By: Caren Grown, Senior Gender Adviser

Seeing  the flurry of material published to commemorate Women’s History Month and the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, I was unsettled  by a popular view suggesting that women are an under-utilized resource of development.  This view cannot be further from the truth; in fact, women are the most over-utilized resource in development. Indeed both labor force and time use data show that women, on average, work about twice as much as men in both paid and unpaid work.  But women’s work is under-valued and under-paid, and much of it takes place outside the formal paid economy, from childcare to subsistence farming.

Caren Grown, Senior Gender Adviser at USAID.

It is important to recognize the progress that women have made in the paid labor market over the past thirty years. More women participate in paid employment, especially in non-agricultural employment, now than ever before, reflecting the growth in economic opportunities available to them. Up until the financial crisis in 2008, female labor force participation increased in almost all regions, with the fastest growth in being in Latin America and the OECD and among young adults. According to the recently released 2011 State of Food and Agriculture report, women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labor force of developing countries, ranging from about 20 percent in Latin America to almost 50 percent in Eastern and Southeastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet it is also true that in most countries around the world, females face inferior employment opportunities relative to males; they are clustered in female-dominated job sectors or informal employment that is low-wage and insecure. Unfortunately, time series evidence on the female share of informal employment do notexist for most countries. Nonetheless, cross-sectional evidence since 2000 indicates that informal employment – which does not usually provide job security, benefits or adequate income – continues to represent a larger share of women’s employment than men’s.[1] Data limitations prevent tracking progress toward reducing sex segregation, both across and within occupations, which is related to women’s low wages and women’s reliance on informal employment, but it remains extensive.

Just as discouraging, the average global pay gap has narrowed very little, after accounting for education and experience. Some countries have made progress: relative wages for women compared with men have risen in parts of Latin American and the Caribbean, with the exception of Honduras, Jamaica and Venezuela. But elsewhere, such as in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, wage gaps in manufacturing have actually increased. Recent data compiled by the OECD shows that across industrialized countries, men’s median, full-time earnings were 17.6 percent higher than women’s. The biggest gender wage gap was in South Korea and Japan, where men earn wages more than 30 percent higher than women, and was smallest in Belgium, where the gap is 9.3 percent.

As I noted earlier, females continue to do a majority of the unpaid labor that provisions households, including caring for dependents, collecting fuel and water, and producing for own consumption, among other tasks. Although not recognized in national income and product accounts, unpaid work creates social wealth.  Back in 1995, the UN estimated the value of unpaid work at between 40-50 percent of GDP; more recent global estimates are not available, but recent papers from a special issue of Feminist Economics estimate the value of unpaid household work done by women in Guatemala at between 26% and 34% of 2000 GDP and approximately 21.6% of 2002 GDP in Mexico (a value that exceeded the GDP generated in retail, restaurants and hotels as well as manufacturing). Unpaid work has economic value because it saves expenditures and, in times of economic crisis, replaces income.  In rural economies, the proportion of labor time allocated to non-market production tends to be high, as much as three times the amount spent in market production, as households serve as economic units providing most of their own subsistence needs (Floro 1995).

Some forms of unpaid work – backbreaking work like collecting water or gathering fuel – deplete people’s energy. The time that women and girls and, frequently, young boys spend on routine tasks could be reduced dramatically if appropriate infrastructure were in place:  efficient sources of energy (especially new and clean forms of fuel for cooking and heating), safe and accessible transport systems, and water and sanitation systems. The design of infrastructure projects needs to consider opportunities for women’s entrepreneurship and employment along with designs appropriate to meeting basic household needs. Other socially necessary forms of unpaid work done largely by women – caring labor – can be rewarding but also depleting if it involves being on call for someone who is seriously ill or disabled for long periods. Publicly provided care services can provide employment and income and a respite for the unpaid care giver.  Fundamentally, more men need to take on more of this unpaid work. While research shows that as the level of women’s employment increases in a country, men tend to contribute more to unpaid work duties, public policy has a role to play.

Gender equality advocates have pressed for a number of policy recommendations for many years. Increasing girls’ education – especially ensuring secondary school completion and providing meaningful vocational and technical training are critical to reducing barriers to labor market entry.  Providing or subsidizing care services – for children and other dependents – enables women to take permanent, full-time jobs rather than seasonal, part-time, or temporary work.

Employment-enhancing economic growth is a prerequisite for low-income countries coupled with social policy that eliminates discriminatory employment barriers. It is easier to improve wages and working conditions in a growing economy.  For poor women, especially in rural areas, public employment guarantees can provide an important source of work and income. And, for countries with large informal workforces, providing social protection is a high priority. Increasingly, NGOs are providing social protection to informally employed workers to fill gaps in public provision of health insurance, child care, and disability, but public private partnerships can bring these efforts to scale. Microfinance programs are important for self-employment and female entrepreneurship but need to be coupled with other types of products and services, including training, technology transfer, business development services, and marketing assistance. More attention also needs to be given to innovative savings and insurance instruments for low-income women.  Finally, investments in sex and age-disaggregated data, including time use information, are necessary for monitoring improvements in women’s economic and labor market status and tracking the results of policy efforts.

[1]UNIFEM 2005;Heintz, J. 2006. Globalization, Economic Policy and Employment: Poverty and Gender Implications.  Geneva: International Labour Office.