Last year, the World Economic Forum forecast that it would take five generations to achieve gender equality in every nation. Now, the World Bank wants to rapidly accelerate that time frame.
The international financial institution is poised to launch a strategy aimed at significantly advancing the rights and economic opportunities for girls and women by 2030. The plan focuses on improving inclusivity and resilience through access to finance, technological innovation, and changes in public policy and law.
“Recent research demonstrates that both social norms and mindsets can change, for example, that engaging men and boys can foster their support and buy-in for gender equality,” a consultative draft of the plan states. “Positive gender outcomes can be accelerated and scaled with a better understanding of … how social norms and mindsets shape everyday expectations, priorities, and practices.”
Shifts in thought are harder to quantify than bank loans for rural women or school enrollment for girls. Yet there is plenty of evidence that female agency can move mountains. In Iran, for example, women have led the greatest threat to the Islamic government in 40 years simply by refusing to comply with laws that force them to cover their hair. . In some of the 130 countries with minimum quotas for female representation in government, such as India, male resistance to female voting and political activism has eased.
In some rural African communities, civil society organizations are replacing a harmful rite of passage with health education. One such program helped Kamanda Timayio, leader of the Masai village of Maparasha, Kenya, change his mind about female genital mutilation. He told Le Monde that he had “emerged from ignorance” and would abandon the practice.
The World Bank cites other examples. From 1970 to 2022, Bangladesh quadrupled female literacy rates and doubled female participation in the labor force. Its gross domestic product more than tripled. The change gathered its own momentum. Recruiting salaried women as teachers and health workers from within their own communities boosted trust “and made women’s mobility and work more socially acceptable.”
The bank’s plan would target norms and institutions that may still require generational shifts. It has taken Rwanda more than two decades to establish itself as a model for land reforms that boost economic empowerment for women. “No one benefits if women are held back,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said, arguing for land reform in 2015. “We have to change mindsets, not just the laws.”
The World Bank hopes to spread that message.