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Gender Inequality

  • October 2015
2014 Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images, courtesy of the Hewlett Foundation

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In most countries, the roles, rights, responsibilities, and obligations of women and men advantage men and disadvantage women in household decision making, political power, and accumulation of income and assets. Achievements in three domains are indicators of progress toward gender equality:  (1) health and education; (2) economic and political opportunities; and (3) personal safety and security. Related to gender equality is the concept of women's empowerment--that is women's ability to develop their capabilities, to expand their choices, and to control their lives.

In low and middle income countries, gender gaps inhibit economic growth through diminished productivity of women in agriculture, lower female labor force participation, and tracking of girls into low-paying female-dominated occupations. These factors also contribute to higher poverty rates among women and to less favorable education outcomes. In addition, women’s economic, political, and education disadvantage may limit access to health services. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Population and Poverty Initiative set out the elements of a research agenda to address the effects of population dynamics and reproductive health on economic well-being, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Funded research under this initiative includes several studies that investigate factors associated with gender inequality as well as some that assess the effects of interventions intended to redress women’s disadvantages.

Policy Lessons

Results from the studies (see table below and Publications and Multimedia) suggest some options for narrowing the gaps in health, education, and in economic and political opportunities that create gender inequalities.


Women’s independence in choosing contraception or helping married couples with communication around family planning choices may allow households to make better joint decisions about when and how long to use contraception (Ashraf, Field & Lee 2014). Delays in childbearing and greater spacing of children mean that women can reallocate time to labor force activities, potentially raising household income.

Cash payments to households with school-age girls can reduce teen pregnancy, HIV and marriage rates and, when conditioned on schooling, improves girls’ enrollment and attendance in Malawi (Baird, MacIntosh, & Ozler 2011). Increasing enrollment and attendance improves the odds of girls completing secondary school.

Community level programs that provide a supportive social context by increasing girls’ social capital and lowering neighborhood crime may help girls delay sexual debut and protect against nonconsensual sex (Hallman 2011). Such changes in sexual behavior/experience have direct health benefits for girls and women.

Changing community practices to recognize women’s equal right to property and inheritance may provide incentives for women’s greater engagement in the labor force (Peterman, 2011). Equitable property rights are associated with higher employment and earnings for women. These in turn increase incentives for parents to invest in girls’ education.


Financial incentives conditioned on school attendance can increase attendance among girls already enrolled in school and promote parents’ investment in girls’ health in India (Sinha & Yoong 2009). School attendance is a factor in matriculation.

Targeting poverty alleviation and community activities to large families with girls’ may mediate financial and emotional deprivation among high-risk girls (Filmer, Friedman & Schady 2009). In South and Central Asia, girls in large families are at greater risk from poverty and lack of social support than girls in smaller families or than boys in large families.





1. Ashraf, Nava, Field, Erica & Lee, Jean (2014)


Women are more likely to choose select contraception methods when their husbands’ do not participate in the decision. However, such actions might be detrimental to their marriage and emotional well-being.

2. Baird, MacIntosh, Ozler (2011)


Conditional cash transfers to households with school-age girls increase girls’ school enrollment rates and regular attendance. Unconditional transfers reduce teen pregnancy and marriage rates.

3. Hallman, Kelly K (2011)

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Perceiving one’s own community as one of trusting or crime-free may produce positive sexual behavior/experience outcomes:  reducing chances of adolescent girls’ sexual debut before age 18, protect girls against coerced sex, and discouraging girls from having multiple sexual partners. Girls’ voluntary participation in community sports, study, and religious groups may also delay girls’ sexual debut, promote use of a condoms, and protect against non-consensual sex. Adolescent boys’ also may benefit from cohesive communities. Having more friends, living in trusting or crime-free communities may reduce boys’ chances of experiencing coerced sex and of having multiple partners.

