The IMF: Crawling the Walk on Gender?

Under managing director Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has become a champion for gender equality. The IMF’s first major report on female participation in the labor force and growth came out in 2013. [1] It labeled gender equality a “macrocritical” issue—the term used to describe a topic falls within the IMF’s allowed scope for policy advice and interventions. This note examines how much the IMF’s dialogue with its member countries (through what it calls “Article IV discussions”) has changed as a result of the macrocritical labeling. In short, there has been increased attention to the issue as reflected in word counts and discussion of women’s labor force participation, but there is still a long way to go.

The IMF research has highlighted that “labor markets across the world remain divided along gender lines, and gender equality remains an elusive goal.” There are serious gaps in overall employment, formal sector employment, wages, management, and political representation in countries rich and poor. For example, in the United States, only 4.4 percent of Standard and Poor 500 companies have a woman CEO. Globally, women are underrepresented in the labor force by five percentage points. And this labor force participation gap is significantly larger in the formal economy (54 percent of women are formally employed compared to 81 percent of men). These gender gaps in the labor market can reduce GDP by up to 27 percent in some regions, suggests the Fund.

The IMF’s official position is that women’s “participation in the labor market is an important driver of growth and stability.” In 2013, the IMF said that “reflecting macro-criticality, the gender-specific impact of policy measures will also be addressed by IMF surveillance.” That meant Fund staff could bring up gender in the formal dialogue with members about their macroeconomic status—Article IV discussions, as they are known. And the Fund has a number of specific policy recommendations about how to shrink the gap including:

  • Equalizing access to education
  • Removing gender-based legal obstacles and restrictions
  • Reforming fiscal policies, including how labor income is taxed (moving towards individual rather than family-filing)
  • Introducing policies that subsidize high-quality childcare and encourage paternity leave
  • Supporting sexual and reproductive healthcare
  • Reducing gender-based violence and supporting political representation

Christine Lagarde has also committed the organization to push countries towards gender budgeting, gender surveillance, and gender programming measures.[2]

But how has talk been reflected in action? Two years after the initial statement that gender was a topic for Article IV discussions, the Fund announced it had “begun a new initiative to operationalize inequality/jobs, gender, and energy issues in Article IV reports, beginning with a set of pilot countries in each region.” The 10 countries included India, Chile, and Sweden.[3] Article IV consultations are only the first step to full operationalization, which takes inclusion in IMF lending and Technical Assistance operations. Nevertheless, these consultations are an important step towards promoting gender-specific programs, and also demonstrate that the Fund has been using its influence with finance ministers to push reform. The IMF has also begun requesting central banks to provide sex disaggregated financial services data for their financial access survey and has joined a financial inclusion gender data partnership with Data2X, the World Bank, and others.

Recent Bretton Woods Project analysis of the IMF and gender notes that while surveillance of female labor force participation was piloted in at least nine Article IV reviews in 2015, the breadth of the work varied widely (in India it was limited to one sentence welcoming the improvement of labor market flexibility as a way of boosting falling female labor force participation).[4] The BWP report also notes that an exclusive focus on labor force participation is limiting and that “four commonly IMF-endorsed policies (public wage bill cuts or caps, labor market reforms, healthcare reforms, and value-added taxes) can undermine gender equality.”

To build on that analysis, we decided it was worth taking a broader look at how much change there has been in Article IV reports when it comes to including gender issues from before the 2013 statement of macro-criticality through the 2015 pilots to today.

To do that, we ran an analysis of every Article IV report produced by the IMF since 2010. We searched for terms related to gender: “women,” “woman,” “gender,” “girl,” “maternal,” “sex,” and “female.” We examined the context of those words—were they describing a piece of data, related to a policy or program, or something else?

In particular, we looked for language noting and/or applauding a policy change or investment program likely to make a substantive difference to gender balance and government service provision for women that went beyond data collection and analysis, even if improved gender balance was not the sole or primary aim of the policy.

Some examples include:

  • The Article IV text for Chile in 2015: “Staff welcomed recent changes in unemployment insurance... and the efforts to improve skill training programs [Mas Capaz] for youth and women outside of the labor force.”

  • The Central African Republic document for 2011: “Health sector support Project to increase use and improve the quality of health services in rural areas with special emphasis on maternal and child health.”

  • The France discussions of 2011: “To maximize labor supply dividends, a reform of the tax-benefit system could target work incentives for elderly workers and women with school-age children.”

Examples of mentions we did not count as applauding a policy change or investment program likely to make a substantive difference to gender balance and government service provision for women include acknowledgements of analytical work (e.g., Bhutan 2014’s discussion of the Gender Policy Note which focuses on providing data on the status of women in the country).

We also looked at encouragement towards new policies or policy reform likely to make a substantive difference to gender balance and government service provision for women that went beyond data collection and analysis, even if improved gender balance was not the sole or primary aim of the policy (as it might be equalizing retirement ages even through the primary aim was an improved fiscal situation—a frequent entry for many rich countries). For example:

  • The Austria 2017 Article IV text stating “A comprehensive reform package should focus on four key areas: … providing incentives for higher labor force participation among elderly workers, as well as for full-time employment of women.”

  • The Italy 2017 discussion: “alignment of the statutory retirement age of women with that of men.”

