Anna Thomas

About Anna Thomas

Anna Thomas is a policy analyst on a range of issues, from international tax co-operation to climate change. She currently works as head of policy at ActionAid UK, which she job shares; the rest of the time she advocates for a shorter working week. In a previous life she was a medical doctor.

What can be done about women’s economic inequality?

Alongside last week’s Davos meeting has been a welcome focus on global economic inequality – but much less on gender inequality. Everyone agrees that women’s economic inequality is important, especially in developing countries, but change is agonisingly slow. The proportion of women working globally has fallen slightly since 1990. Just 2 per cent of bilateral aid is directed towards women’s economic empowerment, and that figure has barely increased since 2007.

You know that women’s economic inequality is a problem, but do you know how bad it is? (I didn’t). Only half of women participate in the labour market, compared with 80 per cent of men. More than half of all employed women are in informal vulnerable employment. Women still earn between 10 and 30 per cent less than men. All this adds up to a staggering US$9 trillion annual cost to women in developing countries due to their lower pay and lesser access to paid jobs than men. That’s more than the GDP of Britain, France and Germany combined. It’s that bad. Learn more here.

The ray of hope here is to think outside the box. Women need equal pay, equal opportunities and development finance for gender equality. But there are also other avenues.

A number one reason for women’s economic inequality is the vastly greater amount of caring that they do. They look after children, cook and clean, and care for anyone in the family who is ill or infirm. Women in developing countries devote up to three daily hours more to housework than men, and spend up to 10 times as long as men looking after others.

While we wait for the time when women and men all over the world share this kind of domestic work equally, other policies can support progress. Decent public services make a vast different to women’s care responsibilities. Hospital and clinics, schools childcare services and social care all play their part. Where these are absent, the work of making up for them falls – you guessed it – on women. Where public services are functional, women have a much greater chance of holding down decent jobs. The far more comprehensive public services provision in developed countries is one of the reasons why the gender care gap, while still real and present, is proportionately much smaller.

So to close the gender gap, an area not generally considered to be about gender may prove vitally important. Decent public services for all – and sufficient taxes to pay for them – could provide a big part of the solution.

Saying the unsayable in 2015

It’s 2015, a year where global debate on development will be loud and active, with the new global sustainable development goals, the conference on how to finance them, and the important climate summit. However, having now been part of development debates for longer than I like to remember, I wonder whether these will be as broad and open as in the past, or whether they will be restricted to the issues more palatable to those who hold power, with a whole range of areas where the powerful also constrain development rendered unsayable.

2015 is also the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the massive concert-fundraiser that placed a lasting spotlight on global poverty. A popular event not a policy prescription, the development of the Live Aid phenomenon perhaps mirrors the wider world.

The original Live Aid in 1985 responded to the famine in Ethiopia by raising money. It did not set out to look at the local or global causes of the famine – the musicians that heralded Live Aid were even called ‘Band Aid’, a brand of sticking plaster. Live Aid was much criticised for this (although my personal story is that it succeeded in propelling me from my teens onto a lifelong road of campaigning for global justice).

In 2005, opened with Paul McCartney singing “It was twenty years ago today…” came the even bigger follow up, Live Eight. By now things were different. The star-studded concert was explicitly not about raising funds – it was about putting public and political pressure on the forthcoming G8 meeting in Scotland to act on global poverty. The focus was not only on the role of developed countries in contributing aid, but also on how they could remove barriers to development, for example by cancelling unsustainable debts and by making trade rules fairer. It was about tackling problems underlying underdevelopment, rather than sticking a band aid over them.

And then, in 2014, came the Ebola epidemic – and a re-release of the original Band Aid track from 1985. The massive emergency response to Ebola is literally vital, of course. But there has so far been surprisingly little spotlight either on the reasons why the preventable Ebola epidemic happened, or on ensuring the same never happens again.

There is a similar trend in the wider development discussions. It is now generally assumed that developing countries must be in the driving seat of their own development, which represents enormous progress from the hung-over colonial mindset of the past. But we hear much less about the ways that the more powerful actors – whisper it – can sometimes get in the way of this development. Tax treaties that neuter poor countries’ potential to their fair share of revenue from investors are frequently agreed. Capital enters and leaves fragile countries on a whim. Harmful conditions are still attached to aid. Powerful countries still protect their own markets and block poor countries’ access to technology. Lenders are again allowing dangerous levels of debt to build. The kinds of dramatic actions needed to stem climate change are not even on the table.

These types of issues are barely present in the 2015 debates, let alone meaningful ways to ensure they are put into action. If 2015 is to bring the transformational change that everyone agrees they want, we need to rapidly rebalance the debate, and bring the unsayable back into the conversation.