As we celebrate International Women's Day 2014 on March 8, it is gratifying to reflect on how far women have come in the past few decades. On average, the world looks close to achieving the gender equity aspects of the Millennium Development Goals: Girls are on par with boys in terms of primary education and trail only slightly in secondary and tertiary education. (In some regions of the world, girls do much better.)
Across the board, women made significant strides in the labor force and prominent management roles. Chile's first female president, Michele Bachelet, will take office in a few days. (She previously served in 2006–10.) In December General Motors announced that Mary Barra would become the first CEO of a major automaker, joining 21 other women as head of a Fortune 500 company. The International Monetary Fund has been led by a woman, Christine Lagarde, since 2011.
There is still a long way to go, however. Women remain more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers, as agricultural workers, or in the informal economy. Nearly across the board, women are paid less than men. And women are more vulnerable to insecurity and health threats. Of the 130 million children who are out of school, 70 percent are girls. According to the World Bank's 2011 World Development Indicators, 20 percent of the world's women remain illiterate as of 2011, compared with 12 percent of males. Girls have a 13 percent illiteracy rate, nearly twice that of male youth. Women and girls are more likely than men and boys to be subject to sexual violence, be involved in sex work, and contract HIV/AIDS.
Study after study demonstrates the positive development and growth results from investing in girls and giving women equal opportunities in the labor force. Societies that do not invest in girls are shown to pay for this preference with lower growth and reduced income. Several studies estimate offering women the same quality education as men leads to significant gains of several points of economic growth.
Giving girls and women equal opportunities in education and employment has been understood for many years as an obvious contributor to economic growth. Less well understood, perhaps, is that equal participation in sports helps girls traverse the path to better outcomes for themselves, and better growth outcomes for their countries. Playing sports as youth has been detailed in a variety of well-researched literature to yield positive educational, health and labor force gains. In a newly published Policy Brief, I have cited much of this literature showing that the denial of opportunities for girls in this area is bad economics. Allowing girls equal access to sports can help countries magnify the positive gains from improving educational systems.
Improving sports programs for women has resource implications, especially in poor societies where the leadership seeks to concentrate on basic issues of health and literacy. But investing in sports programs for women can yield a significant payoff. For government officials this would mean a populace better prepared to face development challenges. For the private sector, it would mean a more prepared pool of workers and, in the longer run, a larger market of consumers.
To celebrate International Women's Day, countries, especially those in need of development gains, should encourage their girls and women to play.