Magazine article International Trade Forum

Gender and Trade: A Fresh Look at the Evidence

Magazine article International Trade Forum

Gender and Trade: A Fresh Look at the Evidence

Article excerpt

The relationship between trade and gender has been hotly debated. Some say that globalization has excluded or impoverished women, causing disproportionate job losses due to the influx of foreign goods into domestic markets. Others argue that increased trade leads to greater gender equality by creating new jobs and economic growth.

In fact, neither side in the debate is totally right, and a nuanced view is needed. Trade integration has translated into more jobs and stronger connections to markets for many women. Indeed, as shown by the World Bank's 2012 World Development Report (WDR 2012), increases in international trade have tended to increase women's employment, not a feature that typifies many development processes. And access to these jobs can empower women in important ways.

Yet globalization alone cannot eliminate gender gaps, and there is equally clear evidence that significant gaps persist, and can even worsen, in the face of trade and globalization. Complementary policies and public actions are needed to ensure that globalization works as a positive force for gender equality. Such policies include those that reduce disparities in education and skills, access to capital and time. Likewise, trade-related interventions should consider existing constraints, such as differences in education and access to finance.

The benefits of trade openness

Openness of trade has increased job opportunities for women in many countries. This is especially the case for manufacturing and service exports characterized by labour-intensive production. For example, in the Republic of Korea, the share of women employed in manufacturing grew from 6% in 1970 to around 30% by the early 1990s, while in Delhi and Mumbai, call centres now employ more than 1 million people, mostly worn en (WDR 2012).


The value of trade openness goes beyond mere job creation, generating benefits such as greater autonomy for women gained through working outside the home in wage-paying jobs, and benefits for future generations.

For example, increased working opportunities can translate into increased choice and decision-making autonomy for a woman, which is a critical and intrinsic dimension of development. In Bangladesh, for example, Pratima Paul-Majumder and Anwara Begum (2000) reported that female garment workers have higher self-esteem than female workers in nonexport industries, and that some of them have undertaken employment even against the wishes of their family members. The same study reports that female garment workers marry and give birth at a later age.

Recent studies also suggest that improved job opportunities created by exports can have positive effects for future generations. Heath and Mobarak (2011) observe that the arrival of garment jobs in Bangladesh increased the probability of a five-year-old girl attending school. This could be due to parental desire to prepare their daughter for work that requires numeracy and literacy, or simply because they have additional income.

Yet gains in employment do not always translate into improved wage equality. For example, in the Republic of Korea, even in the presence of high labour demand, the women-men wage gap narrowed only marginally between 1975 and 1990 (Seguino, 1997).

Women appear to be more subject to job insecurity. In the case of Turkey, for example, Ozler (2007) finds that gross job reallocation is larger for women than men, suggesting that women are subject to a more volatile employment status. Similarly, Levinshon (1999) analysing the impact of trade liberalization in Chile, finds that gross job reallocation rates are often over twice as high for women than for men.

A more systemic issue is that existing patterns of employment segregation by gender can emerge in new industries and occupations as firms move up the value chain. In East Asia, for example, as countries have moved to more skill-intensive manufacturing, there has been a defeminization of the manufacturing workforce. …

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