Influencing the Social Regulation of Gender in Markets

Influencing the Social Regulation of Gender in Markets

The market system is the sum of its parts– It’s time to look at the whole system to identify leverage points to influence a shift.

Women are the focus for development in many organizations. Why? Because women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination; women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and earn ten percent of the world’s income. Yet they own just one percent of the world’s property. These facts tell us that half of the population in some countries cannot contribute to their family and community’s economic development. Women are an important part of the solutions needed to truly overcome poverty. They play key role in navigating their family and their community to a better life, because when we invest in a woman, she invests in her family and community.

women's work

I find it curious how some non-government organizations (NGOs) working in the area of inclusive market development have a very specific focus on empowering women and attempt to do so by separating activities out from the actual action of increasing household income. (Just so we are all on the same page here, inclusive market development is when the development of markets generates choices and opportunities for vulnerable groups as producers, consumers and wage earners.) My experience here in Nicaragua left me shaking my head after a gender event.

At the end of one class, the representative from the NGO invited us all to an event at the cinema in town to view some short films about gender in the net week. Each of us was given an invitation and we were instructed to bring others with us from our neighbourhoods and communities.

When I arrived there were many of the women there with their invited guests, and a few from other projects. There was press and media. In all there was about 25 people affiliated with the NGO project. It began with representatives of the funders of the project, Cargill, giving a speech about the project and its place in the community, and then people from the NGO had come up from Managua and they gave a speech, and then two of the women were asked to speak. All the while there was recording devices and photos being taken and some TV camera I recall. The importance of women and food security and production and commercialization were all exalted. We then moved into the theater and 3 short films were shown.

The films were very direct with their messages. The first one was about using organic fertilizers. The second was about how gender inequality in risk management, that can be applied across the board. And the third film showed us a few successful women’s groups in the Latina America Caribbean region, which was inspiring.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 8.44.46 PM

El camino de Don Miguel y Doña Martha.

After the series of short films, a representative of the NGO then got up and facilitated a discussion asking the women what their impressions were. One woman in the audience responded and was quite emotional. She was so moved by what she saw– she discovered she was not alone; other women faced the shunning and gossip as they tried to improve their lives. She shared with us all that she was a single mother, and as shown in one of the films, she too had experienced being told she was crazy because she was trying to improve her skills to be able to provide for her child. Her voice was breaking. The facilitator, a woman, then said thank you for the contribution and that we were not here to be against men. What a curious response, when the respondent had said nothing negative about men, she was just sharing her experience honestly.

Then a man answered and he said that just as in the short cartoon about Miguel and Marta, who set off on a hypothetical journey each with a knapsack full of tools. The tools in the man’s knapsack were appropriate for the journey, while the tools in the woman’s knapsack were not appropriate. So when they got to the first obstacle, the man sailed over the wall and the woman had to climb it under great duress because she had no tools. The man in the audience pointed out that the woman did make it over, (albeit completely wrung out) and that women just had to have patience and they would get ahead. The facilitator then said, “thank you for your contribution”—and went on. The facilitator’s response to these two individuals totally reinforced gender stereotyping- that women are emotional and should not talk against men, and men were reasonable and he was right, women should just be patient and things will get better.

After about thirty minutes then someone from the NGO told us to spread the message and there would be another group watching the films the next week—there would be three viewings and subsequent follow up for each group. I at this point put up my hand and asked what was the message? I had no idea what it was….. The films showed us that women are disadvantaged; something not new to any of us present. What was new, was seeing how other women also experienced discrimination. (And this is very important to becoming aware.)  So really what was the point of this gender workshop? The message apparently, was that we could let others know that the films were being shown the following week.

His response left me puzzled about what the intent of the whole ‘gender’ event was.   How does a poorly facilitated event, which shows some films about women’s inequality contribute towards gender empowerment and women increasing their household income levels which in turn will give them the means to participate with more choice in society? Why would we focus on women’s inequality as an entrance point to enhance the participation of women in a market system? How can we separate out women’s empowerment from women’s economic empowerment?

