Barriers to women’s equal participation in the labour market | ActionAid UK

Daphne Jayasinghe

Women’s Rights Policy Adviser

What are the barriers to women’s equal participation in the labour market? This has been the question on the agendas for global decision-makers this month as the G20 and the World Bank consider how to economically empower women. We at ActionAid are asking the same question, but we may have different answers.

Rina Parveen (in pink) joined this women's group in West Bengal, India in 2008.
Rina Parveen (in pink) joined the women's group in West Bengal, India in 2008. The group promotes ID cards for health benefits, housing loans, and access to scholarships to help break the cycle of poverty and violence, and build economic alternatives

The World Bank is currently on the European tour of the launch of their latest gender report Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity. This is an important report which recognises that there is more to women’s empowerment than simply increasing access to income or goods and services.

The report points out that in spite of advances in girls’ education and women’s political participation, poverty combines with harmful social norms to create multiple barriers to women’s equal participation in society, barriers which act as constraints on their voice and agency.

The report builds on the Bank’s Women, Business and the Law analysis to assess legal frameworks which restrict choices girls and women can make in the labour market. It shows how constraints on sexual and reproductive rights are limiting women’s opportunities.  Girls and women are prevented from making choices about sex, when they get pregnant and when they get married and this impacts on their life choices and opportunities as well as their power inside and outside the home.

Gender discrimination is multi-dimensional

Importantly, the report shows how multi-dimensional gender discrimination is. Overlapping disadvantages or systematic exclusion is experienced as a result of multiple inequalities that limit life chances. Poverty limits choices and forms of discrimination based on, for instance, ethnicity, sexual orientation, caste and class, all intersect with gender and magnify disadvantages. 

This report shows how women often suffer multiple deprivations, such as limited control over household resources, child marriage and violence. Furthermore, women with primary education or less are more likely to experience one or more of these deprivations.

G20 commitments are a start but not enough

The World Bank has joined the IMF, the OECD and the ILO to present some of its findings to G20 Labour Ministers meeting this month in Melbourne. The G20 is deeply concerned about the shortage of labour required to fuel its growth objectives and somewhat concerned with gender discrimination which they say affects labour productivity. We are concerned about gender discrimination because it’s a women’s rights violation and achieving gender equality and women’s economic justice is a valuable end in and of itself.

Both reports acknowledge the ‘cultural barriers’ to women’s equal participation in the labour market and public life and the importance of challenging gender stereotypes in education and employment. The G20 Labour Ministers declaration commits to policy priorities to address barriers including affordable and quality childcare and paid parental leave which is to be commended.

Gender blind economic policies are not helping

However both reports fall short of recognising the ways in which the market led growth agenda can exacerbate gender inequalities and drive the concentration of women in low paid and precarious work. It is no coincidence that gender power hierarchies in the household are replicated in the labour market.

Employers rely on such inequalities to recruit a ready supply of women prepared to trade equal pay and labour rights for flexible work they can combine with the unrelenting workload of caring for their families. Patriarchy is pervasive and resistant to change.  It takes more than a commitment to increase female labour force participation to smash it.

Whilst commendable, it is not enough to add female labour market participation to the agendas of the G20 and international organisations. Gender inequality has relevance across economic agendas of G20 economies and the international financial institutions and it is the gender blind approach to developing budgets, fiscal policy and regulating companies that contributes to wider gender discrimination throughout society.

G20 countries and the international financial institutions (IFIs) must consider the effects of their decisions and actions on the voice and agency of women and marginalised communities. Christine Lagarde has been vocal on the importance of women’s leadership but she herself recently admitted that IMF staff consider gender issues a ‘distraction from the more pressing problems of financial stability or monetary policy’.

Until policy makers and political leaders recognise gender inequality at the heart of prevailing approaches to growth and job creation there is very little chance of finding the solution to gender inequality in the labour market.

Read my previous blog about the challenges of women accessing political participation