Why gender equality at work must be a top development priority | Jeni Klugman

02 Dec 2013

woman farming in Togo A woman farming in Togo, where only men inherit land. (Photo: UNDP Togo)

“The future is grim for us women smallholder farmers,” a group from Togo told  the World we Want survey on future development goals. In keeping with local custom, they said, “Only men inherit land, although women do most of the work in fields. This keeps us dependent on men and shackles us in poverty.”

Discriminatory laws represent one of many obstacles holding back women’s economic participation. Social norms, lack of autonomy, and limited access to assets all play a part, and the costs—particularly in poor and emerging countries—are steep.

Gender gaps are pervasive across continents and sectors. Female farmers tend to have lower productivity, smaller plots, and grow less profitable crops. Female employees are more likely to work in temporary and part-time jobs, and less likely to be promoted. In Mexico and Honduras, women accounted for 70 percent of all layoffs during the global economic crisis. Across advanced economies, women earn 16 percent less than men, even in the same occupations, hold fewer senior positions, and account for fewer entrepreneurs.

Closing these gender gaps could yield enormous dividends for development. Having as many women in the labor force as men (PDF) could boost economic growth by 5 percent in the United States, 9 percent in Japan, and 34 percent in Egypt.

Our findings show that social norms are a key factor in constraining women’s time and undervaluing their potential. Housework, child-rearing, and elder care are typically considered women’s responsibility, while nearly four in 10 people globally—close to five in 10 in developing countries—agree that, when jobs are scarce, men deserve priority.

Many women also lack access to land and financial capital, as well as to financial services, technology, training, information, and social networks. Only 47 percent of women globally, for example, have opened an account at a formal financial institution compared with 55 percent of men. Legal discrimination remains extremely common. In 15 countries, women still require their husbands’ consent to work.

Overcoming inequality and empowering women at work means understanding local contexts and devising solutions to address deprivations and constraints. These will likely include:

·     Eliminating legal and formal barriers to women’s work
·     Engaging the private sector
·     Fostering female entrepreneurship

Eradicating extreme poverty is a bold target that will demand every asset we’ve got. Tackling inequality at work and unleashing women’s full economic potential—long overdue—will almost certainly be a game-changer.

Talk to us: How can we help governments overcome inequality at work?

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