Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Persistent Gender Inequality in the World of Work

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Persistent Gender Inequality in the World of Work

Article excerpt

THE PERSISTENT PUZZLE OF GENDER EQUALITY

Today, many more girls are going to school and living longer, healthier lives than thirty, or even ten, years ago.1 Yet this has not translated suffi- ciently into broader gains in economic opportunities. Too many women still lack basic freedoms and opportunities and face huge inequalities in the world of work. Globally, fewer than half of women have jobs, compared with almost four-fifths of men. Girls and women still learn less, earn less, and have far fewer assets and opportunities. When women do work, they farm smaller plots, work in less profitable sectors, and face discriminatory laws and norms that constrain their time and choices. They are also limited in their ability to own or inherit property, open a bank account, access technology, or take out a loan-to buy fertilizer, for example, which would boost food production. To close these gaps, we need to examine existing constraints and understand the policies and practices that can bring about gender equality in the world of work.

Gender equality in the world of work does not suggest that all women should participate in the workforce instead of staying home to take care of the house, children, or elderly family members. Rather, it signifies that women and men should have an equal range of choices. It also means that they should have the ability to make choices and act upon them-in other words, they should have 'agency.'2 Jobs are an essential part of agency, as they can expand women's life choices, these might include leaving an abusive relationship, better supporting their families and facilitating more active participation in their communities and wider societies. But what do we mean by 'jobs'? This is broadly defined to include various forms of wage and non- wage work in both formal and informal settings.3 Jobs can range from running a small, unregistered household enterprise in Dhaka to working in subsistence farming in northern Kenya. In developing countries, these types of jobs account for the vast majority of economic activities, particularly for women.

So where do we stand? A new World Bank publication, "Gender at Work," finds sizeable, persistent gender gaps at work around the world, and advances our understanding of key trends, patterns, and constraints that underlie these inequities. Some of the report's findings may be surprising. In the last two decades, female labor force participation has, fallen slightly, from 57 to 55 percent.4 Regional patterns vary; for example, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean have witnessed increased female participation, while, it has declined in South Asia, especially in India, since 2005. Some of the recent decline in female labor force partici- pation in India may reflect urbanization, as women in rural communities often participate in subsistence farming.

These trends may also be attributable to the U-shaped curve in women's labor force participation identified by Goldin and others.5 At very low levels of development, women tend to be highly active in low-skilled work as secondary earners; as GDP increases, they may withdraw from the labor force given high stigma and barriers to work and less necessity for women's subsistence-based jobs; and as societies develop further, with women's higher levels of education and more complex, urbanized econo- mies, women's economic activity may again rise. But this pattern is char- acterized by significant variation, suggesting that broader social, cultural, and political barriers can continue to thwart women's labor supply despite increased levels of education and development. In Qatar, for example, a high-income country, there are more than five women enrolled in higher education for every man, yet there are twice as many men as women in the labor force.6 Indeed, in India, from 2005 to 2011, female labor force participation (among those aged 15 to 64) declined by nine percentage points.7 During the same period, gross female school enrollment increased by sixteen percentage points for secondary education and eleven percentage points for tertiary education. …

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