Participation in the Economy
Participation in the Economy

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank encourage developing countries to use export-led growth to expand their economies. Such globalized economies require a labor force of a size that must include women, but women’s employment varies greatly by region. A gender gap exists in employment, with a 24.8 percentage point difference between men and women in the employment-to-population ratio in 2012 (Millennium Development Goals Report, 2013).

As of 2012, 64 percent of women are in the work force in Eastern Asia and Oceania, the greatest proportion among all regions of the world. In Northern  Africa, only 18 percent of women work. The global average is 48 percent (Millennium Development Goals Report, 2013).

The vastly different percentages around the world may be attributed to social-cultural factors, such as the belief in many ethnically Arab nations that women do not work, or the tight political control over women in places such as Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, South American women participate in the labor force more as they age, which indicates that they must contribute more income as their household grows following marriage, while women in the Middle East and North Africa drop out of the labor force in great numbers when they marry and have children.

In addition, a gender wage gap exists all over the world, ranging from a 9.3 percent difference in pay between men and women working full time in Belgium, to a 40 percent difference in South Korea. The United States has an 18 percent gap, close to the average among industrialized countries. The global wage gap can largely be explained by the type of work that women choose to go into (or, for many women, the type of work that is available for them) (Rampell, 2013).

What accounts for these differences within gendered relations? In many cases, cultural barriers, especially in the relationship between women and men within households and communities, impede increased economic participation, or undermine the quality of that participation. For example, even women who work face differential treatment such as wage gaps and segregation into traditionally female industries. Women have historically borne the burden of non-monetized labor, such as child-care and domestic work.

Globalization is changing these norms. The new global developing economies demand women in the monetized as well as non-monetized sectors of work. In fact, globalization has the potential to improve women’s economic achievement. Increased employment opportunities for women in non-traditional sectors might enable them to earn and control income, thus providing a source of empowerment and enhancing women’s capacity to negotiate their role and status within the household and society.

Journalist Nadina Al Bedair describes the situation of women in Saudi Arabia with the denial of their human rights: (Al Bedair, 2008).

Increased participation in the work force also implies increased hazards for women. Women’s jobs outside the home tend to be the lowest earning, least secure, and most dangerous available in the economy, especially in peiods of recession that plague most developing countries.

The following video shows the conditions of women working in Bangladesh. Although they work in hazardous and strenuous conditions, most of these women are willing to work in such environments in order to financially support their families.

(The National Labor Committee, 2008)

On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, a garment factory outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing at least 1,127 workers. Over half of the casualties were women. In Bangladesh, the garment industry is the largest employer of women, a majority of whom live in rural areas where employment is scarce. In addition, these women are often supporting large extended families, and working for the garment industry is often the only option other than working as a farm hand. Jobs in the garment industry do much to elevate the status of women, but they are often left powerless in the face of harassment and dangerous working conditions. The Bangladesh factory collapse is a prime example of how women are often required to take jobs in dangerous industries with little to no recourse of their own. (Uddin, 2013) To read more on the Bangladesh factory collapse, click here.

The dearth of labor laws, or ignorance and lack of enforcement of the labor codes in practice, allow for the exploitation of women. In Guatemala, women constitute 80 percent of the textile factory sector, and thousands of mostly indigenous women provide services as domestic servants. In both sectors, women have only a precarious claim on the rights to Guatemala’s legally mandated minimum wage, work-week length, leave time, health care under the national social security system, and privacy protections. Often, they are subject to physical and/or sexual abuse, according to Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, 2012).

In the current economic recession, women in America are increasingly facing unemployment. This video from the Machinists New Network discusses the role of women in the current US economy: (Kaniewski, 2009).

Unfortunately, even the global nature of business does not confer universal rights for these women. Many U.S.-based companies, such as Target, The Limited, Wal-Mart, GEAR for Sports, Liz Claiborne, and Lee Jeans, have contracts with Guatemalan factories and continue to honor them even if the factories break explicit company policy, such as physically examining women to determine if they are pregnant and denying health care to employees. According to Human Rights Watch, strengthening legal protection for women laborers and increasing their access to legal recourse might cement increased participation in the work as a positive development for women.

Though globalization may have increased women’s vulnerability and dependency, there is still hope that prioritizing women’s issues has yielded progress and will continue to do so. As the UN has stated, “Women have entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers, increasing the potential for their ability to participate in economic decision making at various levels, starting with the household” (United Nations, 2007).  Significant changes in the underlying factors threatening to suppress this potential are necessary before serious progress can be made.

* (Graph Source: Gender Dimension of Millennium Development Goals Report, 2013)


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