Modernisation Theory blames internal cultural factors for women’s subordination in the developing world. It is argued that some traditional cultures, and especially the religious ideas that underpin the values, norms, institutions and customs of the developing world, ascribe status on the basis of gender. In practise, this means that males are accorded patriarchal control and dominance over a range of female activities and, consequently, women have little status in developing societies.
Modernisation theorists note that gender equality is generally greater in more developed countries and believe that there is relationship between modernisation, economic growth and greater gender equality. The World Bank appears to be a strong proponent of this view today.
Trade, Economic Growth and Gender Equality
Below is an extract from a recent World Bank report on Globalisation, Economic Growth and Gender Equality.
Trade openness and the spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs) have increased women’s access to economic opportunities and in some cases increased their wages relative to men’s. Growth in exports, together with a decline in the importance of physical strength and a rise in the importance of cognitive skills, has increased the demand for female labour. ICT has also increased access to markets among female farmers and entrepreneurs by easing time and mobility constraints.
Women have moved out of agriculture and into manufacturing and particularly services. These changes have taken place across all countries, but female (and male) employment in the manufacturing and services has grown faster in developing than developed countries, reflecting broader changes in the global distribution of production and labour. In Mexico, for example, female employment in manufacturing grew from 12 percent in 1960 to 17 percent in 2008, with 10 times more women in 2008 than in 1960.
International peer pressure has also led more countries than ever to ratify treaties against discrimination, while growing media exposure and consumers’ demands for better treatment of workers has pushed multinationals toward fairer wages and better working conditions for women.
Increased access to information, primarily through wider exposure to television and the Internet, allows countries to learn about life and social mores in other places—knowledge that can change perceptions and ultimately promote adoption of more egalitarian attitudes. Increased economic empowerment for women can reinforce this process by promoting changes in gender roles and allowing newly empowered women to influence time allocation, shift relative power within the household, and exercise agency more broadly.
Countries with a comparative advantage in the production of female labour-intensive goods have lower fertility rates and, to a lesser extent, higher female labour force participation and educational attainment. For instance, moving from low female-intensity in exports (bottom quarter of the distribution) to high intensity (top quarter) lowers fertility by as much as 0.21 births per woman, or about 10 percent of the global total fertility rate.
Globalisation could also influence existing gender roles and norms, ultimately promoting more egalitarian views: women turned income earners may be able to leverage their new position to change gender roles in their households by influencing the allocation of time and resources among house- hold members, shifting relative power within the households, and more broadly exercising stronger agency. In fact, women appear to gain more control over their income by working in export-oriented activities, although the impact on well-being and agency is more positive for women working in manufacturing and away from their male relatives than for those work- ing in agriculture. Women in factories feel their status has improved.
Women in work also marry and have their first baby later than other women of similar socioeconomic status and to have better quality housing and access to modern infrastructure. They also report greater self-esteem and decision-making capacity, with benefits extending to other family members.
Beyond the economic sphere, increased access to information, primarily through higher exposure to television and the Internet, has also ex- posed many in developing countries to the roles women play in other parts of the world, which may affect gender roles and outcomes (chapter 4). For instance, in Brazil, a country where soap opera watching is ubiquitous and cuts across social classes, the presence of the Globo signal (a television channel that offers many popular Brazilian soap operas) has led to lower fertility, measured as the number of live births for women ages 15–49.
Similarly, evidence from rural India suggests that gender attitudes among villagers changed with cable television. Women with access to cable were less likely than others to express a son preference or to report that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife.
Interestingly, and somewhat contrary to standard notions about gender roles and women’s agency in the household, the evidence discussed here suggests that under some circumstances exposure to information can induce large and fast change. In Bangladesh, the employment of hundreds of thousands of women in the ready-made garment industry feminized the urban public space, creating more gender-equitable norms for women’s public mobility and access to public institutions. In the process, Bangladeshi women had to redefine and negotiate the terms of purdah, typically reinterpreting it as a state of mind in contrast to its customary expression as physical absence from the public space, modest clothing, and quiet demeanour.
Evaluations of Modernisation theory applied to gender
There is a very strong correlation between increasing trade economic growth and gender empowerment. Further evidence for this lies in this recent 2020 report from the World Bank.
However there are also some criticisms of this view:
Firstly, economic growth does not always result in gender equality – Japan and Saudi Arabia are two notable examples here and there is no country on earth yet has actual gender parity.
Economic development might even harm gender equality in some ways – according – if women are just exploited more because of their lower status, for example.
Thirdly, even though from our Western perspective we think of challenging traditional cultures as the right thing to do, but this could be regarded as ethnocentric.
The ‘overpopulation’ topic is part of the Global Development option, usually taught in the second year of the course. For more posts about Global Development, please click here.