Women's economic equality: still a big gap!

In this blog Rosalind Eyben discusses a new Action Aid UK report - Close the Gap - which focuses on women's work. She makes links between inequalities for women in the labour market and the continuing burden they experience around unpaid care work. 

Feminists and women’s rights advocates have long been concerned about women’s inequality in the labour market. Research like that from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, among others, has thrown light on the complexities of the issue and its societal effects. Akosua K. Darkwah, for example, found in Ghana that young women with a secondary education are working for less money and in more precarious work than are their mothers’ generation. And in Bangladesh, Naila Kabeer, Simeen Mahmud and colleagues looked at the relationship between empowerment and the quality of paid work. They found that women in relatively regular work in reasonable working conditions outside the home have made the most progress relating to their own own priorities, including investing in their and their children’s health and education and of participating in political life.

As Action Aid’s new research report, Close the Gap discusses, this kind of decent work that women want is not easy to secure. There has been depressingly little progress. The report cites ILO estimates that in 2012 more than half of all employed women worldwide were in informal vulnerable employment and in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia over 80% of all jobs for women are unregulated and precarious work.

Furthermore, like-for-like, women still find it harder than men both to get work in the first place and then to be paid an equal wage (while bearing in mind that many men also work in difficult conditions on low pay). Using to good effect existing data from the World Bank and others Close the Gap calculates the cost to women of labour market gender inequalities.

“If women in developing countries were paid as much as men they could earn an extra US$2 trillion. And if women participated in the workforce at the same rate as men, women could earn another US$6 trillion. if women in   developing countries were both paid as much as men and had the same acces to jobs as men, they could be US$9 trillion better off – this is because more women would be in employment at a higher rate of pay.” (Close the Gap, p. 8)

These are arresting figures. And the case the report makes that such inequalities are bad for business is well worth making. The World Bank ‘smart economics’ argument has a lot of appeal, particularly to the Davos audience, at whom Close the Gap was targeted. Nevertheless I ask myself, if it’s such a convincing argument why is it proving so difficult for change to happen? Perhaps much of the business world that does not go to Davos is happy with the status quo and profits from it?

Close the Gap emphasizes how many millions of women, like the garment workers in Cambodia that it features, are subsidizing processes of global economic growth from which they themselves are not benefiting. Moreover, the low tax regimes that attract foreign investment mean that governments are not spending money on public services such as water, energy, health and child care. The absence of such services disproportionately affect women, who in most households everywhere continue to do much of a household’s domestic chores, as well as take care of children, the sick and the elderly. Women’s resultant sheer lack of time, examined by Action Aid in earlier participatory research is of course an important reason why women find organizing to claim their labour rights difficult. Yet, as Close the Gap emphasizes, these are rights enshrined in UN conventions that many governments choose to ignore in practice - and even worse may use the force of the state to prevent workers’ organizing. 

Close the Gap concludes “The permanent subsidy to the global economy that poor women’s work represents is a human-made, structural problem: a direct consequence of policies, laws, systems and power structures that prevent women from achieving their true potential and living decently rewarded and dignified lives.”   

The report makes a series of recommendations to governments, international institutions and the private sector. But there is also of course another group the report does not mention and part of this complex structure of globally inequitable power relations - people earning low incomes in rich countries buying the cheap clothes made by poorer people in poor countries. But all in all, this is a bold report that asks the big questions about what’s wrong with the global system, questions that many international NGOs prefer to duck.

Professor Rosalind Eyben is a trustee of Action Aid UK and an Emeritus Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and a former researcher in the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium. She has published a number of papers and policy briefs on women’s economic empowerment, particularly relating to unpaid care.