February 11, 2017

Understanding Gender and Development: Conversation with Professor Diane Elson

Interview by Madiha Shekhani and Maria Olsen

When deliberating on the topic of gender equality, the ground-breaking contributions of Professor Diane Elson cannot go unnoticed. She has authored pivotal pieces such as Male Bias in the Development Process (1995), Budgeting for Women's Rights: Monitoring Government Budgets for Compliance with CEDAW (2006), and Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers (1981) in collaboration with the notable scholar Ruth Pearson. Her work has been truly ground-breaking and inspirational. Her research has focused on global social change and human rights, with a particular emphasis on gender inequality in the economic and social realm. Prof. Elson has been a member of the UN Millennium Project Taskforce and Advisory Committee member for the UNRISD Policy Report on Gender and Development. She is also one of the founding members of the United Nations Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) report on Progress of the World’s Women. In addition to her impressive list of achievements, she served as the vice president of the International Association for Feminist Economics as well, and has been named one of 50 key thinkers on development in 2006.

Formerly Professor of Development Studies at Manchester University, Prof. Elson is currently an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. After countless years of service Prof. Elson has retired, yet she continues to hold an active and influential position within the field. Her rather busy retirement period involves contributing to the UK Women’s Budget Group, advising UN Women, and being a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy. She continues to publish on matters focused on fiscal policy, gender equality and human rights.

Prof. Elson came to the University of Warwick to deliver the Annual IPE lecture on ‘Gender Inequality and Economic Inequality’. After her riveting talk, members from the Think Development team had the wonderful opportunity to interview her.


Maria: Why do you think gender is relevant for development? Why is it still given only marginal importance and treated as more of a niche issue that only feminists need to deal with?

Elson: It's relevant I think because all societies, all economies, all polities are structured by gender, sometimes visibly and sometimes not so visibly. So the kind of development a country has, who makes decisions about it, who benefits from it, the distribution of those benefits, all those are gendered.

It is something that we all need to deal with for two reasons. One is the issue of the distribution of the costs and benefits between different members of households: you miss a lot if you do not look inside them to see what differentiates women and men. The other is that if you don't do a gender analysis of policies you don’t see the impact of those policies. Everyone needs to recognize the different ways that men and women, boys and girls, will be interacting with policy, based on the gendered structure of that society and that economy.

Maria: Often these debates within the Gender and Development (GAD) framework do not take into account intersectionality - the diversity of the experience of inequality, varying contexts, diversity of feminisms. How important are these factors to take into consideration? How could they be possibly translated into policy?

Elson: We all have multiple positionalities. We are involved in multiple kinds of social and economic relations: class, gender, race, location, age, ability or disabilities. But then how do we take that into account? There are some challenges. One challenge is that there is much more data and statistics available on some dimensions of our positionality than on others. So you've got information challenges.

And you've got challenges about what to highlight and prioritize because we don't want the analysis to disintegrate into multiple disaggregations. I learnt a lot from feminists in South Africa. We have to have an intersectional analysis, but how to do that? Well, we can ask of every policy measure, what implications these have for the most disadvantaged person, who is a black South African woman in a rural area. If it doesn't do anything to help her, it's not doing anything to help the most disadvantaged person.

Maria: With rise of different feminisms across the world especially in the South, do you think the depiction of the third world woman in dominant GAD narratives has changed?

Elson: Perhaps I'm not up to date with all reading material that you are now looking at in your course because I've been retired from teaching for five years, so I've not kept up with the literature. I think that there has always been a tension, and there probably still is, between a kind of Northern liberal feminism which has a bit of a missionary attitude towards other women, towards women in the South, towards working class women and women of a different ethnicity in their own country. So that tension I think probably still continues to some extent. But I think that tension is characteristic of a particular kind of Northern feminism, which has been quite varied. I would always describe myself as a socialist feminist, and therefore the kind of work that I wanted to do was to analyse what capitalism meant both for women in the country in which I was living, but also for women in other countries where new forms of capitalism were developing.

