Gender in a Global World

Miri Song. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Kathy Davis & Mary Evans & Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Work about globalization has been very wide-ranging and comes to quite different conclusions about the implications of globalization for different societies and groups. The focus of this chapter will be a critical discussion of the grand pronouncements which are often made about globalization, whether they be in relation to the economic, cultural, or political realms. Work on globalization, I argue, needs to be tempered by more empirically based investigations into the highly variable effects of this phenomenon. First, I examine the overly celebratory and breezy claims made about diasporic minority identities within the context of globalization. Second, I discuss the erasure of gender in most mainstream writings about globalization. In doing so, I explore some of the difficulties which arise when we think within a ‘global’ framework.

What is Globalization?

It is now heard everywhere: we live in an increasingly global world, or ‘global village’ (McLuhan, 1964). Generally speaking, globalization entails the increased interconnections of social, economic, cultural, and political life, and has resulted in the spread of capitalist market relations and a truly interconnected global economy. Another key aspect of globalization is the way in which information and communications technology has resulted in ‘time-space compression’ which links distant lands and lives together (Harvey, 1989).

There are various arguments made about the effects of globalization in virtually every sphere of life. For instance, there is an ongoing debate about whether there is such a thing as a global economy, or whether it is even a recent development. For the hyperglobalists, such as Kenichi Ohmae (1996), contemporary globalization defines a new era in which people everywhere are increasingly subject to the disciplines of the global marketplace. Such a view of globalization generally privileges an economic logic, and some proponents of this view celebrate the emergence of a single global market and the principle of global competition as the harbingers of human progress. In response to such claims, analysts such as Paul Hirst and Graham Thompson (1996) argue that while globalization has become a fashionable concept in the social sciences, it is essentially a myth which conceals the reality of an internationalized economy which is neither new nor unprecedented. They would also deny that nation-states have lost control over key aspects of their economies, especially in relation to various domestic social policies.

Related to this debate, some analysts (the ‘declinists’) argue that the nation-state’s autonomy and legitimacy, more generally, is very much in decline (Featherstone and Lash, 1995; Giddens, 1999; Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, and Perraton 1999; Ohmae, 1996). Yet others (the ‘sceptics’) argue, for a variety of reasons, that nation-states still play an absolutely vital part in the contemporary global context, in terms of both their international roles and their ability to determine domestic social policies (Hirst and Thompson, 1996). Furthermore, nation-states are said to be bolstered by nationalist sentiments and feelings which are of continuing importance for people all around the world (Smith, 1990).

Another widely debated topic is the hegemonic influence of Western culture and ideology and its effects on the rest of the world. Francis Fukuyama (1992) famously declared ‘the end of history’ and the triumph of liberal capitalism, thus heralding a global unity which was previously unthinkable. He claimed, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the then incipient dismantling of the Soviet Union, that the war of ideas and ideologies was at an end, and that the future would be devoted to the resolution of rather mundane economic problems. This line of thinking was rebutted by the controversial claim that, contrary to a kind of global harmony emerging, we are headed for a major ‘clash of civilizations,’ in which the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural (Huntington, 1993).

Many writers now observe that globalization is a dialectical process, meaning that rather than producing a uniform set of changes, globalization consists of mutually opposed tendencies (Featherstone, 1990; Giddens, 1990). For example, this dialectical process can be illustrated by the tendencies toward cultural homogenization and cultural differentiation (Hall, Held, and McGrew, 1992). Globalization is sometimes interpreted as a process of gradual homogenization dictated by the West, whether it be in the clothes we wear or the food we eat (Latouche, 1996; Ritzer, 1996). At the same time, globalization can engender emotionally laden forms of nationalisms (Smith, 1990) and a return to the mythic certainties of the ‘old traditions’ (Morley and Robins, 1995), which refute any conception of a genuinely representative and collective identity and experience.

Yet others have argued that while national identities are declining, new hybridized identities are emerging (Appadurai, 1990; Pieterse, 1994):

By compressing time and space, globalization forces the juxtaposition of different civilizations, ways of life, and social practices. This both reinforces social and cultural prejudices and boundaries whilst simultaneously creating ‘shared’ cultural and social spaces in which there is an evolving ‘hybridisation’ of ideas, values, knowledge and institutions. (Hall et al., 1992: 75).

