5.4 Social and Economic Inequality

Gender Inequality

The population pyramid provided shows that there are slightly more women than men on the planet. In the world of work, there continue to be pronounced imbalances across genders, reflecting local values, social traditions, and historical gender roles. Unpaid care work includes housework, such as preparing meals for the family, cleaning the house and gathering water and fuel, as well as work caring for children, older people and family members who are sick—over both the short and long term. Across most countries in all regions, women work more than men. Women are estimated to contribute 52 percent of global work, men 48 percent.

Of the 59 percent of work that is paid, mostly outside the home, men’s share is nearly twice that of women – 38 percent versus 21 percent. The picture is reversed for unpaid work, mainly within the home and encompassing a range of care responsibilities: of the 41 percent of work that is unpaid, women perform three times more than men – 31 percent versus 10 percent. Hence the imbalance—men dominate the world of paid work, women that of unpaid work. Unpaid work in the home is indispensable to the functioning of society and human well-being: yet when it falls primarily to women, it limits their choices and opportunities for other activities that could be more fulfilling to them.

Occupational segregation has been pervasive over time and across levels of economic prosperity. In advanced and developing countries, men are over-represented in crafts, trades, plant and machine operations, and managerial and legislative occupations. Women tend to be over-represented in mid-skill occupations such as clerks, service workers, and shop and sales workers.

Even when doing similar work, women can earn less – with the wage gaps generally most significant for the highest-paid professionals. Globally, women earn 2 – percent less than men. In Latin America, top female managers earn, on average, only 53 percent of top male managers’ salaries. Across most regions, women are also more likely to be in “vulnerable employment,” working for themselves or others in informal contexts where earnings are fragile, and protections and social security are minimal or absent.

As a method to measure development progress around the world, the United Nations has created the Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions-income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. They are also fundamental human rights regarding health, education, shelter, and security.

To measure Goal 3, Gender equity and empowering women, the United Nations uses a Gender Inequality Index (GII). The index uses a variety of methods to determine the inequality of females compared to males, including labor, reproductive health, and empowerment. The higher the number that a region receives demonstrates, the greater the inequality in that region. Some nations have severe gender inequalities, meaning that women have nearly no legal, social, or economic rights even when they are head of their household. Many argue that if the world focused on gender equality of females, most of our social, economic, and environmental problems would be significantly minimized.

Many societies are experiencing a generational shift, particularly in the educated middle-class households, towards greater sharing of care work between men and women. Legislation and targeted policies can increase women’s access to paid employment. Access to quality higher education in all fields and proactive recruitment efforts can reduce barriers, particularly in fields where women are either underrepresented or where wage gaps persist.

Policies can also remove barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace. Measures such as those related to workplace harassment and equal pay, mandatory parental leave, equitable opportunities to expand knowledge and expertise, and measures to eliminate the attrition of human capital and expertise can help improve women’s outcomes at work.

Paid parental leave is crucial. More equal and encouraged parental leave can help ensure high rates of female labor force participation, wage gap reductions, and better work-life balance for women and men. Many countries now offer parental leave to be split between mothers and fathers.

Gender Equality Index

Currently, no social scientist or governmental agency like the United Nations has found a country where women are treated equally to men. To determine the equality, or inequality, of women in nations, the Gender Inequality Index (GII) is used. The index uses a variety of measures to determine the inequality of females compared to males, including labor, reproductive health, and empowerment. The higher the number that a region receives demonstrates, the greater the inequality in that region.

Some nations have severe gender inequalities, meaning that women have nearly no legal, social, or economic rights even when they are head of their household. Many argue that if the world focused on gender equality of females, most of our social, economic, and environmental problems would be significantly minimized. Here are some statistics about women:

In the 21st Century, gender inequity, as Sheryl WuDunn states in her TED Talk “Our Century’s Greatest Injustice?” is the moral and ethical issue of our time. Why have so many females disappeared out of the human population? Watch the video on the right to find out.

In terms of reproductive health, maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rates are determined. The maternal mortality ratio is a measure of the number of women who die giving birth per 100,000 births. The adolescent fertility rate is a measurement of the number of births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 through 19. In LDCs, women are more likely to die during labor and have children during their adolescent years. Reproductive health is an essential indicator of gender inequality because women tend to have fewer rights, including access to health care, where the gender-related development index is high.

Several organizations around the world are working on empowering females from young to old through a range of social and economic policies. The ultimate goal of these organizations like Half the Sky, CARE, and The Girl Effect, to name a few, is to empower women so that they might have legal, economic, social, and health rights.  Empowerment is something that can be tracked and monitored because it focuses on two critical indicators of gender inequality. One is to measure the percentage of seats held by women in a nation’s federal government. This is a measurement of political and economic power women have or do not have in a country.

Just take, for example, the United States Congress in 2019. Currently, women make up 25 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the House of Representatives. Contrast that to the face that women make up 51 percent of the United States population. This direct influence policies towards women, about women, and for women in the United States. Also, as of 2019, no woman has ever served as President or Vice President, and the only one has served as the Speaker of the House, which is the third most powerful position in our federal government.

Economic Slavery

There is also a darker side to international trade, and that exists in the black market. On the poaching side, animals ranging from mountain gorillas, rhinoceroses, and African elephants are being slaughtered for parts to be sold.

There are also natural resources such as diamonds, gold, stonery, textiles, and more that are either mined or assembled using mass slavery. The products are sold to MDCs to fund local and regional civil wars like in Uganda, Angola, Sierra Leon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many times, people of all age groups who try to escape slavery are often raped, have body parts amputated alive and with no medicine, or killed all to fear, power, and control. The TED Talk “Photos that Bear Witness to Modern Slavery” and the two videos on mining cobalt are powerful, but disturbing witnesses of how slavery is used all around the world to fund political conflicts and wars. To learn more about how “how many slaves work for you,” check out your slavery footprint.

Ending Global Poverty

It can be said that issues such as literacy rates, life expectancy, natural increase, and infant mortality rates have improved in LDC. However, the gap between development and income is only getting wider. Only one-fifth of the world’s population lives in MDC, but those same nations consume five-sixths of the world’s resources. If all 7 billion people on the planet lived the lifestyle of the average American, it would require three planets! Currently, there are over 1 billion people on the earth living in what is called extreme poverty.

In the book by James Rubenstein, Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography (2010), “The United Nations recently placed the contrast in spending between MDCs and LDCs in picturesque terms: Americans spend more per year on cosmetics ($8 billion) than the cost of providing schools for the 2 billion in the world in need of them ($6 billion), and Europeans spend more on ice cream ($11 billion) than the cost of providing a working toilet to the 2 billion people currently without one at home ($9 billion).”  To put U.S. consumer spending in context with the cost of providing basic needs for those in the developing world, Americans spent $20 billion in 2007 on Black Friday–the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. Consider how redirecting the funds used for one day of shopping in the U.S. could do much to eradicate extreme poverty.

Currently, over $1 billion people live in extreme poverty, a term used to define people who live on less than $1.25 a day for food, water, and shelter. For LDCs to develop, they first need to improve their gross national product (GNP) dramatically. Once income starts flowing, that money needs to be invested in other HDI factors such as social and other economic factors. The goal of the self-sufficiency model is to focus on reducing poverty than increasing wealth and creating wealth classes. Investment in a state’s infrastructure and economic structure is spread equally so that all benefit. The idea of “local first” outweighs globalization. The problem with this model is that it can quickly become inefficient because the government protects local industries from outside forces. Also, it requires a sizeable governmental fingerprint to administer the controls and conditions to distribute the wealth equally.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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