July 2, 2010 — Never content behind a desk, University of Virginia sociology professor Rae Blumberg has done research in more than 40 countries throughout her career and applied her insights to scores of development projects in those nations.
She began her globe-trotting career as a young Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela, where she gained a taste for blending scholarship and "Indiana Jones"-style travels and adventures.
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During her time in Venezuela in the early 1970s, Blumberg and her then-husband led an expedition to the remote headwaters of the Orinoco River to study two jungle tribes. A fleeting moment among members of the Maquiritare tribe – gathering for a farewell photograph – helped define Blumberg's life work.
"As the men who had been our informants posed for the picture, a middle-aged woman joined the group," she recalled. "The assembled group parted to deferentially make a space for her near the middle." Without saying anything the men "conveyed that this was an important woman, due respect and inclusion."
Although her group had observed the women's activities the whole time, no one had interviewed this woman or any other women in the villages they visited. "Suddenly I realized that we had missed half the story. We thought we had studied and understood these people. But we didn't. This was a little before the women's movement exploded in the media, but I had just had my own gender-awakening moment."
Recognizing the importance of understanding women's positions and perspectives in any society has been the foundation of Blumberg's career ever since. Having done so for almost 40 years, she has gathered plenty of support for one big idea – that economically empowering women tends to unleash a host of accompanying benefits.
Crisscrossing the globe, traveling for up to three or four months of each year, Blumberg has worked as a development consultant and done research in every region of the world, across all six cultivated continents.
She has applied her keen awareness of gender effects to consulting for projects in every major development sector, from microfinance to education, to farming and fisheries, to AIDS and public health.
She has visited Ecuador more than 30 times, has lived in Venezuela for more than four years, and has made multiple trips to more than a dozen countries. (Souvenirs collected on each trip serve as presents for friends and furnish much of her apartment, which she jokingly refers to as "the Blumberg Ethnographic Museum.")
Her love of hands-on development consulting has given her an exceptional amount of field data, based upon first-hand observations across dozens of cultures. Her most recent trip took her to northern Uganda in March and April. Throughout her travels, she has found more and more evidence supporting her general theory of gender stratification, first published in 1984.
Her theory hypothesizes that the most important variable affecting gender equality is the relative control of economic assets by men and women, from the micro level of the household to the macro level of the state.
Greater control of income – particularly if it extends beyond bare subsistence to include discretionary income – boosts women's self-confidence and control over their destinies, or "life options," she said. Those might include everything from household authority to freedom of movement, fertility decisions and whether, when and whom to marry or divorce.
A second Blumberg hypothesis contends that women spend the income under their control differently than do their male counterparts, who tend to have broader array of spending obligations and habits, including, in most societies, a personal spending entitlement (often used for recreation). In contrast, women tend to hold back less income for themselves and devote it instead to family welfare – especially to the nutrition, health care and education of their children.
Blumberg argues that both theories have proved applicable at any point in human history, in any location and among any culture or social group.
A cornucopia of benefits is associated with women's increased influence on life options and income, including less corruption and greater environmental sustainability, Blumberg has found. She refers to these associated benefits with the metaphor of a "magic potion" for development.
When women gain more control over their own fertility decisions, they tend to start having children later, have fewer of them and space them further apart, she said. (Those differences, enacted on a global scale – as women since 1970 have filled two new jobs for every one taken by a man – explain the absence of the long-predicted global population explosion.)
"Control of fertility may be the single most important determinant of a woman's life prospects," Blumberg noted.
Greater female economic power enhances the "wealth and well-being of nations," Blumberg said. It does so for at least two reasons: First, particularly in developing countries, a lower fertility rate has been correlated with stronger national income growth. And second, with more income control, women are better able – and often more willing than their husbands – to send their daughters as well as their sons to school.
Female education is enormously positive and affects the whole society. Its benefits include lower infant mortality rates, lower fertility rates, greater female participation in modern sector employment and greater spending toward the next generation of better-educated daughters, initiating a "virtuous circle," according to Blumberg.
Development policymakers are aware of the benefits of girls' education, Blumberg said. That's why they have chosen elimination of the gender gap in schooling as the target for the third United Nations Millennium Development Goal: to "promote gender equality and empower women."
The stimulating impact of rising female labor force participation has been found widely: In India, the states growing the fastest – and reducing poverty the most – are those with the highest percentage of women in the labor force.
At the world economy level, rising female employment in the rich countries has been a major driving force behind global GDP growth since 1985, as a 2006 Economist Magazine article notes.
Conversely, where women are economically disempowered, a host of negative effects can ensue. Blumberg refers to these effects with the metaphor of the "four horsemen of the apocalypse," representing war, plague, famine and death.
Blumberg cites a 2005 study that found that nations with only 10 percent of women in the labor force are 30 times more likely to have deadly armed conflict within their borders than nations with 40 percent of women engaged in the labor force.
Despite evidence for the abundance of positives associated with women's economic empowerment – and negatives attending their lack of it – many development projects continue to overlook these ramifications, to their detriment, she adds.
Blumberg traces this blind spot to the cultural history of developed nations.
"Since 100 percent of today's advanced industrial societies emerged from patriarchal agrarian societies, it's not surprising that we tend to view patriarchy as universal and remain unaware of more gender-equal peoples among us," Blumberg said.
Gender-egalitarian societies where women often control roughly half of economic resources include the villages of irrigated rice societies of Southeast Asia, comprising a total population of roughly 500 million spread across areas of Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma – roughly equivalent to the entire European Union.
Better understanding the positive ramifications of women's economic empowerment has been the take-away message of dozens of Blumberg's scholarly articles and has guided her recommendations for dozens of development projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, the World Bank and various other organizations.
Most recently, she worked in northern Uganda in March and April. After 23 years of atrocities and devastation by the Lord’s Resistance Army that forced most of the population into refugee camps, an agreement has stopped the fighting and is emptying the camps. She designed a monitoring and evaluation system for a proposed USAID project to rebuild roads, water supplies, schools and rural health clinics. She also considered gender issues and her recommendations included a familiar refrain.
If a project's management reduces women's relative income, she noted – such as by expecting them to do road-building work but giving the resulting earnings to their husbands – project goals often falter as women withhold their labor or divert it to income sources they can control.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where women raise up to 80 percent of the locally grown food, "It's the African farmer and her husband, not the farmer and his wife," Blumberg said.
"If you do an agriculture or road-building project and you don't take into account who's doing the labor and who has control of the income, especially in the 75 percent of African societies where the property system privileges men over women, you're not going to get the most bang for your buck," she said.