As a result of these processes, more and more people are said to be involved with more than one culture (Hannerz, 1990).

The dynamics associated with globalization, and modernity more generally, are said to destabilize established identities (Calhoun, 1994; Giddens 1990). Increasingly, peoples’ sense of their ethnic identities and affiliations are said to be relativized and shaped by our greater consciousness of the interconnections of people and societies around the world (Featherstone, 1990; Robertson, 1992). Globalization and the shifting and multifaceted nature of ethnic identification in many Western societies are especially relevant in relation to second-, third-, and fourth-generation ‘diasporic’ minority people, who are negotiating their senses of home and belonging within multiethnic societies, such as the United States and Britain.

While most analysts are centrally concerned with the effects of globalization and the processes underlying it, still others are interested in globalization, ‘not simply [as] an empirical force that has changed the everyday realities of people’s lives, but [as] a discursive condition, currently being reproduced within academia and outside it’ (Franklin, Lury, and Stacey, 2000: 4). For them, globalization is an open-ended process without known outcomes.

This brief overview should impart a sense of the wide-ranging discussions and debates concerning globalization. Given the massive number of publications on globalization to date, and the very diverse perspectives and disciplines of scholars in the field, I cannot provide an exhaustive account of how globalization is theorized or documented. The focus of this chapter will be a critical discussion of the grand pronouncements which are often made about globalization, especially in the economic, cultural, and political realms. I argue that work on globalization needs tempering by empirically based investigations into its effects. I will first examine the overly celebratory claims made about diasporic minority identities, and then I will discuss the erasure of gender in most mainstream writings about globalization. In doing so, I will explore some of the difficulties inherent in thinking ‘globally.’

Globalization: An Overly Celebratory Discourse

In some of the literature on globalization and diaspora (though these terms encompass an admittedly diverse array of work), the postmodern emphasis on fluid identities and positionings is far too celebratory. It emphasizes the freedom with which diasporic minorities—the ‘subject’ or ‘subaltern’—are able to mine connections and identities in relation to their real or imagined ‘homeland’ and their country of residence (Bhabha, 1994; Featherstone, 1996; Pieterse, 1994). For example, Mike Featherstone points to the ‘extension of cultural repertoires and an enhancement of the resourcefulness of groups to create new symbolic modes of affiliation and belonging’ (1996: 74). For Homi Bhabha (1994), marginal, betwixt, and between postcolonial migrants are a real force to be reckoned with, and diasporas are liberating forces against oppressive state structures and exclusionary nationalisms. Some also argue that new, more contingent forms of allegiance and identity are making the nation-state largely obsolete (Glick-Schiller, 1999).

There is no question that contemporary understandings of cultural and ethnic identity must be anti-essentialist and capable of conceptualizing change and multiple forms of affiliations which can transcend national borders. While I would agree that agency and the choices made about ethnic identity are extremely relevant for ethnic minority peoples (Song, 2003), the politics and dynamics of diasporic peoples’ ethnic affiliations and identifications are far more constrained and subject to negotiation than suggested by the rather breezy celebrations of diaspora and hybridity Not all diasporic people may be equally successful in their efforts to assert hybridized identities or to occupy and enunciate a ‘third space.’

Some of the theoretical work on globalization and diaspora lacks concrete articulations of the specific local and national structures which shape and constrain diasporic groups and individuals around the world. In addition, much of this work obscures the differential ability of postcolonial peoples to realize their desired positionings and identifications. The ‘subject’ is rarely discussed in sufficiently concrete context, and often seems to be floating around in an ether of endless possibilities. It is important to weave together a framework which takes into account both the analysis of cultural politics and the political economy of specific histories and geopolitical situations (Ong, 1999).

The celebration of these interstitial spaces between cultures, which are inhabited by diasporas, migrants, refugees, and exiles, is problematic because it tends to obscure the ways in which the material specificities of both geographical location and the racialized body mediate one’s ability to negotiate one’s belonging and status in a given society. Place, class, gender, ‘race,’ and nationality all intertwine in complex ways in constraining the opportunities available to diasporic individuals. True, globalization has enabled the emergence of culturally hybrid identities, but not all hybridized subjects occupy the same social and political space. The key idea—that with globalization comes the relativization of identities—is overstated, in that it tends to overlook the very real consequences of the differential embodiment and status associated with different kinds of ‘races,’ gender, and class. Not only is some global discourse too abstract and celebratory, it also tends to treat globalization as a gender-neutral process.

Gender in Globalization

Most mainstream work on globalization has had very little to say about gender inequalities and the experiences of women in different regions of the world. Given the widespread acknowledgement that globalization can divide as well as unite (Bauman, 1998; Robertson, 1992), analysts readily point to the unequal outcomes of globalization, especially in relation to different parts of the world, such as the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ (though these terms themselves are being contested). Yet relatively few writers on globalization make more than a passing reference to how the processes and effects of globalization may be gendered.

While many women scholars, such as Saskia Sassen (1998) and Doreen Massey (1994), address the dynamics and processes associated with globalization in their work, writing on the subject of globalization (and the discourse of globalization) has been dominated thus far by men. In fact, a very diverse array of feminist scholars, such as Cynthia Enloe (1990) and Elspeth Probyn (1996), talk about issues which are clearly related to globalization—such as inequalities, belonging, and place—without recourse to the language of globalization.

Most theorizing on globalization has been macro-level and has implied a gender-neutral thrust to the ongoing processes associated with it. For instance, in Runaway World (1999), Giddens talks persuasively about how globalization is reshaping our lives. Giddens is sensitive to the fact that much of the scholarship on globalization is highly abstract: ‘Globalization isn’t only about what is “out there”, remote and far away from the individual. It is an “in here” phenomenon too, influencing intimate and personal aspects of our lives’ (p. 12). While he makes the de rigueur references to women and family life, he says very little of substance on this topic. According to Giddens: ‘Traditional family systems are becoming transformed, or are under strain, in many parts of the world, particularly as women stake claim to greater equality’ (p. 12). While this pronouncement is not in any obvious way wrong, it is so general as to be virtually meaningless.

There is a great deal of scholarship which seems adept at documenting, in detail, the complex workings of global trade and finance or the remit of contemporary nation-states without a consideration of how these complex processes may be gendered. As a result, mainstream scholarship on globalization, dominated by men, is devoid of analyses of how gendered processes are generated, maintained, and changed by the complexity of globalization. In recent years, some feminist scholars have begun to challenge the highly abstract, gender-neutral discussion of globalization. In a recent special issue of International Sociology, ‘Gender matters: studying globalization and social change in the 21st century,’ Esther Ngan-ling Chow (2003) argues that mainstream theorizing about globalization ‘[ignores] how globalization shapes gender relationships and people’s lives materially, politically, socially and culturally at all levels…In particular, women’s voices and lives are virtually absent from much theoretical discussion on globalization.’ Chow goes on to point out that ‘when the gender issue is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects of globalization on women rather than on the effects of gender on globalization’ (p. 444).

Gender clearly matters for understanding what globalization is and how it is shaped by gendered hierarchies and ideologies, which in turn shape gendered institutions, relationships, and the experiences and identities of women and men (Chow, 2003). The underlying logics of globalization in capitalist production, market rationality, transnational corporations, and trade liberalization are themselves gendered processes based upon institutional arrangements which perpetuate unequal power relationships between women and men (Kimmel, 2003). Global production networks which have experienced significant growth, such as export production, sex work, and domestic service, are gendered, and there are systematic linkages between the global expansion of production, trade, and finance and the increase of women in these networks (Pyle and Ward, 2003).