I think we certainly always need to be careful when we’re privileged women in a university, not to presume we can speak on behalf of others. So, we always have to be aware of that, but it does not mean we cannot be critical. Think of all those women in the USA who voted for Donald Trump, despite all that was revealed. We have to understand why that happened. Another thing I remembered writing about in the past was the issue of son preference in some countries in Asia. Son preference is very strong and it's mothers and mothers-in-law who are as important as fathers, in enforcing son preference. So you have to understand why women are in a situation where they think, "I only want to have boys, or my first born must be a boy, and when I have boys and girls, it's the son that will get the preference". We have to understand why women are in a position where that makes a lot of sense to them, as well as how can we change the structures that are pushing them in that direction.

Wherever we're from, if we believe in women's rights, we want to contest practices like the son preference but not contest them in a way that fails to understand why women are in a position where they might be colluding in the oppression of other women or even themselves. So it's the structural factors we must identify. And then of course, there is usually some kind of discontent somewhere. What can we do to support women who are voicing discontent and who are organising and struggling?

Maria: Are international organizations and governments still stuck in the Women in Development (WID) phase and haven’t moved to the GAD framework?

Elson: Probably a lot are still stuck because I think it's easier for them to understand. They do not have to rethink their whole understanding of the society, the economy, the polity. They can say, "Maybe the women aren't benefiting, maybe we can add a few projects specifically for women and then we've done our bit". It requires deeper thinking and changes to think, "Maybe it's not just that we need to add on a few projects for women, maybe we need to rethink our economic strategy, maybe we need to rethink the way we organise political life. Maybe we should take some affirmative action. Maybe listen to more women’s voices." It is always easier to add on a few policies that we can say are benefitting women.

On the other hand, I think there has been growing recognition that it’s important to think more broadly. In some countries there has been a wide understanding that a policy like increasing the minimum wage and implementing it is a really important gender equality policy even though it's not labelled as one. Since women are concentrated at the lowest wages, if you can raise the minimum wage, and really implement that . . . of course men will benefit too but women will disproportionately benefit because they're the ones with the lowest wages. I think Brazil is a country that saw that and really did a lot to improve the minimum wage and the enforcement of the minimum wage. When people ask me about gender equality priorities, I say increase the minimum wage and make sure companies pay it!

Madiha: The UN's gender and development initiatives have been criticized for not taking into account root and structural causes of inequality. What would your opinion be about this? For instance campaigns focus mainly on highlighting successful role models, as opposed to shedding light on underlying structures within different societies that inhibit women.

Elson: The first thing I'll say is that the UN is a very big organisation. There are very many different views and voices - different things are done in head office, in different departments, in different countries so it is by no means monolithic. There is a lot of diversity.

I think perhaps what you're pointing to is that some people in UN Women, and indeed in many organizations, think it's really important to have good role models – you know, the woman who made it, the singer, the sportswoman, the CEO as a role model for younger girls to aspire to. I don’t want to rule that out, I think role models can be very important but neither do I think that it is sufficient. I am an advisor to the report that UN Women produces every two years, called Progress of the World Women. In fact, I was the first person to initiate this in the days when the UN women’s entity was UNIFEM – a much smaller organization, much less resources but with a visionary leader from Singapore called Noeleen Heyzer, who invited me to develop this report. This report has always had some examples of good role models but also a lot of emphasis on the structural constraints that women face.

Madiha: Do you think transformation through the UN is possible? What are the limits of the UN or any international body?

Elson: Sure, the UN has a lot of limits, a lot of contradictions, disfunctionalities, and problems. But what do I see as the really important thing about the UN as a whole? I think it’s the focus on universal human rights, and the recognition that women’s rights are human rights. The UN came to recognise that through the pressure of women’s organisations around the world in the 1990s. The emphasis on universality doesn’t mean ignoring differences, whether these are differences between gender, race, indigenous people, rich or poor, North or South. It means recognizing a differentiated universality; where we don’t elide these differences, but we say nevertheless, despite all these differences everybody has human rights. For me that is the most important thing about the UN.

