-advancing gender equality in Africa and globally, and strengthening health and economic outcomes by learning what works at scale
“It’s about closing data gaps and using data to support evidence-based change,” said Amy Raub of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, John and Karin Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles. “The project brings together an international, interdisciplinary team to develop the evidence on what works at scale by using longitudinal data to rigorously evaluate how national laws and policies focused on gender equality affect health and economic outcomes for women, men, and children across countries. In addition to producing a substantial new body of actionable research, the project emphasises knowledge translation and mentorship of junior scholars, with the goal of moving from evidence to impact.”
Raub along with David Gordon of the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol and Jody Heymann also of the Fielding School of Public Health presented an update on their work which aims to understand exactly what works in the complex arena of reducing gender discrimination to improve health and economic outcomes for all.
They pointed out that around the world, gender inequality continues to shape individual opportunities, families and societies. The World Economic Forum estimates that, unless progress accelerates, it will take 217 years to realise gender parity in economic participation. Inequality matters to individual women and their families, but also national economies, costing an estimated US$28 trillion.
Through the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063, both the United Nations and the African Union have set ambitious targets for advancing gender equality, improving population health, and strengthening national economies in the coming decades. These goals are deeply interconnected, as closing gender gaps is foundational to broader health and economic gains. Realising these commitments requires both large-scale action and research evidence demonstrating which approaches are feasible and effective in low- and high-income countries alike.
Before and After COVID
Gordon started by pointing out that the situation has worsened considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s mostly bad news,” he said. “The data point to the devastating impact of COVID on the health and wealth of the planet with some historians arguing that Post World War II history may be divided into Before and After COVID – BC and AC. Although the World Health Organization officially estimates deaths due to COVID at 5.5 million, they also estimate 15 million excess deaths during 2020 and 2021, with 1.25 million of these in Africa. This is a conservative estimate compared with academic research, which estimate up to 19 million excess deaths as a result of the COVID pandemic.”
“The World Bank estimates that poverty has increased massively and that there are an additional 50 million people living in extreme poverty on the African continent. This is despite the fact that African countries were among the best at protecting their populations from the pandemic – their response was early and effective unlike that in many European countries and in North America,” he said. “Unfortunately, the public-health measures implemented themselves had a devastating effect. For example, a World Vision Survey on microfinance showed that in 2020, 92% of businesses couldn’t repay their loans. In Uganda monetary poverty increased by 7% and multidimensional poverty by 5% in just a few months during 2020.”
It’s predicted, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that the pandemic will continue to cause increases in inequality over the next five years with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer.
The pandemic has also increased inequalities between men and women. “According to the International Labour Organisation in 2021 it was estimated there would be 13 million fewer women in employment compared with 2019 – globally 4.2% of women lost jobs, versus 3% of men during 2020,” said Gordon.
He also noted that increased care needs due to school closures contributed to women’s disproportionate job loss.
“Gender equality is crucial to eradicate poverty,” he said.
“But,” said Jody Heymann. “We can’t focus only on the problems. Solutions come in many forms. We know it takes political will, social movements and knowing what works – even the most well intended may fail miserably without evidence-based approaches.”
Creating comparative data on constitutional rights, laws and policies across countries to identify legal gaps and to look at the impact on outcomes at individual, household and national levels is crucial to enable evidence-based governance, investments and strategies.
The disproportionate burden of caregiving remains an important reason for gender gaps in economic outcomes. Even before COVID, more than 600 million women were out of the labour force to meet care needs compared to only 41 million men. The group highlighted that in the United States where rigorous studies have looked at differences in wages while controlling for other factors, women with children on average earn 70 cents on a man’s dollar while single women without children earn 95 cents on a man’s dollar.
Looking at one aspect of the comprehensive data set, Raub focused in on paid parental leave which provides job and income security after the birth of a child. Although with huge national variation, overall globally there has been an increase in guarantees of parental leave, increases in time given, as well as more inclusivity for all types of families.
“This is an area of frequent policy change and improvement,” she said. “It’s still much less common for men to be guaranteed parental leave but there has been an increase. This matters because it can be the foundation for fathers being more involved in caregiving – thus shifting the norm.”
“Paternal leave changes attitudes to what is regarded as women’s work,” added Heymann.
Parental leave also has important consequences for health outcomes like infant mortality, breastfeeding and vaccination rates.
“Each additional month of maternity leave equals a 7.9% decrease in infant deaths. And every one month increase in maternity leave equals an increase of 7.4% in the prevalence of early initiation of breastfeeding as well as its longer duration,” said Raub. “Longer maternity leave also results in more vaccine coverage.”
Raub also pointed to evidence that expansions in paid parental leave shifted attitudes towards gender equality. “While we know that sometimes norm change can lead to policy change,” she said. “It’s also the case that stronger policies can help shift norms and values.”
Another area where there are legal gaps that contribute to gender inequality is prohibitions of gender discrimination at work. There remains a need to understand all the implications of both direct and indirect gender discrimination in the workplace including issues around hiring, training, promotion, pay, sexual harassment and racial disparities, as well as how effective policies are for all kinds of workers especially those in the informal economy.
Looking at the data on sexual behaviour and sexual harassment shows that most countries have increased protection over the last five years but there are major variations. “Sexual harassment is still not completely illegal in many parts of the world. It’s often not fully defined or the definition is very narrow,” explained Heymann. “We are also looking at the role of independent monitoring bodies and legal aid availability to understand the differences these make, as well as legal interpretation where such cases come to court.”
“The work is about trying to understand all the mechanisms that make the biggest difference in implementation and those that effectively reach all women,” she continued. “We don’t come with a set of expectations about the best policy. We are trying to look at all the laws, capture all the variations and also look at their impact.”
The group is also trying to support the vital role of social movements and civil society.
Social movements often drive better responses to laws and the best results seem to come when civil society and policy makers work together. Using the example of Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, Heymann pointed to the importance of partnerships. “Sonke together with COSATU and other civil society groups led efforts to provide parental leave for fathers, partners and adoptive parents –comparative data supported these efforts and was cited in policy debates.”
“The project is about building on the power of partnership and providing evidence for change. We share all the data – it’s publically available, easy to access and has been downloaded by over 100 countries. We believe global and regional data can inform debates and support evidence-based change.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer