Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2017

Capabilities and Gender Inequality


I can’t give a better overview of this paper than the one in the abstract.

This paper investigates how Amartya Sen’s capability approach can be applied to conceptualize and assess gender inequality in Western societies. I first argue against the endorsement of a definitive list of capabilities and instead defend a procedural approach to the selection of capabilities by proposing five criteria. This procedural account is then used to generate a list of capabilities for conceptualizing gender inequality in Western societies. A survey of empirical studies shows that women are worse off than men on some dimensions, better off on a few others, and similarly placed on yet others, while for some dimensions the evaluation is unclear. I then outline why, for group inequalities, inequalities in achieved functionings can be taken to reflect inequalities in capabilities, and how an overall evaluation could be arrived at by weighting the different capabilities. (Robeyns 2003, 61)

Her first point means that Robeyns sides with Sen over Nussbaum. Sen only describes capabilities as a theoretical “space,” leaving it open for others to specify exactly what capabilities are relevant for their particular purposes. Nussbaum, on the other hand, seeks to identify a list of capabilities that make up a good human life. Robeyns avoids the ivory tower objection to Nussbaum’s list by constructing her list with a diverse array of collaborators; that is what she means when she says she has a “procedural” account.

She proposes a list of capabilities that, she maintains, can be used to measure inequality between men and women. Despite her methodological disagreements with Nussbaum, their lists are quite similar.

Our Discussion

Our discussion skipped most of the methodological stuff and went straight to her list. We stayed pretty close to the beginning of the list: we started with mental health and then talked about the first capability (the capability to live, basically).

One point that interested me was the difference between social and biological causes of unequal capabilities. Robeyns was keen to identify the social causes of inequality but I wasn’t always sure why. Here is what I had in mind.

You might be interested in distinguishing social and natural causes of inequality for one of two reasons:

  1. You want to identify the causes of inequality.

  2. You want to identify solutions to inequality.

Those two projects are often run together, but I think you have to be cautious about that. That is because you can’t always move from “inequality I is socially caused” to “there is a social solution to inequality I.” Nor can you necessarily go from “inequality I is not socially caused” to “there is no social solution to inequality I.”

For instance, I am naturally inferior to almost everyone else in the room. You can see it right on my face: my eyesight is lousy! But there is a trivial social solution to this inequality: buy me corrective lenses. Similarly, depression and other mental illnesses can be treated even if they have biological rather than social causes. Of course, it doesn’t follow from the fact that society can address a kind of problem that it should do so. My only point is that a natural cause doesn’t preclude a social solution.

Conversely, there may well be no social solution to inequalities that have social causes. We don’t know how to equalize educational opportunity while also respecting the family as we know it. Nor do we know how to get people to treat one another as equals and stop thinking in terms of race, gender, class, and all the other ways we have of categorizing people. No one naturally thinks about race so that kind of thinking has a social cause. But you would be hard pressed to find a social solution that could get us to see one another without racial categories. (That is not to say that there are not better or worse things for societies to do to influence racial thinking.)


Robeyns’s first capability usually strikes people as odd.

Life and physical health: The capability of life and physical health has two dimensions: being able to be born, and once born, being able to live a life of normal length in good health.7 As far as I know, there are no indications of a gender bias in the chances of being born in Western societies8 (in contrast, say, to countries where the net economic benefits of having a son might exceed those of having a daughter and lead to sex-selective abortion). (Robeyns 2003, 76–77)

Footnote 7 says: “This raises the issue of abortion, which lies beyond the scope of this paper” (Robeyns 2003, 88). Well, yes. But we didn’t let it go at that.

What Robeyns has in mind are what Sen called the “missing women” Here’s the gist.

To get an idea of the numbers of people involved in the different ratios of women to men, we can estimate the number of “missing women” in a country, say, China or India, by calculating the number of extra women who would have been in China or India if these countries had the same ratio of women to men as obtain in areas of the world in which they receive similar care. If we could expect equal populations of the two sexes, the low ratio of 0.94 women to men in South Asia, West Asia, and China would indicate a 6 percent deficit of women; but since, in countries where men and women receive similar care, the ratio is about 1.05, the real shortfall is about 11 percent. In China alone this amounts to 50 million “missing women,” taking 1.05 as the benchmark ratio. When that number is added to those in South Asia, West Asia, and North Africa, a great many more than 100 million women are “missing.” These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women. (Sen 1990)

Part of the reason why those women are missing is that they do not receive the same resources as men and part of the reason why is that they are killed at a higher rate than men, for instance, through sex-selective abortion and infanticide.

