So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”

by Anna Carella, PhD student in political science at Vanderbilt University Women have increasingly become the focus of international economic development projects, as exemplified by "the girl effect,” a catchphrase and global phenomenon that suggests that development projects aimed at women will succeed because women are more likely to nurture their families and communities.

The “girl effect” initiative was launched by the Nike Foundation in 2008 and has gained traction in the media (Save a Girl, Save the World,  Saving the World’s Women, and Girl Effect Could Lift the Global Economy) and at the 2009 World Economic Forum, where the girl effect panel ranked as the fourth most popular session. According to President of the Nike Foundation Maria Eitel, the goal is “to eradicate global poverty by investing in girls.”  While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women. Here’s why:

1) It relies on the essentialist view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.” Rather than attempting to increase men’s domestic workload, the girl effect calls on women to carry the dual burden of housework and wealth creation. Why reinforce perceptions about “women’s work” and “men’s work” by claiming that women make better homemakers? Why not instead address the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?

2) “She will drive 70% of agricultural production. She is an unrealized economic force, accelerating growth and progress in every sector,” claims the campaign. But women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled. Industrialized countries relied on technological advancements to fuel growth during industrialization, not women. It’s a myth that women will drive growth enough to pull the poorest countries out of poverty: What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

3) The goal of economic development prioritizes the well-being of the economy over the well-being of women, since gender equality is not pursued for its own good but as a byproduct of development strategies. This may be damaging to women in unanticipated ways—for example, increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients. The campaign assures us that once women start working and contributing to household income, their autonomy will grow. In reality, men may feel threatened by the singular focus on women. The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet the girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries (and rich ones too!).

4) The girl effect reinforces the perception of women and more generally people in developing countries as needing “saving.” In the girl effect video above, the viewer is told to “imagine a girl living in poverty.” Then the word “GIRL” is displayed with flies buzzing around the letters, drawing on a stereotypical image often conjured by Westerners to depict sad, impoverished children in developing countries. Such images perpetuate the dichotomy of modern Western world vs. the backwards, charity-dependent rest of the world. In the slideshow, Westerners are invited to “fix this picture,” and told that if they invest in girls they will change the course of history. This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.