Gender is not outside of markets

Women are working, and we work hard. And yes, many women are not remunerated very well for their work, and in some cases are not remunerated at all for their participation in the markets they work in at the family household unit. For instance in Bangladesh in the corn sector women dry the corn and may assist with the weeding while the men prepare the land, purchase inputs, plant, harvest and sell the product, as women are not permitted to be in public spheres due to cultural constraints. The fact that the men participate in input and output markets and women don’t does not mean that women are not contributing to this commodity market. In fact, the drying of the corn (processing) is a very critical element in this market system. If the corn is not dried properly, the quality of the corn is compromised which then can have an impact of the selling price. If the selling price is reduced because of poor drying, then the household income is reduced. Gender does get complicated in markets when it comes to what happens with the income earned and who has a say in the household to how the income is used.  That requires a full discussion, which is beyond the scope of this post.

gender rolesGender is the social construction of roles

These roles prescribe behavior norms and activities that society considers appropriate for males and females. Historically, men were relegated to the hunting and gathering, while the women were relegated to child rearing and attending the home fires. This division of labour emerged from the biological reality that it was women who bore children. When labour began to be remunerated, ‘productive’ labour became more valued in society than reproductive labour- the bearing and rearing of children, domestic chores, etc.

The question that begs to be asked is what are the influences within the economic system that constrains the participation of women in markets? And how do we find leverage points in a market system that will ease these constraints, not just to allow women to participate, but to improve the overall functioning of the market system so that it is more competitive, resilient and adaptive? When the market system becomes more competitive and resilient, women will benefit, as will men and the society at large. Market participation of men and women is guided by norms, values, laws and judiciary processes. Gender cannot be looked at separately from these functions in society. Let’s explore this further.

Market Systems


market system

Figure 2:e 1: Market System (DFID & SDC, 2014, p. 3)

Figure 1 illustrates the elements of a market system. We can see that a market system is a multi-function and multi-player arrangement involved in production, distribution and exchange of a particular product or service- linked to and operating within a wider set of institutions, rules, infrastructure and supporting functions that influence how they operate and behave. The core function is exchange- but exchange cannot be separated from the rules that regulate the market, or the supportive functions that the product or service require as it moves throughout its journey of transformation from inputs and raw materials to finally reaching the final consumer. Transactions cannot be isolated from the informal rules of gender that regulates the participation of men and women or the availability of roads during rainy season to get the product to market.

Let’s look at a couple of ways that transactions are viewed.

Economic Paradigms

Paradigms are frameworks that include all of the commonly accepted views about a subject; essentially it is a basic belief system or worldview. Paradigms shape how we think and act. Economic paradigms influence our life tremendously. Let’s look at the dominant economic paradigm for a minute.

The Neoclassical economics is the dominant paradigm.  The 3 basic neoclassical principals are:

  1. Individuals are rational beings and their rational preferences are based on reason and facts.  Emotions do not play a role in transactions.
  2. People act independently on the basis of perfect information – everyone has access to the same information and there is a level playing field.
  3. Profit Maximization – This is the only significant factor motivating economic actors


Not everyone has access to information to make informed economic decisions, and women in developing countries even less so because of lack of access to education, computers, and how to use the Internet. To facilitate accessing information, one has to be part of the same group of people who have the relevant and pertinent market information. Gender, class and ethnicity can be attributes that exclude, or include people, regarding access to information.

There are costs attached to looking for and acquiring the information needed to make a decision. These costs can be time and/or money. Transaction cost theory explains how people do not have access to information equally because of the costs incurred. There are three components of transaction costs: search & information costs, bargaining costs (costs required to come to an acceptable agreement), policing and enforcement costs to make sure parties stick to the terms of the contract. Robert Coase developed this theory in 1937. There is no perfect information– there is asymmetrical information, meaning that some people have more information than others, and then enforcement is harsher on some social groups than others. Refuting that there is a level playing field and everyone has access to information, Coase essentially signaled the birth of a new economic theory- new institutional economics, which is referred to as institutional economics.

Institutions are at the core of institutional economics. We are not talking about buildings or entities like banks, universities, and hospitals; in Institutional Economics, institutions are humanly devised to structure interaction. Institutions are the rules of the game– the game being life and the rules being the institutions that inform us how we are to behave and interact.