  • The Mauritius 2014 Article IV: “An EITC has two main objectives. It augments the income of the working poor and encourages labor force participation and employment, as only the working individuals are eligible. These two benefits could potentially help to address two persistent problems in Mauritius, namely the poorly targeted social safety net system, and low youth and female labor participation.”

Note that the Article IV documents we draw on sometimes include country responses and so we give “credit” to the IMF for words written by member countries—however, a generous interpretation is that member countries are discussing gender in response to (increasing) IMF interest. And this is not an exact exercise: we may have missed some analysis and policy language on gender that did not mention any of our search terms (including “girls”). There is a fine line in some reports between reporting future actions and encouraging them, and the context is not always clear as to something being a recommendation or description. We have published the dataset (.xlsx file) and would welcome comments and reactions.

Table 1. Gender in Article IV Reports Pre- and Post-Macrocritical

  2010-2013 2014-2017
Word Count (sum of “women,” “woman,” “gender,” “girl,” “maternal,” “sex,” and “female” per document) 6.2 7.8
Mentioned (% of documents that mention any of “women,” “woman,” “gender,” “girl,” “maternal,” “sex,” and “female”) 67 74
Frequent Mentions (% of documents that mention any of the terms “women,” “woman,” “gender,” “girl,” “maternal,” “sex,” and “female” for a summed total of ten or more times) 28 32
Policy/Reform (% documents that describe or propose a policy reform or project linked to gender equality) 23 31
Reform (% documents that propose a policy reform linked to gender equality 7 15

Table 2. Gender in Article IV Reports by Year

  Word Count Mentioned Frequent Mentions Policy/Reform Reform
2010 5.6 67 30 18 3
2011 5.4 63 20 22 6
2012 7.1 69 33 27 9
2013 6.8 71 29 26 10
2014 5.1 68 17 30 11
2015 9.7 81 47 23 13
2016 8.4 72 30 37 13
2017 8.1 77 33 35 21

Table 1 presents summary statistics in the form of the average of yearly totals for the four years between 2010-2013 inclusive (pre-macrocritical) and 2014-2017 inclusive (post-macrocritical). Table 2 lays out yearly totals; Figure 1 presents the results in a graph. As the tables suggest, there has been progress:

Table 3. Year Coefficients from a Regression of Word Count = α + βi (countryi) + γy(yeary)

2011 0.814
2012 1.909
2013 1.791
2014 1.055
2015 2.812
2016 3.412*
2017 5.563***
Observations 441
Standard errors in parentheses
* p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001
  • The average Article IV discussion contained the words “women,” “woman,” “gender,” “girl,” “maternal,” “sex,” and “female” a total of 6.2 times before 2014, and 7.8 times since then (regression analysis suggests a marked and statistically significant increase in word count in 2017 amongst countries that had repeat Article IV consultations over the period—see Table 3).

  • Sixty-seven percent of Article IV discussions mentioned at least one of those words at least once prior to 2014; that has climbed to 74 percent since then.

  • Twenty-eight percent of Article IV discussions mentioned those words a sum total of 10 or more times prior to 2014; that reached 32 percent in the post-macrocritical era.

  • Twenty-three percent of Article IV discussions mentioned a policy or policy reform likely to make a substantive difference to gender balance and government service provision for women that went beyond data collection and analysis prior to 2014, rising to 31 percent since then.

  • The average annual percentage of Article IV discussions that saw advocacy for a reform likely to make a substantive difference to gender balance and government service provision for women climbed from seven to fifteen percent.

To date this might be seen more as crawling than walking the talk on gender: about 4/5 of Article IV discussions completed so far in 2017 still don’t specifically advocate for a reform, or program to promote women’s economic empowerment, despite it being a considerable issue in every country. But you have to crawl before you can walk. And old IMF hands around CGD are of the opinion that progress seems to be relatively fast for the IMF compared to the integration of other topics including climate. So, muted congratulations to the IMF, and here are some things it would be good to see in Article IV discussions going forward:

  • For all we didn’t count acknowledgement of partner country analytical work as a policy mention, such work is important. The IMF should encourage more analysis and carry out more itself: it would be good to see mentions of gender budgeting and gender surveillance go up in Article IV discussions, and the IMF providing more support for such measures, as well as more estimates of the cost of inequality at the country level.

  • The IMF has listed a number of measures that are important to gender equality, it would be a positive step to see staff analysis and policy recommendations around the whole gamut of those measures including access to education, gender-based legal obstacles, moving towards individual rather than family-filing, subsidizing childcare, paternity leave, and sexual and reproductive healthcare.

  • And it would be a leap forward to see these issues fully addressed in new IMF lending operations. Short term macrostability will be counterproductive if it comes at the cost of long term equality.

Lagarde and the IMF have made some important steps in the right direction on gender in the macroeconomy. But there is still a long road ahead.

[1] Elborgh-Woytek, Ms Katrin, Ms Monique Newiak, Ms Kalpana Kochhar, Ms Stefania Fabrizio, Mr Kangni Kpodar, Mr Philippe Wingender, Mr Benedict J. Clements, and Mr Gerd Schwartz. Women, work, and the economy: Macroeconomic gains from gender equity. International Monetary Fund, 2013.

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