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Barnard College Professor Anja Tolonen Analyzes Gender-Specific Effects of Extractives

Anja Tolonen is an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Tolonen’s research focuses on how natural resources affect labor markets, criminal behavior, health and social welfare, and, in particular, gender inequality. Tolonen also focuses on the economics of gender in the household and child health in developing countries.

Tolonen also served as a consultant for NRGI in 2017. She compiled a literature review focused on collecting empirical data on the gendered impact of extractive industries, and identified areas for further research. Anja also did a statistical analysis of the Resource Governance Index compared with global gender indexes to assess any correlations.

Just before International Women’s Day, I spoke with Tolonen about common misconceptions in gender and extractives, the dearth of research on policies that can help women, and takeaways from extensive fieldwork.

Katarina Kuai: Tell us about the research you’ve completed with NRGI and your work in general.

Anja Tolonen: Natural resource extraction is an important economic activity in many countries, but for a long time we did not consider the gender-specific effects the industry has. My research focuses on this question, and in particular how mining activities interact with gender. I was very excited to hear about NRGI’s interest in this question.

What are some of the most common conventions or misperceptions about gender and extractives?

It’s often heard that extractive resources don’t affect women, because the sector employs mostly men. It is exactly because it mostly employs men that it is such an interesting industry to research from a gender perspective. What happens with women’s welfare as men’s wages go up? Do they work less, work more, lose bargaining power in the household? Or do they gain more of it? My own empirical research and the review I wrote with NRGI indicates that women do gain job opportunities when an economy specializes in extractives. Most of those opportunities are found within the service sector.

What can organizations like NRGI do better to support their struggle?

Surprisingly little research focuses on evaluating policies that can help women. We should evaluate more about how gender-sensitive community engagement, creating direct employment opportunities for women, or reducing pollution can improve women’s lives. It is important for organizations active within the sector, such as NRGI, to collect gender disaggregate statistics and to engage in dialogues around gender.

In your fieldwork, you interact with many different women. What do you find interesting or inspiring about their stories?

My favorite positive story was a woman living in a mining community in Tanzania. The mining company had trained and hired women as truck drivers, and at a competitive wage rate. She had saved the extra money she earned and used it to open a store and a restaurant and was now one of the most successful entrepreneurs. I think it is important we be open-minded and see that women are potential entrepreneurs who can take opportunities that extractives bring.

In another mining community in Tanzania, I spoke to a woman who had suffered a late miscarriage coinciding with a tailings dam breakage that resulted in polluted waterways. The water was contaminated with arsenic, which can lead to miscarriages. These stories are so different, but they came from two women not living too far away from each other. We need to see all sides of the picture.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a project about the gold rush in the United States in the 19th century. I am very excited to be able to compare historic evidence to that of developing countries today.

What are knowledge gaps in this field and why has the field of economics been slow to address or fund this research?

Development economics is generally quite strong in researching gender. However, some fields within economics—that are most often considered “manly,” such as macroeconomics, or natural resource economics—have been much slower in bringing gender into the analysis. More quantitative and rigorous research is definitely needed if we want to understand the full picture. In particular, how to engage women in the political sphere around extractives, and what policies work to improve the welfare of women in or near extractive industries.

Recent research points to patriarchic and discriminatory practice and bias in your field. Is this field moving with the times or resistant? Has the growth in numbers of women economists changed what economists study or their policy recommendations?

Sexism and discrimination against women is rampant in society, and the academic field of economics is definitely not an exception. It is important to have diverse group represented within an academic field, as it may influence what questions are asked and what subpopulations are studied. This is true in economics, but has also shown to be true for example in medicine. I think economics is gaining a better understanding of this, and wants to improve. But hard work remains.

Have you seen anything recently that’s made you feel hopeful about change in this field?

At the most recent annual meeting for economists in January 2018, we organized a successful session with eight female professors. It was a strong #allfemalepanel, and I hope it is just the beginning of what we will see within economics!

Katarina Kuai is a senior capacity development officer with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).