There is strong and growing evidence that women’s economic empowerment is central to the achievement of inclusive growth, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. On the one hand, greater gender equality in paid work and other valued economic resources contribute to the pace of economic growth. On the other, economic growth is more likely to translate into broad-based social development when it is accompanied by the expansion of women’s access to reasonably well paid and secure employment. So why aren’t more women in these forms of employment, and what can policy-makers do to make this happen? In a recent working paper published in McGill University’s GrOW research series, I try to answer these questions by focusing on two categories of work — entrepreneurial activity and wage employment — in order to work out what distinguishes women in the poorly paid and poor-quality versions of these activities from those in better-paid, higher-quality versions.

Gender inequalities in paid and unpaid work: Empirical patterns and trends

A review of the empirical patterns and trends in women’s work in past decades testifies to the durability of gender as a form of disadvantage. While female labour participation rates have increased globally, with women having moved out of agriculture into services and manufacturing, this hasn’t necessarily signified a movement into productive and decent forms of work as highlighted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Many more women than men remain out of the labour force, many more are unemployed, and, among those who have work, many more are crowded into the lower ranks of the occupational hierarchy. The gender gap in earnings has diminished but at such a slow pace that, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), it will take more than 75 years to achieve equal pay. Of particular relevance to these inequalities within the labour market is a key inequality outside it: women’s increasing entry into paid work has not been accompanied by a commensurate change in the gender division of unpaid labour within the home. As a result, working women tend to work longer hours than men, giving rise to the phenomenon of “time poverty.”

These trends clearly beg the question of whether the paid work available to women can be considered empowering. What we can reasonably assume is that the empowerment potential of paid work is likely to be greater when women take it up as a response to opportunity rather than as a response to distress, and when they can choose from a wide range of opportunities rather than being confined to a narrow range of female-intensive occupations. To make this happen, we need to understand the barriers to change.

From survival to accumulation: Women’s empowerment and enterprise development

If self-employment is thought of as a continuum, with survival-oriented income generation at one end and accumulation-oriented enterprises at the other, the majority of self-employed women can be found at the survival end. A number of generalizations emerge from the literature on entrepreneurship. First of all, gender differentials in productivity often decline and can disappear once controls for gender differences in individual and business characteristics have been introduced: these include the education, skills and experience of the entrepreneurs along with the size, formality, capital and sector of the enterprise. In other words, business competence is not innately gendered. What we need to understand is why these differentials in individual and business characteristics exist and persist. Explanations include the greater difficulties women face in balancing their work and family responsibilities; cultural and practical restrictions on their time and mobility; discrimination in access to financial capital, social connections and other resources; and lack of education, all of which may translate into greater lack of experience and self-confidence.

Evidence also suggests that self-employment is a default option for many women, reflecting a paucity of wage opportunities more generally as well as the discrimination they face in accessing waged work. Where women’s entrepreneurial activities are dictated by necessity rather than opportunity, the transition to the accumulation end of the spectrum is much harder to negotiate.

From exploitative to “decent” work: Women’s empowerment and wage labour

Wage opportunities can also be located on a continuum from “bad,” poorly paid and highly exploitative work, on one end, to “good” jobs characterized by formality of contracts, decent working conditions, regularity of pay and social protection.

What appears to be “better” waged work for women in the face of shrinking public sector employment is employment in the private sector within global value chains. The higher wages and better working conditions generated by larger-scale units are a draw for young women, who migrate from the countryside to cities to take these jobs. But whether such jobs are empowering is the subject of considerable controversy. On the one hand, studies suggest they have increased women’s bargaining power at home and enabled them to escape the exploitative power of local monopsonies. At the same time, modern supply chains remain “bearers of gender,” doing little to challenge the gender segregation of occupations and future prospects.

Hence, wage labour can be as much a product of distress as can be self-employment. Transitions to “better” employment face at least two major challenges: first, supply-side constraints, including unpaid domestic responsibilities, lower levels of education and skills, and lack of bargaining power; and second, demand-side constraints, including employer discrimination and the structural dearth of decent employment opportunities.

Making markets fairer for women: Some policy options

An expansion of economic opportunities through employment-centred growth would create a hospitable macroeconomic environment for women’s empowerment, without setting men and women in competition with each other for decent forms of work. However, it would not, on its own, overcome the gender-related constraints that have so far curtailed women’s ability to take advantage of existing opportunities. The following interventions appear to have made a difference in this regard.

The regulatory environment. Formal regulations frequently reproduce gender-specific constraints rooted in the informal relations of family and kinship. A World Bank/International Finance Corporation report finds a broad correlation globally between legalized gender discrimination and women’s ability to work or to own or run businesses. Successful regulatory reforms include extending equal rights to women to own or inherit property, to travel, to open bank accounts and to set up businesses. Legislation setting minimum wages has brought disproportionate gains for waged women workers, who are more likely than men to work for pittance wages.

Voluntary regulation. While building state capacity to enforce labour laws is an important precondition for improving standards and rights at work, voluntary codes adopted by leading multinational companies can provide a complementary route to these outcomes within global value chains. These appear to work most effectively when certain conditions are in place: flourishing export markets, where company codes resonate with, and reinforce, national laws and regulations; a strong local civil society; and shorter supply chains, which allow closer relations between multinationals and suppliers. More recently, evaluations of the ILO’s Better Work program, which builds on the lessons from the Better Factories Cambodia program, report promising impacts in a number of countries.

Skills and training. New forms of tailored ─ rather than generic ─ training have helped to overcome gender deficits and skill and knowledge. Evaluations of vocational training programs in Latin America that based their curriculum on market demand report increased likelihood of formal employment among graduates, with impacts generally stronger for women than men. In South Asia, the self-help group approach, which combines group formation with access to micro-financial services and skills development, has been associated with improved livelihoods and higher political participation among poorer rural women.

Gender-aware social protection. The provision of regular and predictable forms of social protection has played an important role in addressing gender-specific constraints. Because these help to offset forms of disadvantage inherent in customary laws and practices or generated by discriminatory market forces, they have enabled women and girls to make progress in intended and unanticipated ways. For instance, cash transfers intended for children’s welfare have not only helped close gender gaps in education and in later employment prospects among targeted children, but also led to increased investment in productive assets controlled by their mothers.

Addressing women’s unpaid domestic responsibilities. For women in the global South, these include but go beyond child and elder care to include the provision of water, fuel and subsistence for their families. They add up to considerable time and mobility constraints, which curtail women’s capacity to respond to economic opportunities. While reliable and affordable child care arrangements are clearly one way to reduce such constraints, improvements in transport, information and communication technologies and infrastructure can help to free up some of women’s time, making it easier for them to travel to markets and to bring information, opportunities and orders closer to home.

Organization and voice. Finally, with the growing informality of work, new forms of organizing have emerged that are more responsive to the interests of working women than traditional trade unions. They have fashioned new ways to exercise voice and influence that acknowledge the precarious nature of the livelihoods of their membership, opting for negotiation, legal arbitration, symbolic politics and the mobilizing power of information, in place of the more confrontational tactics of old-style unionism. These new forms of organizing have also helped to revitalize the older unions and woken them up to the potential and challenge of organizing in the informal economy.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Badieh.

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Naila Kabeer
Naila Kabeer is professor of gender and international development at the London School of Economics. Her main areas of interest are gender, poverty and social exclusion in relation to labour markets and livelihoods.  

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