The future of women’s economic empowerment
Policy, labour and social changes are necessary to create equal opportunity
Women often carry out a double shift, working as producers as well as bearing the lion’s share of responsibility for reproductive labour, through unpaid care and domestic work to sustain their families. This affects the way women participate in – and benefit from – economic growth.
Globalization and technology have created new opportunities for women to participate in global and regional value chains, and to increase participation in formal and informal labour markets. Still, wide gender gaps persist.
For instance, women often enter the labour market on unfavorable terms with lower wages, less protection and less bargaining power. Their contribution to society is hugely underestimated as several weeks of unpaid care and domestic work are not recognized in national accounts, especially in the global South.
But a report published last year by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and research firm Gallup found that the majority of women across the world want to have paid jobs, and that men agree they should have the right to do so. Making this a reality and ensuring that work pays off for women is therefore long overdue.
While women worldwide participate in global value chains, work within these is often highly gender-specific and segregated. Women are often forced into the worst-paying occupations and earn low wages, in some cases only 85% of a man’s full-time earnings, according to Korn Ferry, a consultancy. Some companies deliberately engage women as workers because they see them as more docile than men.
Despite companies at the top of such value chains touting the use of stringent sustainability and labour standards, in reality, very mixed results have been reported in working conditions – especially in developing countries. Pervasive sexual harassment, inadequate healthcare, negligible child support, poor on-site living conditions and long working hours continue to prevail in the electronics, garments and agricultural sectors. Dealing with such issues is expensive and lead firms would rather invest in economic upgrades.
Poor working conditions and the lack of support for women taking on these double burden promotes the casualization of the female workforce. It leaves women workers facing greater job insecurity, have fewer chances to become skilled workers, and less freedom of association.
For some, technology can help achieve equality in the workplace and close the gender gap faster. Still, careful examination of women’s experiences in digitally mediated work reveals significant challenges.
For instance, the expansion of app-based services has encouraged the ‘Uber-ization’ of domestic work. Technology provides marginal benefits to workers in the form of flexibility and choice over working times, tracking of hours worked; and wages earned. According to recent research by Overseas Development Institute (ODI), tech can potentially provide better remuneration than other available options. Overall, however, domestic gig work often also means lower, less-secure incomes; discrimination; further entrenchment of unequal power relations within the traditional domestic work sector; and the erosion of established labour and social protections.
Similarly, research conducted by ODI on Syrian refugee women in Jordan shows that the gig economy has the potential to create new economic opportunities for women whose options to access paid work are extremely limited. Still, making these opportunities accessible and beneficial for all refugee workers requires improved digital access and increased mobility so women can enter the workplace. There is also a need to end pervasive harassment and violence experienced by women at and on the way to work.
In an era where with increased labour mobility and opportunities, globalization and technology have brought uneven benefits for women and men. Much of this boils down to social constructs that continue to define women’s supposed place in society, preventing them from expanding into areas of work dominated by men.
Governments need to break down such barriers by enabling women to not just participate in but also to benefit from these increased opportunities. Promoting women’s economic empowerment means recognizing the value and contribution of women’s work and alleviating the unpaid care load of women who wish or need to enter the labour market.
There is a need to broaden the depth of macroeconomic, industrial, labour, social, health and agricultural policy to include gender-specific needs and issues at their very core. Women need more and better opportunities to work if they choose to do so.
The right to decent work cuts across domains and sectors in domestic and global industries alike. Work must provide fair and just social minima such as a liveable income, respect of employee health and safety, social protection and the right of association.
In addition, social and economic policy should also provide support for the unpaid care and domestic work disproportionately shouldered by women. This means providing support to families and young children in order to promote equal participation in the labour market. More broadly, this entails recognizing and eradication the precarious situations faced by women in the labour market.