The Flaws in the Agency Approach to Equality

In Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, Sen argues that freedoms are complex and inter-linked , and that by promoting women’s agency, not only will it improve the economic and social power of women, but also allow us to challenge and change ‘entrenched values and social practices that support gender bias’.[1] Is is an agency-centred dialectical approach, by granting greater agency to women, they are able to influence the structure of the world.

A similar argument is made in the World Development Report 2006 (WDR 2006), which argues that by removing barriers to education and promoting workforce participation (equal opportunities), it will give women the power not only to expand their own freedom, but also benefit the development of the country they belong to.[2] I will argue, however, that the agency-centred approach adopted by the WDR 2006 is inadequate (to challenge Sen’s argument would require more space and is far more subtle than the World Bank’s approach, though Sen is listed in the acknowledgements in the WDR 2006).[3]

The problem with the approach adopted by the WDR 2006’s agency-centred approach is that it doesn’t acknowledge that those in positions of power are more likely to have the resources and influence to reproduce structures in ways which benefit themselves.[4] The removal of barriers to women’s agency in a legal, political and civil context, while certainly a step in the right direction, is not enough.

By having dominant positions in society, and therefore more power, males have more agency. The influence of this trickles down influencing the norms and values of both males and females, and their identity and choices, again reproducing a biased structure (though of course power may also flow ‘up’ from social groups attempting to change the structure. However, if we imagine two groups comprising of roughly 50%, but the first group has an advantage in resources and hierarchical position we can deduct that second group is likely to have lesser influence on shaping the structure in its favour). Diane Elson shows how this is the case within gender markets and capitalism.[5] Evidence for this is from not in what are often termed as ‘traditional’ societies, but in ‘modern’ societies where many of the legal, political and civil barriers to women’s agency.

Information from the Global Gender Gap Report 2013 shows that in the UK women’s economic participation and opportunity is at a lower level of that than men, and they are in fewer managerial, legislator and senior positions than men. There is also a disparity in wage equality and income. This cannot be explained by a lower access to education, or quality of education as female levels of educational attainment are at the same level as men, until secondary and tertiary education, where female participation is higher, especially  at the tertiary level.[6] Theoretically, what this suggests is as there are fewer women in decision-making and powerful positions, they may in fact have less say and resources to restructure society and culture, and may also be perpetrators of gender bias through gendered norms and values created by structure. An example is provided by insightful school student Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya who argues that there is a gender bias at her school and how this may influence girls and women.[7] We may also hypothesize that more women in parliament and in positions of power may provide a bigger platform for certain topics, such as sexism and violence against women. As a 2006 report by the Crime and Society Foundation suggests focusing on tackling sexism, poverty and concentrations of power, would be more effective in lowering crime rather than reforms of the criminal justice system.[8]

I have argued that an agency based approach is inadequate to granting equal agency, or freedom to women, and that there is more to creating an equal society than just the removal of barriers. Value-creating structures need to be challenged, and various biases perpetuating male power should be analysed and restructured. Perhaps one way around this problem would be to influence the male portion of society as agents of change by challenging male values and behaviour. The family as a norm-producing unit should also be challenged, as well as many other blocks to equality.


[1] Christine M Kogel, ‘Globalization and Women’s Paid Work: Expanding Freedom?’, Feminist Economics, 9, no. 2-3 (2003): 164-166.

[2] World Development Report 2006: Equity and Development, (Washington:

World Bank, 2006): 51-55.

[3] Ibid, xiii.

[4] Diane Elson, ‘Gender Equality and Economic Growth in the World Bank Development Report 2006.’ Feminist Economics 15, no.3 (2009): 38-42.

[5] Diane Elson, ‘Labour Markets as Gendered Institutions: equality, Efficiency and Empowerment Issues’, World Development Vol. 27, No. 3 (1999):  611-613.

[6] Yasmina Bekhouche, Ricardo Hausmann and Laura D’Andrea Tyson The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, 368-369. Accessed on November 04, 2013, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf.

[7] Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya, ‘The National Curriculum: Promoting Sexism?’. Accessed on November 04, 2013, http://ukfeminista.org.uk/2013/10/the-national-curriculum-promoting-sexism/.

[8] ‘UK: Govt policies failing to reduce poverty, challenge sexism, & tackle concentrations of power’. Accessed on November 04, 2013, http://www.global-sisterhood-network.org/content/view/1105/76/.

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About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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3 Responses to The Flaws in the Agency Approach to Equality

  1. Reblogged this on genderequalityfordecentemployment and commented:
    By having dominant positions in society, and therefore more power, males have more agency. The influence of this trickles down influencing the norms and values of both males and females, and their identity and choices, again reproducing a biased structure (though of course power may also flow ‘up’ from social groups attempting to change the structure.

  2. Pingback: Equality and Equity | STEM women

  3. Pingback: Equality and Equity - Clare Rudo

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