Submitted by Arup Banerji, Director for Social Protection and Labor at the World Bank

As I write this from my home city of Kolkata (Calcutta), India, the changes for women here in India during the last 100 years—since the first International Women’s Day—are wonderfully evident. Women are among the top political leaders; they are CEOs of major corporations, especially in the Indian financial services and biotech industries; and they form the backbone of a thriving and dynamic NGO sector. Women are among India’s most renowned doctors and engineers, artists and sports stars, scientists and economists—in a way that would have been inconceivable even when I was a child (which was a little less than 100 years ago!)

Arup Banerji is the Director for Social Protection and Labor at the World Bank. Photo Credit: World Bank

But the reality below the surface of this feel-good story remains challenging, in South Asia and in developing countries worldwide. According to the ILO, only 37.6% of adult women in South Asia were employed(pdf) in 2008 (compared to 86.2% of men). These figures have barely budged since 1998, and are among the lowest ratios in the world, after the Middle East and North Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 63% of adult women work—still vastly fewer than the 85.4% of men who work there. And in both South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of female employment is in low productivity agriculture, with relatively few women working in manufacturing or higher-productivity services. Of course, the fact that women are not employed does not mean that they aren’t working: Women’s work in the home and community, whether childcare, cleaning or cooking go unrecorded in the official statistics. For developed countries, the implicit value of women’s unpaid work is of the order of 10% of GDP; for developing countries, it is higher. But women still face barriers to obtain paid productive work.

These barriers are especially high for young women, who often lack the skills needed to enter productive work.  Part of the challenge is that for an economy to generate the skills needed for productivity and growth, it needs a wide-ranging set of interventions across the life-cycle and sectors. These are summarized in the new publication from the World Bank’s Human Development Network on the STEP” framework – or Skills Towards Employment and Productivity. STEP presents evidence and analysis showing that traditional training programs are insufficient to help people obtain and use the sorts of skills needed for today’s economies. The process has to begin with effective early child development policies—especially nutrition and pre-school stimulation—continue by ensuring that children learn in school, and guarantee that the labor market works well enough to match the skills that workers have with those employers demand.

However, beyond these longer-term issues, there is also evidence emerging around the sorts of active labor market programs that can address some key barriers to work for women. This is summarized in a recent World Bank Employment Policy Primer(pdf) on youth employment.

One example: In India, the Better Life Program in the 1990s aimed to give adolescent girls a ‘second chance’ education, through an integrated program that combined formal education with knowledge of life skills, vocational training and health services. A rigorous evaluation of the program found that girls who had completed the program were more likely to be literate, to have completed secondary education and to be employed.

Many of the women engaged in work today are in the informal sector—as self-employed entrepreneurs. Women own three of five micro and small enterprises in developing countries. The skills needed to be successful at this go beyond basic education. A Peruvian lending program(pdf) to poor less-educated women added entrepreneurship skills training to the lending, and found that this improved their business practices, and led to 16-28% greater sales.

But for formal work, having education and even skills may not be enough—those skills have to match those demanded by employers, even more so in countries where there is a flourishing private sector and thus available jobs. One set of programs that have had proven success are the “Jovenes” programs in Latin America, which work with the private sector to give beneficiaries specific skills demanded by employers.  In those programs, women participants have seen increases in employment by 6–12% in some countries.

Sometimes the barrier is information, since women often lack knowledge about which occupations are the most rewarding. The Jua Kali voucher program in Kenya(pdf) provided some of its female beneficiaries with information about wages in various occupations; a recent assessment finds that more than one in ten then switched to better paying jobs as compared to girls who didn’t get this information.

These are just some examples of success—many others exist, and yet others may be successful but have not been rigorously evaluated to know whether they work.  As we begin devising the World Bank’s 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labor strategy, we hope to deepen this knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, and to work as a global community to improve the lives and livelihoods of women at work.