4. Nkurunziza, Joseph, Broekhuis, Annelet & Hooimeijer, Pieter (2012)


Substantial numbers of orphans/foster children in Rwanda do not profit from the free education policy. Some of the children leave before completing school, in particular girls. Free education is only one step towards a more equitable distribution of educational opportunities.

5. Peterman, Amber (2011)


Changes in women's property and inheritance rights are significantly associated with women's employment outside the home, self-employment, and earnings.

6. Peterman, Amber & Johnson, Kiersten (2009)

Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia

Simulations predict that elimination of sexual violence would result in a 7 to 40% reduction of the total burden of incontinence.

7. Salem, Rania (2011)


Earnings do not necessarily enhance women’s decision making power within marriage. When they do, it is through contributions to marriage costs. Women’s power within marriage operates through gendered norms, e.g. giving birth to a son.


8. Filmer, Deon, Friedman, Jed & Schady, Norbert (2009)


Even after modernization, girls in Central Asia and South Asia tend to grow up with significantly more siblings than do boys. Because fewer material and emotional resources are allocated to children in larger families, on average, in these regions, families are more likely to invest less in girls.

9. Pitt, Mark, Rosenzweig, Mark R. & Hassan, Nazmul (2012)


In economies where physical strength is a productive asset for a major portion of workers, the average payoffs to schooling will be low. However, the payoffs from schooling will be higher for women than men. Returns to health may be high for men but not for women, depending also on the mix of activities in the economy.

10. Sinha, Nistha & Yoong, Joanne Kannan (2009)


As a result of the Apni Beti Apna Dhan program short and long-term financial incentives: Parents increased their post-natal health investments in eligible girls; Girls attending school are more likely to continue their education.


Ashraf, Nava, Field, Erica & Lee, Jean. (2014). Household Bargaining and Excess Fertility: An Experimental Study in Zambia, American Economic Review.

Baird, Sarah, MacIntosh, Craig & Ozler, Berk (2011). Cash or Condition? Evidence from a Cash Transfer Experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(4), 1709-1753.

FAO (2011). The State of Food and Agriculture, 2010-2011: Women in Agriculture, Closing the Gap for Development, accessed at www.fao.org .

Filmer, Deon, Friedman, Jed & Schady, Norbert (2009). Development, Modernization, and Childbearing: The Role of Family Sex Composition. The World Bank Economic Review, 23 (3), 371-398.

Hallman, Kelly K (2011). Social exclusion - The gendering of adolescent HIV risks in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The Fourth Wave: An Assault on Women - Gender, Culture and HIV in the 21st Century. Social Science Research Council and UNESCO, accessed at http://www.unesco.org .

Nkurunziza, Joseph, Broekhuis, Annelet & Hooimeijer, Pieter (2012). Free Education in Rwanda: Just One Step towards Reducing Gender and Sibling Inequalities. Education Research International.

Peterman, Amber (2011). Women's property rights and gendered policies: implications for women's long-term welfare in rural Tanzania. Journal of Development Studies, 47 (1), 1-30.

Peterman, Amber & Johnson, Kiersten (2009). Incontinence and trauma: sexual violence, female genital cutting and proxy measures of gynecological fistula. Social Science & Medicine.

Pitt, Mark, Rosenzweig, Mark R. & Hassan, Nazmul (2012). Human Capital Investment and the Gender Division of Labor in a Brawn-Based Economy. The American Economic Review, 102 (7), 3531-3560.

Re-Com (2014). Aid and Gender Equality, Draft Position Paper (20022014), UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), accessed at http://recom.wider.unu.edu .

Salem, Rania (2011). Women’s Economic Resources and Bargaining in Marriage: Does Egyptian Women’s Status Depend on Earnings or Marriage Payments? Population Council Gender and Work in the MENA Region, (18).

Sinha, Nistha & Yoong, Joanne Kannan (2009). Long-Term Financial Incentives and Investment in Daughters Evidence from Conditional Cash Transfers in North India. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, (4860).

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