That system is under threat. With the rise of authoritarian leaders that come to power via the ballot box – we’re not in the era of the generals seizing power anymore, we are in the era of authoritarian leaders that win the vote – I think that’s a real challenge for what we can do to ensure human rights for everybody, everywhere taking account of the differences.

Coventry has a good example of the importance of human rights in women’s struggles: Coventry Women's Voices, an organization that has been doing great work on the impact on women of austerity policies and all the cuts to social security and public services, putting this in a human rights context and saying “We've got these rights, but they are being denied!”. The language of rights, rather than the language of needs, is a powerful one. For me that's what's important to hold on to in the UN. Even though none of this is a panacea or a magic bullet, but I do see all around the world different civil society groups organised around these ideas of the rights they are demanding, and therefore from that point of view I think the UN is important and we are going to need to defend it!

Madiha: We see systems such as the neoliberal framework so solidly entrenched within society; it is presented as though there is no alternative to it. We see a gradual and very strong internalisation of all these narratives. How do you move past this?

Elson: It’s never been the case that all women have been feminists or that all women have campaigned for women’s rights or that all women have overtly voiced a discontent. So we have to understand the reason why that is. I think there was a survey in the UK that said that there were a large number of women thought that if a young woman goes out in a short skirt at night and has a few glasses of wine, it’s her own fault if she gets raped. So probing that, understanding where those ideas come from, that’s why we do social science, isn't it? To help us ask those questions, to help us interrogate and understand where these ideas come from.

Madiha: In your book Male Bias in the Development Process, you mention crucial things about the language of subordination, focus on rights instead of capabilities, and male bias in everyday attitudes and structures. You wrote this back in 1995 - how far do you think we have come? Has there been change? What is the value of this change?

Elson: There has been a lot of change but it is not unidirectional. Perhaps it is a bit of a cliché, where you go two steps forward and one step back, but I think there have been a lot of positive changes. You can even see some of that in data on girl’s education, maternal mortality falling -even though it’s far too high in too many countries - and there are more women in political office. So we do see some positive changes. But, as Ruth Pearson and I wrote in our study in the 70s, Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers, it's complicated because on the one hand, you get these changes which challenge and decompose old structures of overt patriarchy, but at the same time we have seen a recomposition of new forms, more subtle forms of gender inequality. Yes, you can get a job in the garment factory and you think that’s good because now you’ll earn your own money for your dowry, or your wages will put your brothers through college! But in that factory there is not only a class hierarchy but a gender hierarchy. You will have difficult working conditions that will challenge your health, you will be open to sexual harassment both in the factory and on the way to and from the factory. So you get a complex change in which some overt forms of patriarchy decline, and other new forms of what we call subordination of women emerge. It doesn’t necessarily take a directly patriarchal form but a more diffused form of gender inequality.

But to end on an optimistic note I was heartened to see this massive mobilisation of women, not only in the USA but also around the world outside American Embassies and consulates. There were other women standing in solidarity with their banners and I think that was very heartening to see that. But we have to build on that moment, because it is going to be tough. It’s not just Trump in America, it's Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey. Then there’s the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds, Christian fundamentalism in the USA to the ISIS type of fundamentalism, so we have got a lot of challenges. But what you have got, which my generation did not have when we were starting out, are these tools of communication. It would have taken a long time to get know there was this big demonstration before the internet. What we have now in terms of possibilities of communication and coordination is completely different from what we had 40 years ago, so that gives me some hope.

We would like to sincerely thank Prof. Elson for very generously offering us her time and giving us the chance to learn from her. Her work has made an indelible mark within the field, and has truly inspired us. As aspiring scholars and practitioners we are immensely grateful for all her contributions.


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Editorial team

Edouard Leonet
Anni Piiroinen
Sailja Jain
Maria Elena Olsen
Madiha Shekhani
Aistė Jotautytė


If you wish to contribute to the blog, please contact thinkdevelopment.editors@gmail.com. We are always looking for articles, essays, photos and videos dealing with different aspects of global development.

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  • Thanks for the article. Very interesting insight to value chains and how they work today. Keen to se… by Juha Piiroinen on this entry
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