Why looking at discriminatory social institutions is critical for the gender-responsiveness of social protection policies

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By Gaëlle Ferrant and Caroline Tassot, Economists, OECD Development Centre


This blog is part of a special series marking the intersection between
the 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)
the 2019 SIGI Global Report and work on Social Protection


SIGI-Gender-Social-ProtectionThe call for leaving no one behind includes extending social protection to excluded groups, such as vulnerable women, and providing all women with similar benefits as men. For instance, despite the universal provision of paid maternity leave (only 2 out of the 180 SIGI1 countries do not provide paid maternity or parental leave for mothers), only 41% of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit (with fewer than 16% in Africa), while 83 million remain uncovered (ILO, 2017). In Europe, the relatively narrow gender gap in old-age pension coverage (6.5 percentage points) hides extensive gender disparities in the actual benefits: women’s pensions are, on average, 40% lower than those of men (Directorate for Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs, 2016).

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably SDG 5 on gender and SDG 1.3 on social protection, means better understanding the conditions that will allow such universal social protection coverage to translate into fair and equal outcomes at all stages of the lifecycle for women and men. This is exactly what the Commission on the Status of Women will discuss in New York this March (11-22 March 2019). It is also at the heart of the Joint Statement by the Social Protection Inter-Agency Co-operation Board (SPIAC-B), in which the OECD Development Centre is a member.

If we want to get it right for future generations of women and girls around the world, we need to understand the value of gender-responsive social protection systems. Evidence from both the European Union Social Protection Systems Programme (EU-SPS) and the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)2highlights the close links between gender discriminatory social institutions and gender inequality in social protection. Indeed, gender discriminatory social institutions explain gender gaps in access to social protection in two important ways (OECD, 2019).

First, legal barriers and gender norms based on the male-breadwinner model tend to confine women to their reproductive role. At the global level, one person in two has negative attitudes towards “working mothers”, thinking children suffer if mothers are gainfully working outside the home. One person in six denies women the right to work, declaring that it is unacceptable for a female family member to have paid work outside the home because her role is to take care of both the children and the household. In addition, women devote an average of five hours per day to unpaid care and domestic work, compared to fewer than two hours for men. These facts help explain why female labour-force participation has stagnated in past decades and why women are under-represented in the work force and over-represented in low-paid and part-time jobs, which limits access to adequate employment-based social insurance (OECD, Tackling Vulnerability in the Informal Economy, forthcoming).

Secondly, patriarchal social institutions often include social protection schemes that have been designed for working men with uninterrupted and full-time careers in the formal economy. Women are more vulnerable to poverty and dependent on their husbands, family and community because they benefit less from formal safety nets throughout their entire lives. Existing schemes are in many cases not “women-friendly” and often lead by default to huge gender gaps. On the one hand, gender gaps in labour force participation and pay mean that women contribute less to the contributory schemes and have lower saving levels. On the other hand, non-contributory schemes that overemphasise the role of women as caregivers – like many conditional cash transfers do – may further increase women’s share of domestic responsibilities.

Clearly, gender-blind social protection programmes in a context of discriminatory social institutions have real affects, often negative ones, on women and girls. Countering such affects requires concrete policy solutions.3 In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, underage girls in urban areas are increasingly at risk of early motherhood. An important policy priority, therefore, could be to enhance access to social services, particularly health, labour market and training programmes, to help empower these girls to delay pregnancy (OECD, 2018). In Indonesia, analysing old-age pensions through a gender lens reveals that elderly women are particularly vulnerable due to their longevity, lower education levels, shorter labour force histories, especially in informal employment, and lower pay. As a result, only 10% of women receive a pension as they reach old age and more than 70% rely on their children for financial support, compared to 43% and 45% of men respectively. Specific solutions could include supporting active labour market policies for women not in education, employment or training, incorporating care credits within the pension system, and establishing a social pension, perhaps with an earlier retirement age for women (OECD, Social Protection System Review of Indonesia, forthcoming).

Ultimately, since the vulnerability of women and men varies and requires appropriate social protection policies specific to the needs of women and men, policy makers cannot ignore the question of how to ensure the gender-responsiveness of their social protection instruments. While gender-blind social protection systems can yield very unequal outcomes for men and women depending on the depth of discriminatory social institutions, social protection systems that do indeed compensate for such discrimination could very well advance gender equality. By joining the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the OECD is doing its part to continue that advance and to contribute further to the necessary evidence to design and implement gender-responsive social protection systems. This decision will help ensure that no one is left behind in the 2030 Agenda. It will also accelerate the benefits of stronger social protection systems for women’s and girls’ outcomes and gender equality.


ILO (2017), “World Social Protection Report 2017-19: Universal social protection to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals” , International Labour Organization, Geneva, https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_604882/lang–en/index.htm (accessed on 27 January 2019).

OECD (2018), Social Protection System Review of Kyrgyzstan, OECD Development Pathways, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264302273-en.

OECD (forthcoming), Social Protection System Review of Indonesia, OECD Development Pathways, OECD Publishing, Paris

OECD (forthcoming), Tackling Vulnerability in the Informal Economy: Insights from the Analysis of Micro and Macro Data, OECD Development Pathways, OECD Publishing, Paris

OECD (2019), Social Institutions and Gender Index 2019 Report: Transforming Challenges into Opportunities, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/bc56d212-en


1. SIGI stands for the Social Institutions and Gender Index

2. The OECD Development Centre in involved in both research projects

3. Explore more on such policy solutions through the OECD Development Centre’s work on Social Protection System Reviews