Institutions comprise of:

  • Formal regulations–rules, laws, constitutions
  • Informal regulations–norms of behavior, conventions and culture that inform the social institutions of gender, ethnicity/race/caste and class

Institutions both constrain and enable behavior. The existence of rules does imply constraints. However, some constraints open up possibilities because choices and actions are enabled that otherwise wouldn’t exist (Hodgeson, 2006, p. 2). An example of a constraint would be the law of apartheid in South Africa which prohibited Blacks from living and working in certain areas, whereas the law that states no one can be discriminated against of the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation opens up opportunities for women and minorities. In Figure 1 above of the market system, we can see that the informal and formal rules are integral in the market system.

Oliver Williamson, another renowned institutional economist, has illustrated how the informal institutions of gender, class and ethnicity as well as norms, customs and religion influence the formal rules, especially property rights, contracts and even allocation of resources. Figure 2 illustrates the four levels of institutions (which are the rules of the game) that shape economics.the different levels of institutions in economics.


4 levels

Figure 2: Economics of Institutions (Williamson, 2000, p. 597)

Let’s look at each level with a gender focus.

 Embeddedness  – Level 1

1st level-institutuions

Gender – Religion – Ethnicity

Embeddedness theory explicates that social actors live and operate within relational, institutional, and cultural contexts where economic exchange takes place within, and is regulated by, society. Socio-cultural obligations, norms and values play a significant role in people’s livelihood strategies. This is the first level of economic institutions and it influences all of the other levels.

I’m sure you have heard, and you say, that context is everything- well this is why. The context is the basis of all economic behavior, which then influences economic activities. Context comprises of customs, traditions, norms and culture which all inform the social institutions of gender, ethnicity, religion and class. These social institutions regulate how people behave in economic activities and it is these institutions that shape formal laws, as will be shown later.

 In India, the caste system is an economic division of labor. Globally, gender roles have traditionally relegated females to reproductive tasks in the private sphere of the home, where work is not remunerated. If women do work outside of the home, they are expected to go home and then prepare dinner, take care of the kids and clean the house. In many situations the man returns home and then enjoys leisure time. This illustrates the worldview that women’s work is not of the same value as men’s work, in fact women’s work is not even on the radar as work so is discounted because household work is not paid. This premise is central in the economic discrimination of women.

 Any development intervention intending to open up economic opportunities for women has to start with the context, and from there identify the leverage points where a paradigmatic shift can occur for women, men and the community without putting the women at risk of physical or emotional violence. In Pakistan I learned from some very creative NGOs that if they were going to work with women, they would mobilize men in the community around some activity, and when there was trust, they would suggest to the men that if women learned a certain skill they could assist in the activity and this would help them. They found that men happily agreed to women learning and participating. If the NGO started with the women, the men would have stopped the developing intervention at the onset.

Institutional Environment – Level 2

2nd level

Judiciary & Legislative Law

Level 2 establishes the institutional environment of the economy. This level lays out the rules of the game and includes the legislative, judicial and bureaucratic functions of government as well as the distribution of powers across different levels of government. The definition and enforcement of property rights and of contract laws are important features in this level. In many contexts, traditional law passes property only to male heirs. And if the husband dies, the brother of the husband then gets the property with the idea being that the brother will take care of the widow and children. This may or may not occur, and in many cases does not occur.

 Social norms and traditional laws are codified in laws—advocacy and the dissemination of women’s rights are necessary in economic interventions that are intended to provide women economic opportunities. At the same time, discovering what is behind a traditional law and then interpreting the same law in today’s context through participatory and interactive activities can contribute towards influencing a change in attitudes.

An example of this is how Bogaletch Gebre an Ethiopian activist is influencing community practice regarding Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This practice is embedded in tradition that believes FGM is a pre-requisite to marriage and marriage is vital to a woman’s social and economic survival. Through dialogue at the community level, Bogaletch’s organization is shifting attitudes. These attitudes have been reflected in a law introduced in 2005 which makes FGM illegal and punishable.

