Gender and the Economy

This five-part series from the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management highlights some of the most critical issues related to gender and economic development and offers approaches working to address them.

So far in this series we have looked at the different issues women and men face when they participate in economic development projects. But the experience of gender and gender discrimination is not limited to these two categories.

Gender is a social identity expressed through actions, clothing, demeanor, and other outward signs that are learned and reinforced from the day a person is born. It is often, but not necessarily, tied to bodily characteristics. Gender is both a personal identity—deeply felt and deeply engrained in individuals—and a social identity that shapes how people interact with others. Even within the categories of man and woman, there is a great deal of diversity in how gender is expressed in different places. In the United States, for example, it is not considered masculine to hold hands with male friends in public, while in India men holding hands or sitting in public places with their arms around each other is acceptable and common. Indians do not assume that men holding hands are romantic partners. During our 18 months of research in India, we sometimes saw large groups of male friends walking together and hanging on each other, making it difficult for others to walk around them. No one remarked on this behavior there, whereas in the United States people might comment on, criticize, or even harass men behaving similarly.

This definition of gender does not limit the number of possible identities. In fact, research across places, cultures, and time shows that there are many different systems for dividing people into genders. For example, the Bugis people from South Sulawesi, Indonesia recognize five different gender categories (male, female, calalai, calabai, and bissu); each has separate norms of dress and behavior, and specific social roles. One of these categories, calalai, incorporates people who were gendered female at birth but who behave in more masculine ways. However, they are not considered men and are allowed to publicly display emotions and interact with women in ways that people gendered male cannot. Though calalai is a recognized identity, not all families are accepting, and many calalai face challenges when it comes to marriage—an important part of becoming a Bugis adult.

(Note: We will use the term gender-diverse people to refer to individuals with a variety of gender expressions that do not conform to the social norms of the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans or transgender has been used in a similar way in North America, but people in other parts of the world do not necessarily recognize or identify with that term. We will use trans to refer only to people who identify themselves that way.)

Gender-diverse people face different kinds of economic inclusion and exclusion than other marginalized groups. Even in places where gender diversity has a long history, there can be a great deal of societal ambivalence toward gender-diverse people. The hijra community, which includes intersex people, as well as those assigned male at birth who all have feminine gender expressions, has a long history in South Asia. In Hinduism, hijra are associated with both gods and goddesses, and there are several mythic tales of gender transformation. Hindus believe that the blessings of hijra are particularly powerful, especially at weddings or the birth of a child. Outside of these contexts, society generally marginalizes and discriminates against them—many are forced into sex work or begging to survive. While socially recognized and spiritually powerful, hijra face exclusion from dignified formal work.

Like hijra, gender-diverse people in Myanmar (Burma) historically had important ritual roles serving as spirit mediums. But as narrower interpretations of Buddhism gained prominence, spirit mediums’ social prestige decreased. In contemporary Myanmar, society tends to channel gender-diverse people looking for more prestigious work into the beauty industry. Burmans believe that because gender-diverse people have both male and female minds, they are better able to make women beautiful. This occupational niche has brought wealth and social standing to some, but many others fail to keep beauty businesses afloat in competitive urban markets. Such limited forms of economic inclusion still marginalize gender-diverse people by confining them to specific social and economic spaces, while other genders have access to more varied opportunities.

Attempting to speak for gender-diverse people can be as damaging as ignoring the specific issues that they face. Both Nepal and India have legally recognized “third gender” as an identity category. Third gender is meant to encompass hijra and other diverse identities that do not fall under the categories of men and women. However, gender-diverse Indians and Nepalis do not all readily identify with the term third gender, and some scholars have argued that we cannot necessarily view hijra, in particular, as a separate gender delinked from other gender categories. Attempts by international activists to assimilate hijra into the category of trans women (people assigned male at birth who identify as women) have also met with resistance from within the community. While some hijra do identify as women, others identify themselves as neither men nor women, or as both male and female.

In the United States, there are growing concerns among the gender-diverse community that increased visibility of gender-diverse people in society has led to increased violence against them. Greater representation of gender-diverse people in the media does not necessarily translate into greater social or economic power, particularly when most media is created by cis-gender people (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). In fact, murders of gender-diverse people in the United States have been on the rise, and trans women in particular are four times more likely to be victims of homicide than cis-women. Attempting to speak for gender-diverse people, even as part of efforts to improve their lives, may actually do more damage to gender-diverse individuals and communities.

Given the extent and importance of gender diversity in societies around the world, what should people who want to create more equitable economic and social systems do?

1. Take time to understand local gender categories and norms. As the examples presented here illustrate, there are tremendous differences in how societies recognize gender and how people express their gender identities. Trying to lump all this diversity into a single category hides the specific issues that different people face in different places. A cis-woman in the Gambia, where women traditionally take the lead in farming rice, does not face the same barriers as a cis-woman in Peru, where women play secondary roles in agriculture. Similarly, a calalai in Indonesia (who can behave in both masculine and feminine ways) does not experience gender in the same way as a trans woman in the Philippines (who is expected to be hyper-feminine), nor are the same economic opportunities available to them.

2. Just involving gender-diverse people is not enough. Simply adding gender-diverse people to workplaces or community groups does not necessarily erase the discrimination or barriers to full social inclusion they face. In the Philippines, trans women are drawn to employment in foreign-owned call centers, because these employers seem more open and have official non-discrimination policies. While these jobs are better than other opportunities available to them, trans women are often included on different terms than others. Many managers call on trans women to be outgoing and flamboyantly feminine to entertain their cis-gender coworkers, which marks them as different even while they are made part of the office community. Communities and employers need to include gender-diverse people in ways that do not reinforce their separateness or marginalization.

Since the mid-1990s, HIV/AIDS NGOs in India working with men who have sex with men have hired workers from that community, including hijra. These jobs are more dignified than other work available to hijra and provide employees with opportunities to learn professional and personal skills. Through their work with these organizations, some hijra have launched their own outreach, awareness, and empowerment efforts in their communities.

3. Talk to gender-diverse people before designing projects to assist them. As we mentioned above, it is important to let gender-diverse people speak for themselves, to represent their own needs and issues. This not only ensures that organizations hear the full diversity of experience, but also gives gender-diverse people the power of self-representation, which they are often denied. Furthermore, not all gender-diverse individuals want their identities called out in the form of targeted interventions. Talking to gender-diverse people is the only way to ensure that interventions address the issues they face in ways they find respectful and safe.

For example, a community organization in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which offers a variety of services to marginalized people including the transgender community, has two entrances. The back entrance is unmarked and faces an alley so that people can choose to enter in relative anonymity. The transgender activists and social workers who run the organization want people to feel safe and not force them to out themselves as people in need of services.

By listening to the voices and experiences of gender-diverse people around the world and understanding how those voices and experiences impact development efforts, policymakers, organizations, and development officers can be better allies in the fight for more equitable economic systems for all people.