will instead like to shift our attention to the limitations of such attempts, which while, fervently advocated by women’s rights activists, have fallen short in realizing the feminist goal of gender equality. I will refer to the feminist goal of gender equality as the pursuit of justice that places both women and men on an equal footing, capable of accessing opportunities they deem valuable, and that takes into account the structural discrimination women face as a “gendered constituency.”[7] In addition, I will refer to the concept of development as the aspiration of enhancing standards of living in a way, which is both inclusive and sustainable.  

Feminist critiques of the ‘smart economics’ approach to gender equality have pointed to the intensity of physical and time burdens, imposed on women, in the name of facilitating development, which leads to an unjust distribution of responsibilities, further reinforcing gender inequities. According to Chant (2012), “relying only on female populations even to guarantee business as usual, let alone transform the world, demands super-human sacrifices in terms of time, labour, energy, and other resources.”[8] Gonzalez de la Rocha (2007) further argues that women’s ‘social capital’ - that is their “reciprocal bonds and friendships” – have been relied on to “subsidise household and community survival during sustained periods of economic crisis.”[9] However, when we consider the well-documented disproportionate effects of crises on women in comparison to men, such an exigence becomes almost, if not outright, insolent. As Valerie Amos, who served as the eight UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in the period from 2010-2015 writes, “disasters are discriminatory.”[10] She elicits the example of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 where two-thirds of those, who died in Indonesia’s Aceh Province were girls and women; many women in this coastal region were at home, while their husbands were out fishing. In addition, many women had never learned to swim and even those, who had, were impeded by their clothing.[11] The various cultural and social norms, which determine the everyday realities of women, seem to translate in their experiences of crises. The ‘feminisation of responsibility and/or obligation’, implicit in the efficiency approach to gender equality, has further reinforced the stereotypical view of women as hardworking and altruistic subjects, ignoring the structural constraints in their daily existence.[12] Such demands of “super-human sacrifices” become even more problematic when interpreted from the prism of Amartya Sen’s ideas of what constitutes a life worth living.

Rationalizing investment in women as ‘smart economics’ has the precarious effect of overemphasizing women’s economic contributions to society, while dismissing the social returns to their own lives. Sen’s “development as freedom” views the project of development as an aspiration toward enhancing the freedoms people enjoy, rather than as an aspiration toward higher incomes. He argues that we must look beyond economic growth when conceptualizing development because economic wealth, in its own right, has only “instrumental value;” it is contingent on a myriad of other circumstances, such as the political and social climate of one’s surroundings.[13] Instead, what we must pay attention to in poverty analysis is the “deprivation of one’s basic capabilities,” which prevents people from living their lives freely.[14] Framing gender equality as an economic tool, Sen would argue, misses the point of development as a project - the process of development is just as important as its outcomes. Focusing on the efficiency rationale behind investing in women leads us to ignore the distributional equity of this efficiency.[15] For example, let us assume women earn the same as men. From the perspective of an advocate of the efficiency approach, that would be enough – gender equality would have finally been achieved. However, according to a proponent of the ‘capabilities’ approach of Sen, the story does not end here. They would make a distinction between one’s “income-earning” and one’s “income-using” ability.[16] That is, if one is incapable of converting their earned income in a form they could enjoy, because of a myriad of constraints such as a physical disability, old age or illness, they would be at a disadvantage and thus, would suffer from a policy solely, focused on economic efficiency. Such a policy fails to account for the structural constraints women face on a daily basis in patriarchal societies, built on neoliberal principles. A development policy focused primarily on economic efficiency would fail to account for women’s already disadvantaged position and result in their further marginalization, unless it was complemented by well-targeted and inclusive state interventions.   

The overreliance on ‘empowered’ women to transform their communities through active engagement in the political, economic and social life of their societies has shifted the responsibility of enhancing living standards away from states into the hands of individuals. Chant and Sweetman highlight the danger of adopting “smart economics-speak” without also paying attention to the structural barriers of women’s participation in society, imposed by governments and institutions. An example of such overdependence can be found in the popularity of conditional cash transfers (CCTs) over the last decade, safety net programs, which transfer cash on the condition that beneficiaries make “prespecified investments in child education and health.”[17] Over the years there have been critics, who have been more cautious in reading too much into the short-term successes of such interventions. For example, in her discussion of Mexico’s Oportunidades, one of the largest CCT programmes established at the end of the 1990s, Molyneux traces the history of social provision in Latin America, paying special attention to the gendered assumptions, governing welfare and the resulting “selective construction of social need.”[18] She argues that the “principles of participation, empowerment and co-responsibility” were co-opted by the development community after the failure of the structural policies of IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s.  They evoked the agency of the poor to “formulat[e] their own needs and engag[e] in the setting of priorities and the implementation of projects” themselves.[19] The state, on the other hand, was identified as a “major cause of development failure,” which did nothing but “nurture a ‘dependency culture.’”[20] Oportunidades was created as a response to “the assumption that poor households do not invest enough in their [children’s] human capital, and are thus caught in a vicious cycle of intergenerational transmission of poverty.”[21] As such, the programme focused on mothers as a key to achieving the goals of the programme, excluding fathers and thus placing an unjust burden on their shoulders. While it has enjoyed evident success in reducing household poverty and improving school attendance of children, the programme has been met by criticisms with participants feeling  ‘discriminated against’ by its demands on their time and helpless when other actors such as teachers would miss class without any punitive measures.[22] Molyneux further argues that because the “social construction of need” is “child-centered,” thus making the transfers conditional on ‘good motherhood,’ such programmes implicitly reinforce the ‘traditional’ social roles of women as the caretakers.[23] The transformative power of individual women, evoked by such programmes, is ultimately limited by the structural inequities and normative assumptions of gender roles in their societies that do not allow them to ‘reap’ the full benefits of their supposed ‘empowerment’.

