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Summary of Beneria, L. & Sen, G. (1982). "Class and Gender Inequalities and Women’s Role in Economic Development: Theoretical and Practical Implications." Feminist Studies, 8(1), 157-176. 

“Class and Gender Inequalities and Women’s Role in Economic Development: Theoretical and Practical Implications”

Lourdes Beneria and Gita Sen


Beneria, L. & Sen, G. (1982). Class and Gender Inequalities and Women’s Role in Economic Development: Theoretical and Practical Implications. Feminist Studies, 8(1), 157-176.


            Development policy and planning are often blind to “women’s work” and existing gender relations. Beneria and Sen’s critique of 1970s international development policy offers a useful lesson in how the assumptions behind policies can dramatically affect a population, concerns that are still very relevant for planners today.


            In the 1970s, international development policies unequally burdened women with the responsibility for development: when the focus was on raising minimum living standards, it was up to the woman to enact this policy and actually carry out the process of “development”. It was her responsibility to find clean water and keep her family healthy, regardless of the structural challenges she might face – a lack of clean running water or sanitary sewage system, for example. At the same time, as countries developed, women lost out on economic gains. Often, due to gender inequalities, women could not “own” productive assets – such as farmland or a factory – and instead filled low-wage worker roles. Additionally, as countries industrialized, the woman’s responsibilities – unpaid and domestic in nature – was not recognized in the market economy, because small-scale activities such as making meals or sewing clothes for her family was not counted as “production”.


            In the U.S., the same lack of recognition still applies: a woman’s “double burden” occurs when she works both a job and fulfills domestic, unpaid responsibilities at home. In creating policies, planners need to carefully consider these differences in household work, and differences across gender, race and class so that their policies have more equitably distributed impacts.




            In their 1982 article, Beneria and Sen examine gender in the context of international development, arguing that both gender and class needed to be considered and understood in creating economic development policies. Until then, international development institutions such as the UN, International Labor Organization, World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development had acknowledged women’s issues but only “superficially added” this consideration into their policies (157).


            The 1970s “basic needs” approach in international development – focused on meeting minimum living standards in areas ranging from food, shelter and infrastructure to health, education and “individual freedoms” – saw women as tools to carry out development goals. They were targeted as a way to lower population, by limiting their reproduction. They were also basically responsible for executing this policy, because the work of fulfilling a family’s basic needs often fell on the woman – to find clean water or food, to keep her children well-fed and healthy – without adequately accounting for the structural challenges she may face (lack of clean running water or a sewage system, malnutrition, lack of access to a doctor or contraception, etc.). The fault with this approach, according to Beneria and Sen, was not that women were not included at all – but that they were included at the bottom, and unequally burdened with the responsibilities and consequences.


            Beneria and Sen also critique the “equal partners” approach, which acknowledges the faults of the “basic needs” policy, and calls for making women “equal partners” in the production process. The authors argue that capital accumulation is a social process, and the benefits gained depend on the person’s role in production, and who owns the means of production. Again, it is not that women are not included, but that they are hardly “equal” partners: women may enter the workforce, but often at the lowest rungs of the industrial labor pool due to a lack of skills or childrearing responsibilities, or grow more dependent on the male wage earner. If the male wage earner migrates, women, too, assume greater responsibilities within the home – a crucial economic role that often goes unaccounted in economic analysis. Regardless of the woman’s class status, Beneria and Sen note negative impacts.


            The last approach the authors examine is a socialist egalitarian model, which emphasizes class contradictions, collectivization and redistributing resources, and focuses in particular on bringing women into the workforce; work, for women, is seen as a “means to emancipation” (171). Beneria and Sen also challenge this model as superficial regarding its treatment of women: gender equality is not a primary goal, but rather the by-product of a socialist society, and issues such as the sexual division of labor within and outside the home are not addressed.


            Though the world has changed since the publication of this article, a few key insights emerge that are still relevant: first, that a woman’s role and location in economic development is controlled by her reproductive role. This is seen most clearly in considering responsibilities of childrearing, the unpaid, non-commoditized work that women often perform – sometimes at the expense of more formally recognized work. Additionally, Beneria and Sen note that “a woman’s class position structures the concrete meaning of gender for her”; due to class differences, there are as many variations as there are similarities in the experience of being a woman in any given society (162). Lastly, class position can define and additionally complicate womens’ relationships among themselves, as women of different socioeconomic classes may have opposing ideas about social organization or policy.