Diverse forms of transnational migration arise in the context of globalization, including the dense network of economic and social relationships which are illustrative of the growing interconnectedness of societies around the world. Transnational migration can also involve family survival strategies, which are gendered. When Filipina women migrate to Rome to work in domestic service, they are acting as key breadwinners for their families in the Philippines. As a consequence of globalization and debt crisis, the Philippines is now the largest labor-exporting Asian country, and has approximately 5-7 million overseas Filipino workers in more than 160 countries, including Italy (Lindio-McGovern, 2003: 514). Ligaya Lindio-McGovern sees Filipina migrant women’s work as domestic servants in Italy as an example of the changing transnational division of labor in which the intersection of gender, class, racial ethnicity, and nationality ends up reinforcing global inequalities.

Thus, the feminization of export labor offers insights into how globalization can result in the widening gap between the richer and poorer countries, as well as the close intersection of gender/race/ethnicity/nationality/ ‘North-South’ in the processes and practices of what we call ‘globalization’ in its many forms. Other feminist analyses of women’s migrant labor in the past have argued that some women can benefit from particular forms of transnational migration. For instance, women’s contributions to family survival strategies via the formation of transnational households can empower women (Boyd, 1989; Morokvasic, 1984).

The operation of global, transnational corporations cannot be understood properly without a consideration of the gender norms, though largely unspoken, underlying employment practices in such firms. In her study of Korean transnational companies based in New York City, Jo Kim (2004) found that one’s ethnic identity (or the attributions of such an identity by the management in these firms), as either predominantly Korean or predominantly American (in the case of Korean Americans who were raised in the United States), was used to impose and justify biased organizational work practices. Kim observed that for feminized tasks, such as typing, serving coffee, and drafting documents, the Korean managers tended to ask the ‘Korean’ Korean American women staff, assuming a ‘common cultural understanding’ with them, which they assumed they would not have with Americanized’ Korean American women subordinates. In such settings, gendered hierarchies and practices are interwoven with ethnic hierarchies and practices.

What more and more studies of globalization reveal is that analyses of gender cannot be extricated from its combination with national, racial, ethnic, and class contexts. For instance, the experiences of domestic service workers who migrate abroad underscore how simplistic the notion of the First/Third World split is, and how inadequate it is to make sense of today’s international politics (Enloe, 1990: 193). Not only do affluent White women hire Mexican women in the United States, but wealthy women in other developing countries hire poor women from the ‘Third’ World—for instance, Filipina maids are employed in affluent Middle Eastern households, such as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where they are often sexually abused and beaten.

Globalization and Transnational Feminist Movements

Feminist scholarship about globalization is now growing, and feminists are asking a wide array of questions which have not been sufficiently addressed thus far. In theorizing the constitutive effects of the global in making worlds, bodies, selves, and futures, Franklin et al. (2000) say that they are increasingly interested in not what gender is, but what it does, as an open-ended and contested process. As mentioned earlier, Chow argues that rather than confining our inquiries to how globalization impacts on gender, we need to ask how the enactment and embodiment of gender impacts upon the many processes which make up globalization.

In recognizing the gendered dynamics and processes of globalization, we must avoid making unfounded generalizations. It is now axiomatic in feminist theory and practice that ‘woman’ is not a unitary homogeneous category, especially in the context of globalization. In fact, feminist ways of knowing are inherently perspectival and culture-bound. As Chandra Mohanty has noted: ‘The assumption of women as an already constituted and coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy which can be applied universally and cross-culturally’ (1988:242). A universalizing gender analysis is no more legitimate within the context of globalization than it was before globalization became a household term in the early 1990s. While a sweeping analysis of the gendered dimensions of globalization may be tempting, given the near invisibility of gender in most mainstream writings about globalization, gender is a master status which makes such a task not only difficult, but rather dangerous. This is the case whether we are talking about gendered divisions of labor or the kinds of childcare which are available to working mothers—across various societies.

