Skip to main content

Policy should address more than jobs to economically empower women


Arjan de Haan

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Canada is showing leadership during its G7 presidency by promoting a feminist international policy. Key in this effort is the Gender Equality Advisory Council appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and which the next G7 chair, France, has indicated it intends to continue. The advisory council’s recommendations for new commitments, with meaningful investments and measurable targets, constitute an important manifesto to “make gender inequality history”.

As leaders of the multi-funder research program Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW), we have closely followed the G7 proceedings and listened to advisory council members. Our team also contributed to the Accountability Working Group that documents and assesses the successive actions that G7 governments have taken to meet their commitments. It is clear to us that the role of women’s work in low-income contexts is a crucial policy area for gender equality.

The advisory council’s recommendations include the call to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation by 25% by 2025. While some observers have expressed concerns about the focus on economic participation, we maintain that women’s work is a critical and under-valued area of development policy, and one where strong commitment and innovation will be critical.

Less gain in the proportion of women working

Global data shows that recently there has been no increase in women’s labour force participation and no reduction of the gap between men and women. Regional differences vary greatly — in South Asia, female labour force participation has actually declined (see graph). The reasons behind these trends need to be better understood, including the potential effects of future technological change and automation that may lead to job losses in the manufacturing sectors that created opportunities for millions of relatively poor women over the last few decades.

linear chart: rate of female labour force participation in percentage

Women’s work at what cost?

On its own, labour force participation is an ambiguous target. Financial distress prompts many poor household members around the world to enter the labour market in poorly paid jobs under terrible conditions, including risks of gender-based violence. Women typically occupy the worst-paid jobs with the least protection, and attitudes toward gender often hinder access to better opportunities. The quality of work is as important as the job itself. The G7 advisory council recommendations rightly highlight the importance of labour rights and the conditions and environment for informal workers, no doubt recognizing that globally the majority of women and men work in the informal sector.

Women’s participation in the labour market is determined by a wide range of factors that typically differ from men’s. Globally, women are seen to be, and often consider themselves to be, responsible for household tasks and caring for family, children, and the elderly. This global phenomenon takes on a particular dimension in low-income contexts. GrOW-supported research in South Asia and Africa shows that women’s combined responsibilities to earn income and care for the household negatively impact their physical and mental well-being. It also indicates that women’s preferences for addressing the fact that they have “no time to rest” includes both support for childcare and investment in public infrastructure that would reduce the time they devote to accessing water, sanitation, and to commute.

Moreover, there is evidence that women in certain circumstances withdraw from labour markets. GrOW-supported research shows that in families where the man’s level of education is higher and household income improves, women tend to work less. Social acceptance of women working outside the household plays an important role, and these social norms may become more determinant as the financial stability of a household improves. In contexts where women’s work is of very poor quality and they earn less than men, this withdrawal from the labour force is even more likely.

Job quality and balancing care work

These arguments should not deter us from focusing on women’s labour force participation — far from it. What they mean is that a focus on the quality of jobs is as important as employment per se, and that policy responses need to address the entire picture. It will be critical to enhance women’s conditions of work, including in the informal sector, and address gender barriers in accessing job opportunities and segregation in labour markets. At the same time, women’s employment cannot be seen in isolation from their double burden: both investment in infrastructure that reduces time requirements and drudgery and public support for childcare are critical ingredients for economic empowerment, particularly for the poorest women.  

Arjan de Haan is the program leader of the Employment and Growth program at IDRC.