The Delhi rape case vividly illustrates a persistent challenge in unequal and poor societies: How can women gain equality in ways that resist backlash? Economic opportunities alone do not create equality. In many countries, such opportunities clash with traditional gender expectations that restrict women’s basic autonomy, such as the ability to leave their homes unaccompanied.
Rape becomes a tool to reinforce gender roles. For example, many in India — including policymakers — blame rape on women asserting more control over their lives. The chair of India’s National Commission for Women, the government agency tasked with advancing gender equality, said of rape, “Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”
Our research highlights an unlikely force for economic development and sustained gender equality: multinational corporations. On their face, these corporations have nothing to do with gender equality. Yet their investments bring both high-quality jobs and technologies, as well as more gender-equal hiring and employment practices. Our research finds that when these corporations establish new subsidiaries in India, they empower women in ways that help reduce rape.
Here’s how we did our research
Measuring how global corporations’ investments affect rape is challenging. For example, many may be choosing to locate in places where rape would have declined regardless.
We focus on India because in 2005, India — quite unexpectedly — eliminated restrictions on global corporate investments in more than 100 industries. Investment nearly tripled the following year. This timing allows us to treat these investments as a surprise. Most of this investment flowed into just six of India’s 36 states and territories. We statistically compare changes in rape before and after 2005 in these six states with change in rape in the rest of India during the same period.
We analyze national survey data to evaluate how these investments influenced communities. India’s National Sample Survey collects detailed information about employment, pay and household consumption every five years. The Indian National Election Survey offers insights into voter turnout and views about traditional gender roles. In both, we compare answers before and after 2005, comparing those changes in communities with corporate investments to changes in the rest of India.
Investments by multinational corporations increase women’s wages, which has important consequences
In the communities where multinational corporations located their Indian subsidiaries, wages increased and women’s wages increased twice as much as those of men.
We also found that women in communities with these corporations became more likely to support women getting involved in politics, which suggests that women have begun to believe in gender equality. Multinational corporations’ more collaborative employment practices give employees greater decision-making authority. This result suggests those practices may spill over into other parts of female employees’ lives.
These and other changes helped deter rape. On average, reported rape declined 13 percent following investment, about four fewer rapes per 1 million women annually. Households in these communities spent more on phones, a safety-enhancing technology that allows women to summon help and document evidence.
Working women were also more likely to vote in subsequent elections. Voting — and getting involved in politics more in other ways — gives women a chance to demand public efforts to improve women’s safety, such as improvements in roads and lighting.
How do global corporations foster gender equality?
Just as global corporations bring technological advancements wherever they go, they also tend to introduce hiring and employment practices that foster gender equality. Indeed, the vast majority of India’s most gender-equal firms are subsidiaries of multinational companies.
Most investments in India come from advanced industrialized countries, so their corporate practices reflect the stronger gender equality laws and norms from their home countries. The foreign managers who implement these practices are less likely to share prevailing gender biases. Local firms have to compete with multinationals for workers and customers, making it more costly for local firms to discriminate against women. Gender equality can simply be good business strategy. Some evidence suggests that female managers at multinational firms are more productive and innovative than their male counterparts.
How can global corporations sustain gender equality in developing countries?
Last year, global corporations invested $1.3 trillion around the globe. About half of that was in developing countries. These investments are widely considered to be uniquely valuable engines for economic growth and development.
Not surprisingly, developing countries work hard to attract investments from global corporations, offering tax breaks, subsidies and lax regulation as enticements. These efforts are controversial because they make global corporations richer at the expense of poor countries. Our research suggests that these companies’ power and leverage can promote gender equality in developing countries. Politicians may endorse traditional gender roles, but the investments they so desperately want undermine those roles.
To be sure, these corporations can and do exploit their leverage over developing countries. Some outsourcing efforts, like having developing countries manufacture low-skill exports such as textiles, can exacerbate gender inequality. But at least in one specific way, such corporations can push development toward more gender equality. These large and economically important employers can — simply by being local — shape longer-term calculations about educating girls, delaying marriage and having fewer children, which help entrench and sustain gender equality into future generations.
The 2012 Delhi rape is a horrific example of how backlash undermines gender equality. For many countries, international corporate investment advances economic development while strengthening gender equality.
Sonal S. Pandya (@sonalSpandya) is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
Sheetal Sekhri is an associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia.