Do we need to think in new ways about gender and inequality?

Following on from last week’s post by Naila Kabeer, Jessica Woodroffe, Director of the Gender and Development Jessica WoodroffeNetwork, argues for a change in the way we think about gender and inequality

The recent launch of Oxfam’s Gender and Development Journal issue on Inequalities got me thinking about the much heralded ‘leave no one behind’ agenda in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This concept essentially commits governments to reach those hardest to reach. If it is to be taken seriously, we will have to get much smarter about understanding the ways in which different forms of inequality interact to keep people marginalised and powerless.

It may be time for a re-think. Frances Stewart’s conceptualisation of vertical and horizontal inequality – where the experience of vertical income groups is shaped by membership of cross cutting horizontal groups based on gender, race and so on – was incredibly important and influential at a time (thirteen years ago) when there was an almost completely siloed focus on income poverty. However, now that the ‘leave no one behind’ approach is accepted under the SDGs, it may be time to develop a more nuanced framework. The horizontal and vertical framework is a beautifully simple construct that has served its purpose well; real life is messier in (at least) three ways.

But who is 'we'?
But who is ‘we’?

Most importantly, we need an approach that makes space for the interaction between the different ‘horizontal groups’. As Naila Kabeer argues in her opening article, these multiple and overlapping inequalities intensify each other, rather than simply adding to the effects of the different inequalities. The notion of intersectionality, first coined in relation to race and feminism in the US, has posed a profound challenge to work on gender equality (and has challenging lessons relevant to those working on any form of inequality). So, as Mangubhai and Capraro demonstrate in the Journal,  Dalit women experience the clash between socially assigned ‘degrading’ tasks for Dalits and the gendered division of labour where women do household and community cleansing, which leaves them responsible for the manual cleaning of dry toilets. And the policy ‘solutions’ fail these women too. Research in India found that education quotas for women were taken by more powerful women while the quotas for Dalits were taken by men.

Secondly, the different horizontal ‘groups’ have very varying characteristics which need to be understood and acted upon in very different ways. Gender is (at least until the LGBTI agenda is accepted) a relationship between two distinct groups – males and females – where the discriminated-against group is the majority in every country.  Disability on the other hand affects a minority of the population, is a continuum where people experience different degrees of disability, and covers a wide range of characteristics. With race and ethnicity, the discriminated against group is sometimes the minority but sometimes – as under Apartheid – the majority and, increasingly, is becoming agender inequality continuum as the mixed heritage proportion of the population increases. Age is different again, with youth experiencing some forms of discrimination while the elderly face entirely different barriers; in some countries old age is privileged while in others young people have advantages.

Finally, the way the model is interpreted usually privileges income among other inequalities, inferring that it structures society in a way that other discriminations don’t. Many feminists, Kabeer included, contest this arguing that in all societies gender relations shape and structure society for both men and women just as class shapes societies for all income brackets.

Might it be time now to build on the concept of horizontal and vertical inequalities to find a more accurate – and therefore no doubt much less neat – way of understanding the full complexity and depth of interactions between different forms of inequality?  It is, after all, those people facing multiple inequalities that are furthest behind.

And since several of you loved the random James Bond video on gender inequality last week, here’s another top video, from Plan International’s Mary Matheson (my sister in law, as it happens)

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6 Responses to “Do we need to think in new ways about gender and inequality?”
  1. Alice Evans

    Really enjoyed this post, Jessica.

    Would be really keen to hear your thoughts on what you think should be done differently, in order to tackle the intersecting inequalities you identify above.

  2. Priya Nath

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. With the move to try to define what ‘no one left behind’ looks like and how it can feasibly be achieved, it’s very urgent to get an more nuanced definition of intersecting inequalities otherwise gender will be seen as one single focus group with no differentiation or disaggregation of progress made within it – which is already starting to happen. The SDG Indicator setting progress will either help or hinder the ‘leave no one behind’ principle so sharing this with the statisticians leading that process could be a good idea!

  3. Chiara Capraro

    Thanks Jessica for this analysis, it’s very helpful. And interesting also how you describe the ‘fluidity’ or not of different aspects of identity. In our article on Dalit women we take into account gender and caste which are quite fixed, as you are born with them. We also look at marital status and age which are much more fluid and change over the course of people’s life. I have to say I haven’t really thought about it in this way. How can social policy grapple with all of this?

    I would say that I completely share your and Naila’s point about the fact that gender is a feature of how society is structured, anywhere. I think narratives of economic justice centered around structural issues such as income inequality, tax, trade, debt etc have traditionally not been able to really grasp and engage with this issue as a foundational one. And it seems the (income) inequality debate is also finding this difficult. The stratification is most notable in the separation between productive and reproductive labour, which comes with values and rewards attached. This should really be the starting point. I hope that there can be some fruitful discussions on how the intersection between SDG target 5.4 on reducing and redistributing unpaid care and the leave no one behind approach going forward.

  4. Jessica Woodroffe

    Hi Alice, we certainly don’t have all the answers so it’s great to get the discussion going – but here are a few thoughts. On a practical level, a number of people (including Liz Stuart at ODI) have already written interesting things about the need for much more disaggregated data – so that we can see what is happening specifically to groups of people facing two or more forms of inequality and work out the particular policy responses needed. Taking this further, this disaggregation needs to occur at earlier stages of the process too, the indicators for the SDGs for example need to be defined to reflect the particular barriers that marginalised women face rather than only measuring whether these women have met the ‘universal’ indicator.
    But my real concern is more at the conceptual level. There are a number of strands of thinking in relation to gender that I think need to be understood more widely by those working on (income) inequality: First is the recognition both that women are not a ‘vulnerable group’ but rather are central to the running of the economy but disadvantaged by unequal gender power relations, and that a focus only on the immediate problems of individual women and girls will fail if these power relations are not transformed; second is the importance of intersectionality which can occur among so called ‘horizontal groups’ as well as between a vertical and horizontal group; thirdly, as Chiara points out, there is the interface between the productive and reproductive economy. My proposal is really that these theories, along with others around ethnicity, and other inequalities, should be given equal weighting alongside the traditional groups approach.

  5. Kanwal Ahluwalia

    Totally agree with you Jessica that we really need to get away with categorising women and girls as vulnerable groups, and take a much more holistic approach to understand that discriminatory gender norms affect women across all groups and all income levels. I have found this notion of vulnerability particularly reinforced in humanitarian work – we need a much more nuanced approach to ensure we don’t continue to exacerbate stereotypes and inequalities.

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