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Improving job prospects for women: evidence for positive change

April 18, 2019

In recent years, women around the world have made inroads in education, health, and politics — yet these gains haven’t translated into better job prospects. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report suggested that women are falling even further behind in labour force participation, earning power, and employment in professional and technical jobs.

Lack of progress in this area belies the importance placed on improving job prospects for women on many policy agendas. Among the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015, SDG 5 promotes gender equality and aims to empower women and girls, and SDG 8 aims for inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all. To achieve these goals, we need to gain a better understanding of what limits women’s ability to make decisions that might improve their economic situations.

In a series of studies undertaken by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program — a partnership between the UK’s Department for International Development, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and IDRC — researchers looked at why and how labour markets are failing women and what can be done to improve their ability to find secure, quality employment.


  • Women still have unequal access to paid work.

  • Policies are needed to address barriers, such as unpaid care.

  • Harmful social and gender norms reinforce income inequalities.

  • Changes to trade policy, laws, and social programs could improve women’s paid work.

Labour market segregation fuels gender inequality

GrOW teams carried out 14 research projects in 50 countries, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. They explored how labour markets, gender inequalities, and women’s economic empowerment interact to understand the barriers that hold women back and to identify potential solutions. They found that job segregation, whereby women and men dominate different sectors and occupations, is a major source of inequality that has kept women out of the best jobs.

A study of 69 developing countries over the course of two decades (1980-2011) found that the number of countries with job segregation had actually grown. Ghana and Kenya were the only countries in the study where women were finding more diverse opportunities, but even there the gains were modest compared to improvements in girls’ education levels. The take-away: something other than lack of schooling is keeping women from good jobs.

One problem is that women are overrepresented in the informal work sector, where incomes are precarious. Even when women work in male-dominated industries, they tend to be relegated to lower-paying jobs. Deeply rooted social and gender norms are among the factors driving this segregation.

What would improve women’s work in the mining sector?”

“Provide women with tools and financial resources and strengthen their technical capacity"

a woman miner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Unpaid care duties limit women’s career choices

Unpaid care and household chores also undermine women’s earning potential. The employment that women can realistically fit in around these duties is poorly paid and exhausting.

Marriage (or cohabitation) and child-bearing also tend to restrict women’s choices. Several GrOW studies have shown that women in various work settings, from garment factories in Bangladesh to artisanal mining in East Africa, find it difficult to continue working after marriage. However, evidence from Kenya suggests that if women have access to affordable, quality childcare, they are in a better position to secure paid employment. In one study, mothers with free childcare were 17% more likely to hold paying jobs than those without this benefit.

Stopping me from mining is like telling me that my children will not go to school

a female gold sand buyer in Uganda.

Harmful social and gender norms amplify inequality

Gendered social norms can find their way into formal rules that make it hard for women to hold secure jobs. For example, some countries have laws that prevent women from selling or managing land without their husband’s permission. Such laws have the power to thwart policies created to help women.

Fortunately, it seems that some harmful social norms can be shifted over time. An example is in Bangladesh, where small financial incentives to keep girls unmarried and in school until age 18 helped the girls to delay marriage and complete their studies.

Gender-based violence hinders women’s mobility and agency

Intimate partner violence (or fear of it) can make it difficult for women to make independent decisions about work. Outside the home, violence (or the threat of it) also limits their mobility, and can cause women to favour work or studies close to home even when there are better opportunities further afield.

For example, fear of encountering violence on public transportation keeps women from improving their prospects. In one study, rural women in the province of Punjab, Pakistan, were reluctant to leave their villages for vocational training due to perceptions of danger.

Women may also worry about how their partners will respond if they take on well-paid work. In some situations, the increased bargaining power conferred by income means that women are less likely to face domestic violence. But in more patriarchal societies, where men may feel their masculinity is threatened by a woman’s income, it may increase the risk.

Policy recommendations for empowering women at work

These findings indicate that a variety of policy reforms could support women’s progress in the labour market:

  • Economic and trade policies should incorporate gender analysis and require, for example, that parties commit to eliminating discrimination and promoting equality in the workplace.

  • Training programs can address women’s constraints and needs by offering convenient locations, transportation, and childcare.

  • Legal frameworks and local laws that restrict women’s work choices should be reformed to remove gender biases.

  • Incentives, empowerment programs, and working with civil society organizations as allies can help to dislodge stubborn gender norms.

  • Gender-equitable social policies, such as access to quality childcare, can reduce the “care burden” that limits women’s choices.

Learn more

Read the full brief (PDF, 315KB) about women’s challenges in the labour market.

Read the synthesis paper Stalled progress: Recent research on why labour markets are failing women. (PDF, 8.622MB)