Whither Gender in U.S. Trade and Development?


With the exception of Ivanka Trump’s focus on paid maternity leave for working mothers, the Trump campaign gave little explicit attention to women’s issues or to the impact of his proposed policies on gender equality or equity. Within the new administration’s policy rhetoric on international development and trade, discussion of gender has continued to remain largely absent. Yet there are important reasons to pay attention to the gender dimensions of U.S. trade and development policies.

This section of the Global Policy Report will devote itself to identifying, unpacking, and analyzing these dimensions.

Trade issues represented a central pillar of Trump’s campaign promises, which emphasized re-negotiating multilateral and bilateral trade agreements and increasing tariffs on imported goods from specific countries (China, Mexico) as well as across the board. These promises appealed to voters who saw globalization generally and free trade deals in particular as detrimental to American jobs and workers. However, the new administration’s trade policy rhetoric rarely exhibits a gender focus and there has been little discussion of how proposed policies might impact women or gender relations more broadly, at home or abroad. This dearth of gender-based discussions of U.S. trade policy is alarming, as many of the new administration’s proposals could have differential gender-related effects.

Take, for example, the tariff on imported goods recently discussed by Trump’s transition team. Rates as high as 10% have been suggested, with the purported goal of spurring U.S. manufacturing. While such a tariff would encourage consumption of more American-made goods to the benefit of the manufacturing industry, it may not translate into many jobs, given the high-tech, automated nature of modern manufacturing. More importantly from a gender equity perspective, research demonstrates that tariffs tend to place a heavier burden on certain categories of consumers–namely single parents–and many goods that women overwhelmingly purchase (such as women’s clothing) have historically faced higher tariffs than goods typically consumed by men.

In addition, there is the risk that the imposition of country-specific tariffs (such as those proposed for China and Mexico) could lead to trade retaliation or a full-blown trade war. In evaluating the impact of such a scenario on the U.S. economy, one study found that while sectors that produce capital goods are likely to be the most intensely affected, the largest absolute number of job losses would occur in non-trade service sectors. These sectors include wholesale and retail distribution and sales, restaurants, healthcare, and temporary employment agencies, sectors that tend to disproportionately employ women.

Similarly but more indirectly, Trump’s proposed renegotiation of trade agreements has the potential to differentially impact women in developing countries. Although his cabinet picks have differing views on some of these agreements, any renegotiation that decreases trade flows or integration risks affecting women differently from men in developing countries, in ways that are not entirely apparent. For example, many developing countries have a comparative advantage in the apparel sector, which typically relies heavily on female labor for the production (although not management) side. Trade liberalization will typically lead to resources flowing into such sectors, thereby expanding employment or income gains for women. However, entrenched gender discrimination can often blunt the potentially positive impacts of increased demand for women’s labor,” suggesting that much more research is needed to understand the global gender dimensions of U.S. trade policy.

As for international development policies, in December Trump’s transition team requested the State Department to turn over all information about “gender-related staffing, programming, and funding.” This request raised concerns of potential rollbacks of such programming, although the new administration further indicated that it had inquired about these programs for the purpose of “finding ways to improve them, along with hundreds of other requests.”

During his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson committed to continuing those programs, noting studies finding “that when you empower women in these developing parts of the world, you change the future of the country because you change the cycle within that family.” Although continued support for these programs is promising, we must see whether Tillerson’s words will lead to action. Moreover, we know much less about how such programs might be impacted by changing levels of trade with the U.S. that could occur as a result of the more protectionist policies suggested by the new administration.

In the months to come, the International Development and Trade section of the Global Policy Report will keep track of these and other proposed and implemented trade and development policies, with a focus on their implications for women and gender issues in the U.S. and globally.

—Karen Brown and Cosette Creamer

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