Trade Forum Features

Women’s economic empowerment in Barbados

7 March 2016
ITC News
A half-century of independence has made Barbadian women better educated and better able to contribute to their economy and society

The 2015 Human Development Report (HDR): Work for Human Development’ examines the intrinsic relationship between work and human development. Work, which is a broader concept than jobs or employment, can be a means of contributing to the public good, reducing inequality, securing livelihoods and empowering individuals.

This description of the HDR captures the importance of the strategies pursued by successive Governments in post-independence Barbados as well as the efficacy of these, specifically in the area of women’s empowerment. Women have received quality education, which has allowed them to acquire and benefit from decent work.

The success of these empowerment strategies is demonstrated by the country’s current status, as captured in the HDR rankings.

The report describes the situation of women and men in a set of indices.

  • Barbados has been classified as a country in the high human development category and is positioned in the top third of the 188 countries studied.
  • The Gender Development Index (GDI) measures gender inequalities in achievement along three basic dimensions of human development: health, education and command over economic resources. The 2014 female GDI value for Barbados is 0.791 in contrast with 0.777 for males.
  • In Barbados, 89.5% of adult women have completed secondary level education, compared to 87.7% of their male counterparts. Female participation in the labour market is 65.9% compared to 76.6 for men%.


The above excerpts from the HDR offer evidence of female empowerment. While multiple definitions of empowerment abound, it is defined here as ‘a process where the powerless or disempowered gain greater share of control over resources and decision-making. A very similar definition is offered in the United Nations Development Programme‘s ‘Report on Human Development in Bangladesh – Empowerment of Women’ (UNDP 1994).

In the case of Barbados, significant resources have been invested in education, health and social services. These are available to all citizens. In the 50 years since independence, women have taken advantage of such services and the benefits are clearly demonstrated above.

Through these policies women have been able to earn equal pay for equal work. This is a consequence of important social and labour legislation. Similarly women have no gender-based barriers to land acquisition or savings accumulation. At the individual level women fulfil important roles in national savings accumulation and consumption. They own houses, land, vehicles, savings accounts, bonds, shares.

Furthermore, through tertiary education women are able to pursue successful careers in managerial and technical sectors.


Still, the success of women at the individual and group levels does not mean there is no glass ceiling for women in business. Few can be found in either ownership or leadership ranks of large business entities nationally, regionally or internationally.

Women in Barbados face challenges in their pursuit of economic empowerment that may differ from many of those faced by women in other developing countries.

Many Barbadian women experience what can be described as a triple burden. In a situation where a significant number of Barbadian households are headed by women, they are the sole or main breadwinners while also having the responsibility for child and elder care. In such scenarios women have major financial responsibility.

Despite opportunities offered by access to education, women are often faced with significant constraints on their ability to self-actualize as business owners and entrepreneurs. In many respects women are only partially empowered or, where empowered, must overcome many barriers in their efforts to benefit maximally from such empowerment.


A situation that is common in the context of the Caribbean is the existence of barriers to entering certain businesses. In the case of women, the barriers relate less to the ability to get into business and more to the types of business in which women engage.

Traditionally many women in Barbados established lifestyle and personal-services businesses, such as cosmetology or catering concerns, businesses with little or no real growth potential. This is changing. Women have leveraged their educational qualifications to go into a diverse mix of professions. They have not only accumulated resources, they are better able to spot and respond to various business prospects. They are in positions to apply their education and training, applying technology in ways that allow them to explore non-traditional business ventures.

For example, we have a femaleowned and operated fertility clinic that is internationally acclaimed for its high success rates. We also have Barbadians in the diaspora who have sought to come home and utilize their internationally acquired experience and expertise to launch entrepreneurial ventures. The barriers for us would have been a perception of limits to the types of businesses women envisaged they could develop.

Because of our educational and other social policies and level of investment in education, health and social services women have felt freer to explore and take risks than they might have some decades ago. They continue, however, to be challenged to by some traditional values that rated the ’professions’ over entrepreneurship and conservative economic and financial decision making over risk-taking.

Still, there is work to be done. Women who have received education only at the secondary or below secondary level are among those facing the full brunt of poverty in our society. Policies targeted at those in lower-paid positions and those in disadvantaged situations would need special measures such as minimum wages and other targeted initiatives to help them cope in a society where quality work is a major determinant of success in life. Furthermore, in societies undergoing economic restructuring, measures should be put in place to ensure assistance for those who lose their jobs and are unable to maintain a viable standard of living.

On the whole, the Barbados experience for women and girls over the past 50 years has improved significantly beyond the life opportunities of the generations before. There is little comparison on all fronts: access to education, jobs, status and opportunities for the females of the past and the females of today. We must make sure it stays that way.