Gender gaps in the labour market are prevalent in all countries as, for example, captured by differences in wages, working conditions and occupations. In general, employment is a critical path to women’s economic empowerment, but as argued here, it is by no means a simple relationship.
As a starting point, variation in female labour force participation rates tells us something about how women access jobs. In this regard, participation rates for women range from below 30% in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia to above 60% in sub-Saharan Africa, East and Southeast Asia. The literature has long debated the evidence for a U-shaped relationship between female labour force participation rates and the level of development. The argument goes that, due to poverty, women in low-income countries are engaged in subsistence agriculture and the urban informal sector. As an economy develops (and households become richer), women withdraw until education levels improve and opportunities arise in new sectors (manufacturing and services).
Ultimately, the decision of and ability for women to participate in the labour force is the outcome of various economic and social factors that interact in a complex fashion at both the household and macro-level. Based on global evidence, some of the most important drivers include educational attainment, fertility rates and the age of marriage, economic growth/cyclical effects, and urbanization. In addition to these issues, social norms determining the role of women in the public domain continue to affect outcomes, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
Female labour force participation rates tell only part of the story: women continue to disproportionately face a range of multiple challenges in the labour market relating to access to employment, occupational choice, working conditions, employment security, wage parity, discrimination, and balancing the competing burdens of work and family responsibilities. Labour market gender gaps are more pronounced in developing countries, and often exacerbated by gendered patterns in occupational segregation, with the majority of women’s work typically concentrated in a narrow range of sectors, many of which are vulnerable and insecure. Working women are heavily represented in the informal economy, especially as unpaid family workers. At the same time, their work is not captured accurately in national surveys and is subsequently underreported.
What should be done? In developing countries, policy interventions need to consider both supply and demand-side dimensions. To promote job creation, private-sector development needs to be supported in sectors and regions that would increase job opportunities for women. On the supply side, policies should aim to improve access to and relevance of education and training programmes, which constitutes a major constraint to accessing productive employment. In addition, to tackle the double burden women face, interventions are needed to promote child care, which has become a critical issue even in developing countries. Moreover, efforts are required to build basic infrastructure and enhance access to affordable transport. Ultimately, these interventions should be supplemented by measures to improve safety for women in the workplace and when commuting.
Photo credit main picture: Sifting good beans from bad/Pete Lewis/Department for International Development (DFID) via Flickr