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

October 20, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

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)