Is there any reason to think that the effects of globalization are resulting in greater interconnections or shared experiences and interests of women worldwide? In 1985, Avtar Brah (1996) attended the International Women’s Conference in Nairobi. Over 10,000 women from more than 150 countries gathered to address questions of women’s ‘universal’ subordination as a ‘second sex.’ According to Brah, the most striking aspect of this conference was the heterogeneity of women’s social conditions. Brah’s observations dating back to 1985 are probably no less resonant now—when our awareness of being in the throes of globalization is high: ‘The issues raised by the different groups of women present at the conference, especially those from the Third World, served to underline the fact that issues affecting women cannot be analysed in isolation from the national and international context of inequality’ (Brah, 1996: 102; see also Mohanty, 1988).

However, there is some evidence of feminist dialogue and movements which transcend societal borders and raise questions about what constitutes women’s rights, who is to define such rights, and the politics of cultural relativism. Violence against women is an issue that arrived relatively late in the international women’s movement, differing from the classic issues of suffrage, equality, and discrimination, around which women have long mobilized. Violence was one of the four issues given special prominence at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). The focus on violence included not just sexual violence such as rape, but also female infanticide (in China, for example), differential access to food and medical care for girls, and forms of genital mutilation of girls.

In the early 1990s, the issue of violence against women coalesced around the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights. Coordinated at Rutgers University in the United States, it was based on the groundwork of international networks and local groups in many countries. This campaign ‘offers an unusually clear example of global moral entrepreneurs consciously strategizing on how to frame issues in a way likely to attract the broadest possible global coalition’ (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 185).

The emergence of the issue of violence against women as an international issue shows how two previously separate transnational networks—around human rights and women’s rights—began to converge and mutually transform each other. What was previously seen as a ‘women’s issue’ became related to ‘human rights’ issues and global discourses. Recent scholarship about how women’s rights may be interpreted and employed in Muslim societies, such as Pakistan, illustrates the intellectual and political challenge of implementing what some non-Western people may regard as a questionable Western import. Anita Weiss (2003) investigates Pakistan’s response to becoming a state party to the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She argues that what actually does (and does not) constitute discrimination against women, and how the state might act to eliminate such discrimination against women, both legally and socially, is, to say the least, a tricky business, if the implementation of CEDAW is to be acceptable to local mores and values in Pakistan. Such case studies are crucial for future feminist analyses of globalization, in order to avoid the highly abstract, vague social theory which permeates much of the existing mainstream scholarship on globalization.


It is imperative that globalization is not regarded as a set of anonymous, gender-neutral forces, but rather as processes shaped (and contested) by specific groups, nations, alliances, and movements. We must remember that globalization is quite uneven in its effects—in its ‘power geometry’ (Massey, 1994).

Sassen is hopeful that the ascendance of an international human rights regime and the participation of a large variety of non-state actors in the global arena will provide ‘a space where women can gain visibility as individuals and as collective actors, and come out of the invisibility of aggregate membership in a nation-state exclusively represented by the sovereign’ (1998: 99). Here, Sassen points to the need for women to work at least partly outside of the state, through non-state groups and networks. Gendered analyses of globalization are needed to reveal the specificity of global-local linkages mediated by nation-states, international organizations, and regional networks (Chow, 2003).

But in bringing gender into our understandings of globalization, we should avoid generalizations about gender and globalization. In particular, we need to move away from overly broad debates about whether globalization is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of its effects on women. Such a question can only make sense in a much more qualified form: For whom and in what place is this particular aspect of globalization good or bad? To what extent do women in specific societies support or contest certain aspects of globalization? On the one hand, globalization can create new employment opportunities for some women and hence foster economic independence and greater life choices, albeit limited. For example, when Nike opens a factory in Vietnam, many young women hope to obtain jobs at this factory. At the same time, such jobs, made possible by the dominance of global transnational companies, can be regarded negatively, in terms of the feminization of labor in segregated and low-paying sectors, whether it is the ‘nimble fingers’ needed in electronic assembly and textile work, or the making of Nike trainers. Women (both within and across societies) are bound to disagree about whether certain aspects of globalization are predominantly positive or negative.

In conclusion, the growing number of studies on globalization demonstrates that analyses of gender cannot be extricated from its relationship with national, ethnic, and class contexts. In recognizing the gendered dynamics of globalization, we must not make the mistake of making generalized claims about the effects of globalization on ‘women’ as a unitary group.