The Global Research Network on the Economic Empowerment of Women (ReNEW) seeks to examine innovative approaches to research and policy development to improve women’s economic empowerment. (Photo: Jason Goodman, Unsplash)
Women’s economic empowerment is the next frontier for social transformation, says principal investigator Rhonda Breitkreuz from the University of Alberta.
By Donna McKinnon
This article originally appeared on the University of Alberta website.
Globally, not one country is on target to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality by 2030.
The cost of gender inequality varies region to region, but the themes are universal: persistent gender pay gaps; unequal distribution of unpaid and informal work between women and men; lower political participation; increased risk of poverty and violence for women and mothers; and the negative effects of income insecurity on individual, child and familial health.
“It’s not good for women, it’s not good for men, and it’s not good for society,” says Rhonda Breitkreuz, Chair of the Department of Human Ecology in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, who argues that the economic empowerment of women is the next frontier for social transformation.
“Women’s economic empowerment shows promise in disrupting, reshaping and redistributing the benefits of women’s economic contributions,” says Breitkreuz. “This power has the potential to act as a safeguard against poverty, violence, social exclusion and poor health outcomes.”
In 2020, Breitkreuz launched the Global Research Network on the Economic Empowerment of Women (ReNEW) to examine innovative approaches to research and policy development to improve women’s economic empowerment.
“Gender inequality is a human rights issue,” says Breitkreuz. “Women make up half the population — we should care about the contributions that they have to make. If women are not at the table, you miss that perspective and we know that diversity of voice is good for creating better policies, better workplaces and better societies. We should strive for equality of opportunity, and ensure that women are not disadvantaged. Currently, they are.”
Six countries representing five global regions are involved in ReNEW: Australia (Oceania), Brazil (South America), Ghana (Africa), Ireland (Europe), Mexico (North America), and Canada, including five researchers from the University of Alberta (where research at the intersection of gender is a University of Alberta signature area).
One of the key aspects of ReNEW, Breitkreuz explains, is its interdisciplinary nature which draws on the diverse perspectives of researchers from both developed and underdeveloped nations. Collaboration is robust, productive, and at times, challenging.
“When you have economists, human ecologists, sociologists, healthcare scholars and engineers all having this discussion, they’re coming at it with different points of view, different knowledge bases. It’s richer and more meaningful,” she says.
Another key consideration is context. Gender inequality begins at home with the division of labour and, as Breitkreuz explains, the economic empowerment of women at the individual level is only as good as the enabling environment around them. Women still do the lion’s share of unpaid work, and until that work is “recognized, reduced and redistributed”, says Breitkreuz (quoting Diane Elson), the gender divide will persist.
To be successful in the workplace, and even to enter it in many cases, there must be good childcare and maternity leave policies in place. Women in low-income situations face even greater challenges, where even the lack of appropriate workplace clothing can be a barrier to success.
“Even if you are fully employed and have full childcare, there are still issues around unpaid work in the home, and those enabling environments — the policies and the laws that improve the lives of women — become really important,” says Breitkreuz. “I also recognize that there’s a lot of injustice between privileged and non-privileged women, because it’s the non-privileged women who tend to fill that gap.”
One of the most important considerations for ReNEW is looking at women’s economic empowerment in developing, emerging and established economies — identifying areas of convergence and divergence for women in a range of locales, explains Breitkreuz. Members are exploring approaches that are effective within certain contexts and sharing them with other contexts — finding new and innovative ways to address the persistent problem of gender inequality that could be transformative for women.
Breitkreuz hopes that ReNEW will be long-term and sustainable. There is a book in the works, with meetings and workshops to follow. The international collaboration, she says, has been nothing short of emboldening.
“I started this from scratch, not knowing if there would be interest in developing this,” says the life-long social justice champion. “It’s been exciting for me to see just how committed the members are from all the different countries. I don’t think we can ever take any kind of human rights issue for granted. It’s incumbent on all of us to keep that in the forefront.”