Over the last thirty years, the incorporation of gender in development frameworks has become a topic of particular interest to the development community. The prevalent rhetoric in policy circles centers around investing in women as the ‘smart’ thing to do, rather than the ‘right’ thing to do. In other words, achieving gender equality is believed to yield considerable economic gains for societies and is, thus, seen as a goal worth pursuing. Such discourse on efficiency, however, obscures the larger structural constraints and rigid cultural and social norms women have to conform to in their everyday realities. Framing the problem of gender inequality simply as an economic deficiency, which the market could easily solve, disregards the role of the state in propagating structures and norms of oppression, which prevent women from enjoying the freedoms that come with equality. Promoting development that is both inclusive and sustainable will require the help of all actors, including the state and the other half of the world’s population, a goal which remains unattainable with the current prioritization of ‘smart economics’. 


I would like to offer my special thanks to Dr. Ania Plomien, my coursemates in GI414: Gender and Social Policy, and the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science for their valuable and constructive feedback during the process of writing this paper. 




Amos, Valerie. “Women in Relief and Recovery: Putting Good Policies into Action.” In Women on the Frontlines of Peace and Security, 175-186. Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2015.

Chant, Sylvia and Caroline Sweetman. “Fixing women or fixing the world? ‘Smart economics’, efficiency approaches, and gender equality in development.” Gender & Development 20, no. 3 (Nov 2012): 517-529. DOI: 10.1080/13552074.2012.731812.

Fiszbein, Ariel, Norbert Schady et al. “Conditional Cash Transfers: Reducing Present and Future Poverty.” A World Bank Policy Research Report (2009): xi-361.

Molyneux, Maxine. “Mothers at the Service of the New Poverty Agenda: Progresa/Oportunidades, Mexico’s Conditional Transfer Programme.” Journal of Social Policy and Administration 40, no. 4 (August 2006): 425-449. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9515.2006.00497.x.

Razavi, Shahrashoub and Carol Miller. “From WID to GAD: Conceptual Shifts in the Women and Development Discourse.” United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), no. 1 (February 1995): 1-51. ISSN: 1020-3354.

Sen, Amartya. “Markets, state and social opportunity.” In Development as freedom, 111-145. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Soares Jr., Jair and Rogério H. Quintella. “Development: an Analysis of Concepts, Measurement and Indicators.” Brazilian Administration Review 5, no. 2 (April/June 2008): 104-124.

SOAS. “Economic growth and development,” Unit 1 Conceptualising Development. Accessed November 9, 2017.

Wilson, Kalpana. “Towards a Radical Re-appropriation: Gender, Development and Neoliberal Feminism.” Development and Change 46, no. 4 (2015): 803-832. DOI: 10.1111/dech.12176.



[1] Jair Soares Jr. and Rogério H. Quintella, “Development: an Analysis of Concepts, Measurement and Indicators,” Brazilian Administration Review 5, no.2 (April/June 2008): 106.

[2] “Economic growth and development,” Unit 1 Conceptualising Development, SOAS, accessed November 9, 2017,

[3] Shahrashoub Razavi and Carol Miller, “From WID to GAD: Conceptual Shifts in the Women and Development Discourse,” United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), no. 1 (February 1995): 2.

[4] Kalpana Wilson, “Towards a Radical Re-appropriation: Gender, Development and Neoliberal Feminism,” Development and Change 46, no. 4 (2015): 805

[5] Sylvia Chant and Caroline Sweetman, “Fixing women or fixing the world? ‘Smart economics’, efficiency approaches, and gender equality in development,” Gender & Development 20, no. 3 (Nov 2012): 518

[6] Sylvia Chant, “Fixing women,” 519.

[7] Ibid., 517.

[8] Ibid., 512.

[9] Ibid., 519.

[10] Valerie Amos, “Women in Relief and Recovery: Putting Good Policies into Action,” in Women on the Frontlines of Peace and Security (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2015), 175.

[11] Amos, “Women in Relief,” 175.

[12] Sylvia Chant, “Fixing women,” 519.

[13] Amartya Sen, “Markets, state and social opportunity,” in Development as freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999): 131.

[14] Sen, “Markets,” 131.

[15] Ibid., 143.

[16] Ibid., 119.

[17]Ariel Fiszbein, Norbert Schady et al., “Conditional Cash Transfers: Reducing Present and Future Poverty,” A World Bank Policy Research Report (2009): xi.

[18] Maxine Molyneux, “Mothers at the Service of the New Poverty Agenda: Progresa/Oportunidades, Mexico’s Conditional Transfer Programme,” Journal of Social Policy and Administration 40, no. 4 (August 2006): 426.

[19] Molyneux, “Mothers,” 429. 

[20] Ibid., 430.

[21] Ibid., 433.

[22] Ibid., 435.

[23] Ibid., 438.


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