Contracts – Level 3


The 3rd level is governance of the contractual relations. This is an effort to create order, which then mitigates conflict and realizes mutual gains.  This level of institutions is concerned with the policing and enforcement costs to make sure parties sticks to the terms of the contract. Contract law is necessary to protect people, especially if one or more economic actors has more advantages than the other and can manipulate the market. You know the actors that have more money, have a broader reach and influence politics with their money and power. This is the level that is needed to reign in the bullies in an economy. But to enforce contract law, one needs to have the resources to pay the lawyer, and women in many cases where we work, they do not have the means or capacities to hire a lawyer so they remain at the whim of the ones with power. Not getting duly paid or the expectation of sexual favours are what many women experience as part of their labour contract—if women are producers and suppliers, this too can impact on their economic activity.

 The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)  in India works with informal sector women. Their work has influenced and shaped social security laws. They have done this by first campaigning to get minimum wage legislation extended to a particular industry or sector not currently covered. Negotiators then sit down with government and employer representatives to agree on a wage level that will not drive employers out of business or the state the are operating (Kabeer, 201). SEWA actively organizes and educates women about their rights and with the numbers of their membership, and their ability to negotiate; they are then able to influence labour laws.

Resource Allocation – Level 4

4th level-micro

Level 4, is where we see neoclassical economics at play. This level in this schematic is all about resource allocation. Maximization of profit is central to Level 4.  Price signals are feedback to supply and demand levels. This mechanism allocates resources and labour needs. Salaries and prices are aligned with supply and demand, which in turn then allocates resources and employment.

The previous three levels set the foundation for this level to function–this is the level of exchange, where the allocaiton of resources occurs. Exchange of goods and services as a labourer, supplier or consumer. Women have many hurdles to overcome to enable them to participate in the action of allocating resources. When women’s economic empowerment is focused at the microenterprise level, can there really be an opportunity for women to become empowered? For sure when women are making no money or next to no money, and then they can increase their income to $2 per day that is a big step up for them to start to make choices. The issue is when international aid initiatives stop there, at the microenterprise level where women make only $2 a day!  At this income level, women can achieve subsistence for themselves—that is not empowerment and it is not contributing towards a society moving forward and advancing socially and economically.

To focus solely on this level in economics, the micro level, and not take into consideration any of the other levels, then no change will occur whatsoever in the lives of women after the project is over because this is not the leverage point. Changing attitudes will adjust laws and the way of doing business. This in conjunction with developing markets and providing women the skills to participate in the markets is a surer bet of achieving systemic change.

I’d like to return to the gender empowerment event that I attended here in Nicaragua. The gender event was organized by the NGO. There was no coordination  in the preparation of the event or to follow up after the event. The women went and listened, but the communications person from the head office had no experience in how to facilitate such a meeting.

When NGOs create gender empowerment workshops or events to provide a glimpse at the discrimination women themselves are experiencing, with no tools to address the injustice, I am not really sure what the point is of the event. The NGO said that there were follow up events- well you know, when the follow-up event is a in the near future, how can you even return to that moment when the emotion is so intense because you realize that others too are experiencing the constraints of discrimination?

This was a lost opportunity of connecting gender awareness with market development because of lack of coordination. I had hoped to facilitate a discussion the following class but the NGO chose not to rent a space so we met in a restaurant and had to compete with a room full of noisy lunch patrons. We had no opportunity to discuss the films or role play some interviews. From there, the women went out to interview potential buyers and input suppliers. Three women went to interview an input supply store. The owner was brusque and said he had no time for an interview. This experience coupled with their timidity made them afraid to do any more interviews. They dropped out. I did not hear about the experience until two classes later.


Seems to me that the way gender and women’s empowerment is being played out here with the NGO in Nicaragua is to provide information, which is not really empowerment at all. What a lost opportunity for real development.


DFID & SDC,2014. The Operational Guide for the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) Approach, 2nd Edition [online]. London UK: DFID & SDC. Available from: [Accessed December 10, 2014].

 Hodgson, G.M., 2006. What are institutions? Journal of Economic Issues [online], 40 (1). Available from: [Accessed March 26, 2015].

 Kabeer, Naila. 2014. Gender & Social Protection Strategies in the Informal Economy. London, UK: Routledge.

Williamson, O.E., 2000. The new institutional economics: Taking stock, looking ahead. Journal of Economic Literature [online], 38 (3). Available from: [Accessed March 26, 2011].


Leave a Reply

Translate »