UNITED NATIONS, Oct 27 (IPS) - Gender equality contributes to economic growth, but economic growth does not always contribute to gender equality, says the United Nations World Survey on the Role of Women in Development launched Tuesday, a message well timed in the context of the current financial crisis.
Women's participation in the economic sector has been proven to underpin Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) such as poverty reduction, child health and education.
Still, "The lack of women's access to financial resources, as well as their underrepresentation in institutions such as banks and ministries of finance, is striking," says James Heintz, associate director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Built upon recent statistics and academic research, the World Survey, published every five years by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, focuses this year on "women's control over economic resources and access to financial resources, including microfinance".
Data from 70 countries shows that women hold only 27 percent of positions classified as having "status, influence, power and decision-making authority", with regional variation of 31 percent in Latin America, and nine percent in the Middle East.
In the European Union, women ministers of the 27 member states were far more likely to hold portfolios relating to social affairs such as youth, health and education (26.7 percent), rather than the economy (17.7 percent).
The marginalisation of women from influential posts is hardly limited to developing regions. Almost half of the large companies in countries covered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have no women on their boards, while only 23 percent have more than one woman.
While programmes of microfinance were well intended and relatively successful in the poorest countries, especially in Latin America and Asia, microfinance "has failed to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs in business growth and expansions", the survey concluded.
"The evaluation tells us that is simply not enough to give small amounts of money to women, and expect them to become equal players," says Naila Kabeer, lead author of the survey and a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom.
"We need to open up access to the broader financial sector, and we need to put far more emphasis on financial services apart from credit, such as insurances, savings, assets and remittance transfers," she added.
Kabeer explained that for microfinance to work properly, it needs to be embedded in a package of services that address the existing constraints faced by many women, such as child care support.
Another problem is the copy-the-past mechanism that has been too often applied to microfinance, Kabeer admitted. "What worked in a poor Asian country, may not work in West Africa, where there is a long tradition of female entrepreneurship," she noted.
Control over economic resources also includes access to full employment and decent work, as "labour is the most widely available factor of production at the disposal of poor people around the world and the primary means through which they earn a living", says the survey.
Overall, women show increased levels of employment, but this increase has been mainly in the informal sector, which is generally insecure, poorly paid, and not covered by labour legislation or social protection.
In the formal sector, women's wages have been reported to be 16.5 percent less than men's.
Kabeer asked for more research on the nature of constraints that keep women in inferior positions in the labour market, and therefore captive to sometimes unreliable husbands or discriminatory laws.
Of particular concern is the unequal sharing of unpaid work between women and men, in both Northern and Southern countries, a situation that has not significantly improved and continues to constrain women's employment choices and opportunities.
"The issue of unpaid responsibilities of women is one of the things that has really struck me, since even the wealthiest countries with a lot of gender-sensitive policies put in place, still seem to struggle with it," Kabeer said.
Besides labour, lack of access to land and property, another area of gender inequality touched upon in the survey, is still considerable due to discriminatory inheritance practices and gender-biased land reform.
In many African countries, for example, the wife loses her house and land when her husband dies.
The survey recommends that policymakers rethink their economic growth strategies and pay attention to women's economic empowerment, especially in the current recession.
Heintz underlined that although many of the macroeconomic aspects of the current crisis do not appear to be gender-specific, the report does document ways in which macroeconomic changes have gender-specific impacts, and need a gender-specific response.
Most importantly, he said, gender equality in finance and business must be viewed as not only a women's rights issue, but an economic imperative.