So I know why she puts her first capability this way. But it’s awkward because a capability is the kind of thing that someone chooses to exercise or not and no one chooses whether to be born. So I do not think that everything she wants to include is most naturally described using the capabilities approach.1

We talked a fair amount about the tension between two beliefs.

  1. There is a general right to abortion.

  2. Sex-selective abortion is wrong.

Adrian cited Judith Jarvis Thompson to say that you could support abortion rights even if you grant that abortions kill persons; this was in response to Matthew’s way of formulating the tension between the two beliefs. Aaron imagined an argument to the effect that sex-selective abortion is bad for reasons that abortion in general is not. Etelle reminded us that women’s rights to control their bodies have to be taken into account in any discussion of abortion.

The only thing I have to add is that I think there are rights to do wrong things. For example, I think you have a right to say things that it is morally wrong of you to say. You can hurt my feelings by teling me you think I’m stupid and ugly. You really shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, much less mine, but you still have a right to do so and I am not allowed to stop you by punching you in the nose or stuffing a gag in your mouth. By the same token, I could see how someone might think that there is a right to abortion but also think that some ways of exercising that right are wrong. You could think that it is wrong to choose to abort a fetus simply because it is female but also think that there is a right to do so that no one else may interfere with.

Capabilities and Functionings

Robeyns is interested in whether men and women have different capabilities. But all of the evidence that she collects concerns differences in functioning. Capabilities involve choices about how to function and she doesn’t have a direct measure of how people choose. All she’s got is data about how they function.

Here’s how she deals with this.

for group inequalities (such as those based on race, caste, gender, or nationality) inequality in achieved functionings implies inequality in capabilities, except if one can give a plausible reason why one group would systematically choose different functionings from the same capability set. … In other words, if we observe inequalities in outcomes between men and women, we deduce that they did not have equal opportunities in the first place. Underlying this reasoning is the assumption that the distribution of preferences between groups is identical, that is, we are as likely to find a man as a woman with a given set of preferences. The burden of proof should fall on those who claim that women would systematically prefer different options than men, if they had the same real opportunities. The observation that given existing social conditions women are more likely than men to choose domestic and care labor over paid work does not mean that this is what they would choose if they had the same capabilities as men, precisely because the real opportunities for women to have a good job under good conditions are fewer than for men.

Ultimately, we are interested in evaluating group inequalities in the space of capabilities, and not in achieved functionings. But given that we have little direct information about people’s capability levels, we could start by taking group inequality in achieved functionings as indicative of inequalities in capabilities. This could later be refined and adapted in the face of new evidence or compelling arguments. (Robeyns 2003, 84–85)

In a nutshell, if some functionings are clearly better than others but men achieve them at a far higher rate than women do, that is evidence that women’s capabilities are not the same as men’s. The assumption of the argument is that women would pursue the better functionings at the same rates that men do if they had similar opportunities.

It would be interesting to go back through the list and see if that is so for all of the elements on it. I can see someone noting that women seem to have better social relationships than men do. Maybe they rationally prefer a life with good social relations to one spent in pursuit of a demanding job. There are a lot of questions to take up here. For example, you would have to show that this is the choice that women actually face; it might be that the choice they actually have is between child care and a career. It would be tricky to untangle all of this. But that’s what social scientists do.

Aaron gets the final word. He asked why it is obvious that capabilities are the relevant measure of gender inequality rather than functioning. Differences in functionings (not my term!) could tell us a lot about the differences between the lives that men and women lead even if we never make a connection with capabilities. I think that’s a good point.


Robeyns, Ingrid. 2003. “Sen’s Capability Approach and Gender Inequality: Selecting Relevant Capabilities.” Feminist Economics 9 (2–3): 61–92.

Sen, Amartya. 1990. “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing.” New York Review of Books, December.

  1. I also think that we would be interested in imbalances between the number of men and women as a result of genetic engineering even though that does not involve messing with anyone’s capabilities. But that’s a secondary point.