Gender Inequality in the Labor Market: An Unresolved Challenge in Developing Countries

By Juan Andrés Paez*

 

Last week, after winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette called for equal pay in the United States. Far from being a problem unique to that country, gender inequality is a common characteristic of the labor market in Global South countries. In spite of women’s increased participation in the global workforce, women continue to have lower salaries and higher unemployment rates than men.

Patricia Arquette gave a controversial acceptance speech after winning the 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Disney | ABC Television Group.

Patricia Arquette gave a controversial acceptance speech after winning the 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Disney | ABC Television Group.

Asymmetry in the labor market has challenged the struggle for gender equality. Generally, the fact that women have less access to the labor market has increased their dependency on men and has reinforced negative gender stereotypes, determining her “place” as in the home. This affects women even more when they are heads of households and are the only source of income for their families: they wind up excluded from various forms of economic participation like education credit systems, home ownership, and business ventures, among others.

Using the “Gender Gap Index” we can observe that the gender gap in education and health has tended to improve in the majority of countries. However, in terms of economic participation, regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean have the highest rates of inequality.

 

Economic Participation and Opportunity Index by Region, Source: Global Gender Gap Index 2014.

Economic Participation and Opportunity Index by Region, Source: Global Gender Gap Index 2014.

If we view differences in labor participation by gender in different regions of the world, it is heartening to see that these differences have significantly reduced in the past 20 years. For example, the difference in women’s and men’s participation in developing countries such as the Middle East and Northern Africa has gone from 60% in 1990, to 50% in 2010. Similarly, in South America, this difference has dropped from nearly 40% to 23%.

Labor force participation gender gap by region, Source: ActionAid “Close the Gap”.

Labor force participation gender gap by region, Source: ActionAid “Close the Gap”.

Nonetheless, statistics of salary differences and unemployment rates are less impressive. According to World Bank data, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the unemployment rate in 2010 was 8% for women compared to 5% for men, while in 2002 the rate was 11% and 8%, respectively. While this demonstrates a drop in overall unemployment, the gender gap has persisted. The same has happened in North Africa, the Middle East, and other regions of the Global South, as demonstrated in the graph below.

Unemployment rate by gender and region Source: World Bank

Unemployment rate by gender and region Source: World Bank

Similarly, these differences in unemployment rate go hand in hand with salary differences. Studies from De ActionAid show salary gender gaps between 2008 and 2012 for some countries. For example, in Pakistan, women earn less than 40% of what men do, in Egypt 60% less, in Colombia 56%, and in Angola 40%, among others.

Why do these gender differences in the labor market exist? What can we do to eliminate them?

Studies such “Entre Estereotipos” undertaken by researchers from the Colombian organization Dejusticia, demonstrate that one of the main reasons for which women are seriously affected in the labor market is the division of time between what is called “productive labor and “caring labor.” In other words, women dedicate a much greater part of their time to caring for children and doing housework, while men have mainly been exempt from such work, which ought to be divided between men and women. A possible solution to this particular problem are public policies to reduce this unfair division of labor in the home.

A fisherwoman of Mumbai, known as Machiwalli, transports the catch of the day to the market. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Lecercle.

A fisherwoman of Mumbai, known as Machiwalli, transports the catch of the day to the market. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Lecercle.

On one hand, governments can invest in horizontal policies based on increasing access to public services such as electricity, water, and sewage systems to reduce the work women must expend to complete domestic tasks and give them more time to dedicate to the workforce. Similarly, governments can adopt policies similar to the one Malaysiahas used, which increase state subsidized childcare services, which permit mothers greater access to the workforce. These policies have the added benefit of helping to close the early education gap and help the early development of children.

Additionally, there are policies that companies can adopt, such as flexible schedules that allow women to participate more easily in the workforce, while also permitting men to spend more time in the home and share the work of caring for children. In countries such as Canada, companies have created paternal leave policies for men, so that they may also assist in caring for their children when they are born. This allows men to have a larger role in raising their children, and also reduces the workforce discrimination women face for pregnancy.

Global South countries cannot be content to have greater levels of women’s participation in the labor force if these do go together with lower unemployment levels and higher salaries. Today’s challenge, then, is to identify public policies that reduce women’s unpaid labor and balance men and women’s responsibilities in the home. If countries commit to these types of policies, it will help reduce gender inequality in the labor market.

 

* Juan Andrés Paez is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Georgina Smith