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2012 World Bank Development Report: Gender Equality as Smart Economics

October 5, 2011

By Barbara Rodriguez

The phrase “gender equality as smart economics” has become the recent mantra of such powerful women leaders as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet. It is also the rallying cry of the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report (WDR) on Gender Equality and Development.

World Development Report Gender Equality

Progress in some areas has been made in recent years toward gender equality - education is one. There are now more girls in school worldwide than ever, with girls outnumbering boys in secondary schools, and young women outnumbering men in universities. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

Indeed, as the Bank’s president, Robert Zoellick, pointed out in a September 19 op-ed on the day of the launch:  “Equality is not just the right thing to do. It’s smart economics. How can an economy achieve full potential if it ignores, sidelines, or fails to invest in half its population?”

The latest report – the first ever to focus on gender equality – is a welcome and persuasive effort to identify why gender equality is critical, and what policy makers can do to achieve it. As Isobel Coleman, from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote:

The Bank’s framing of gender equality not only as a development objective in its own right, but also as smart economics, is an important message for those countries that lag the most on gender equality. Just as investing in women and girls can create a positive development cycle, the opposite is also true: countries that fail to empower half their population will suffer from lower productivity, slower economic growth, and weaker development outcomes.

The report focuses on three key dimensions of gender equality: gender differences in education and health; voice, or decision-making authority in households and society; and access to economic opportunities. Drawing from existing quantitative gender research as well as new qualitative data from 19 developing countries to inform its analysis, the WDR recommends prioritizing the following four areas:

  1. Reducing excess female mortality and closing education gaps where they remain
  2. Improving access to economic opportunities for women
  3. Increasing women’s voice and agency in the household and society
  4. Limiting the reproduction of gender inequality across generations

Many are pleased to see that the report stresses both the intrinsic value of gender equality, as well as gender equality as a means toward improving economic efficiency and achieving other development outcomes. A few examples cited in the report that show how gender equality can play a transformative role in South Asia are:

  • In Pakistan, children whose mothers have even one year of education spend one extra hour studying at home every day and report higher test scores.
  • In Bangladesh, women with greater control over health care and household purchases have better nutrition.
  • In India and Nepal, giving women a bigger say in managing forests significantly improves conservation outcomes.

One chapter, titled “Wave of Progress,” offers many examples of how far countries have progressed toward reaching gender equality: there are now more girls in school worldwide than ever, with girls outnumbering boys in secondary schools, and young women outnumbering men in universities; higher life expectancies for women and fewer deaths associated with maternal mortality; and higher female participation in the formal labor force, which is partly due to lower fertility rates in countries like Bangladesh.

This is followed by a more sobering chapter, “The Persistence of Gender Inequality,” which covers areas where progress has been slower, such as female mortality (approximately 4 million excess female deaths per year) and access to economic opportunities (as women are more likely to work as unpaid family laborers, on smaller farm plots with less profitable crops, and in smaller firms and less profitable sectors) factors that all result in women earning less than men. This chapter also cites areas where the gender gap has not yet changed, such as control over resources, political voice, and the incidence of domestic violence.

Since the report’s release, D.C. has been focused on the significance that the World Bank focused an entire WDR on gender equality, which purportedly builds on “a tradition of World Bank work on the economics of gender.” Indeed, the World Bank’s 2001 report, Engendering Development, stated that “ignoring gender disparities comes at great cost to people’s well-being and to countries’ abilities to grow sustainably, to govern effectively, and thus to reduce poverty.” A quick comparison of the 2010 and 2011 WDRs (on climate change and conflict, respectively) for the number of times that the word gender is mentioned is revealing:

World Development Report Gender

Of course, as its central focus is on gender equality, the 2012 WDR naturally contains more explicit references to gender. But looking ahead, one hopes that the 2013 WDR, which will focus on jobs, will build on these efforts started in 2001 by including gender as an integral part of its analysis, rather than set apart and aside in a half-page text box about “women and jobs.”

Barbara Rodriguez is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program, based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Women’s Empowerment Program develops women’s leadership, strengthens women’s organizations, increases women’s rights and ensures their personal security, and creates new political and economic opportunities for women across the Asia-Pacific region. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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  2. Very good information on women empowerment..Thanks for helping me to get clarity on Smart Economics!

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