Quiet Revolution Can Globalization Help Women out of Traditional Roles?

Women are becoming high-level managers in Europe, entrepreneurs in Asia and mechanics in Africa. The more globalization changes the world, the more it liberates women from traditional roles. But what are they doing with the opportunity?


Sandra Aguebor fell in love with a black machine and oil, and for an entire week she dreamed of repairing cars. She woke up one morning at 4 o'clock and told her father and mother about her dream. They told her to forget about it. But even after she turned 14, Sandra continued to pester her father. She was born in Benin City, Nigeria, and there had never been a mechanic in the family, which supported itself by farming a small plot of land.

Sandra became the first woman to work as an auto mechanic in Nigeria, she says. She also learned to train other women to be mechanics, calling her project the "Lady Mechanic Initiative." Now she's come to Deauville to talk about it. Aguebor, a dynamic woman in jeans and a bright yellow T-shirt, stands out among the 1,100 women in Deauville. Not many look as though they had ever felt engine oil on their hands.

Late last year, a global conference called the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society met in Deauville, a resort town in northern France. There were businesswomen and politicians at the conference, which features women from 90 countries, some wearing Indian saris and others dressed in African robes. But most of attendees were dressed in business outfits, and for three full days they looked as if they had just come from the hairdresser.

The economic crisis was the focus of this year's conference, of course. But the topics on the agenda included globalization and progress, and the question of how globalization is changing women, and where women are changing the world.

Among those invited to tell their stories in Deauville were Sandra Aguebor, 34, from Nigeria, Sandrine Devillard, 38, from France, Diane von Fürstenberg, 63, from the United States, and Irene Khan, 52, from Bangladesh -- an auto mechanic, an executive at McKinsey & Company, a fashion designer and the head of Amnesty International, respectively. Their four stories, from four continents, were brought together in Deauville, and they provided a notion of the future of women in a globalized world.

The atmosphere was charged with ambition, a sense of concern, doubt and irritation. But the women here also seemed determined to benefit from the financial crisis, from this unheard-of moment in the world economy.

Shattering Gender Stereotypes

Globalization breaks through cultural barriers and transports images and ideas on television and the Internet. It means the expansion of knowledge, people, goods, money and values. It often runs up against archaic social ideas that cement drastic inequality between the sexes. Globalization attacks backward gender roles in Vietnam, encourages women in Yemen to shed their veils and gives European women economic power.

The faces of power around the globe are increasingly female -- think of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington. Spain's current defense minister, Carme Chacón, was visibly pregnant when she made an appearance before Spanish troops. Anne Lauvergeon in France runs the nuclear power company Areva, US multinational PepsiCo has a female CEO, the United Arab Emirates has a female minister of economics and in Iceland, women were promoted to head two of the now-nationalized banks in the wake of that nation's financial crisis.

The presence of women in power carries a potent symbolism, but progress requires more than symbols. The question is whether these women are truly changing the world or whether their roles will remain largely symbolic.

With her dark curls and soft eyes, Irene Kahn is accustomed to spoiling the mood with hard facts. Born in Bangladesh, now living in London, Kahn runs Amnesty International. At the conference, she talked about the problems of tremendous growth and crushing poverty in her native Bangladesh, as well as in many other freshly globalized countries. She's aware that three-fifths of the world's poorest people and two-thirds of the illiterate are women. Women perform two-thirds of all work if you include unpaid labor, but they receive only 10 percent of total wages paid worldwide. They own 1 percent of assets in all countries.

But Kahn also pointed to progress. "My grandmother could barely write her name," she said. "I studied at Harvard."

She glanced at the audience, which includes many women who benefit from globalization, as well as those who see the message they and their lives convey. We embody progress. But what does progress mean for the ladies of Deauville: a better career, or a better world?

It's difficult to measure real progress in numbers. For the last decade or so the United Nations has issued a Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), which specifies the degree of gender equality in a given country on a scale of 0 to 1. But instead of the distribution of political power, the UN index compares men and women based on such factors as life expectancy, education and income.

At the time of the conference in October, according to the UN's latest numbers, France was in seventh place -- behind Iceland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands. Germany ranked 20th, the United States 16th, the United Kingdom 10th. In both Germany and France the income gap between men and women was the main source of inequality.

Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone were at the bottom of the list of 157 countries. War zones like Iraq and Afghanistan are not included in the statistics.

France had a value of 0.95 on the scale, while Bangladesh's was 0.539. One could say that women in Bangladesh had approximately half the rights of those in France. But Irene Khan's native country had improved in the last 10 years. It ranked 140th in 1998 -- 20 positions lower than today.

'Feminized' Immigration

The country that Irene Khan, a physician's daughter, left at 14, when she was sent to a boarding school in Europe, has since experienced the same convulsions, in a more aggravated form, that Karl Marx once predicted in his "Communist Manifesto." It's as if Marx had written the screenplay for countries like Bangladesh, for those "uninterrupted convulsions of all social conditions" caused by the global market, which seeks markets and shifts production.

Bangladesh is an Muslim nation, one of the poorest in the world, where some people believe that the dominance of men over women comes from Allah. The world market has transformed it into a production site, especially for the textile industry, because labor is so much cheaper there than in Europe -- especially when the workers are women. Work has also given women the opportunity to step outside their sheltered lives. This is often coupled with significant health risks and long workdays in poorly ventilated factories with few protections against fire. In other words, progress for women in Bangladesh can come at the risk of their lives.

Women in Bangladesh earn an average of $1,300 (€1,000) a year, less than half as much as men. But if families must do without this $1,300 because factories close in the economic crisis, there can be no progress.

The world market needs goods, and it provides work and money. It was in Bangladesh that Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus developed the concept of helping women build businesses with microloans. The world market can introduce ideas. Travel doesn't belong to the traditional image of women, but in Bangladesh, as in many countries of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, growing numbers of women are emigrating to earn the money needed to support their families. Some social scientists have already noticed a "feminization of immigration."

Some women emigrate to work on assembly lines, but most do it to meet the growing demand for services in caring for the elderly and children. The money they earn abroad can provide them with freedom -- that is, if they earn anything at all, and if their work is remunerated and not simple slavery. The illegal economy benefits from globalization, too. The International Labor Organization estimates that human trafficking, mainly with women, is responsible for an annual profit of about $30 billion (€23 billion).

Some emigrate and know that they will become prostitutes, because there are no other opportunities for them.


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