Across the globe, women face inferior income opportunities compared with men. Women are less likely to work for income or actively seek work. The global labor force participation rate for women is just over 50% compared to 80% for men. Women are less likely to work in formal employment and have fewer opportunities for business expansion or career progression. When women do work, they earn less. Emerging evidence from recent household survey data suggests that these gender gaps are heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Female labor force participation over three decades
Women’s work and GDP
Women’s work is posited to be related to development through the process of economic transformation.
Levels of female labor force participation are high for the poorest countries generally, where agriculture is the dominant sector and women often participate in small-holder agricultural work. Women’s participation in the workforce is lower in middle-income countries which have much smaller shares of agricultural activities. Finally, among high-income countries, female labor force participation is again higher, accompanied by a shift towards a service sector-based economy and higher education levels among women.
This describes the posited U-shaped relationship between development (proxied by GDP per capita) and female labor force participation where women’s work participation is high for the poorest countries, lower for middle income countries, and then rises again among high income countries.
Is there a global U-shape relationship between female labor force participation and GDP per capita?
This theory of the U-shape is observed globally across countries of different income levels. But this global picture may be misleading. As more recent studies have found, this pattern does not hold within regions or when looking within a specific country over time as their income levels rise.
Within regions, there is no U-shape relationship between female labor force participation and GDP per capita
In no region do we observe a U-shape pattern in female participation and GDP per capita over the past three decades.
Structural transformation, declining fertility, and increasing female education in many parts of the world have not resulted in significant increases in women’s participation as was theorized. Rather, rigid historic, economic, and social structures and norms factor into stagnant female labor force participation.
Historical view of women’s participation and GDP
Taking a historical view of female participation and GDP, we ask another question: Do lower income countries today have levels of participation that mirror levels that high-income countries had decades earlier?
The answer is no.
Female labor force participation from 1960 to today
This suggests that the relationship of female labor force participation to GDP for lower-income countries today is different than was the case decades past. This could be driven by numerous factors -- changing social norms, demographics, technology, urbanization, to name a few possible drivers.
Gendered patterns in type of employment
Gender equality is not just about equal access to jobs but also equal access for men and women to good jobs. The type of work that women do can be very different from the type of work that men do. Here we divide work into two broad categories: vulnerable work and wage work.
The Gender gap in vulnerable and wage work by region
The Gender gap in vulnerable and wage work by GDP per capita
Vulnerable employment is closely related to GDP per capita. Economies with high rates of vulnerable employment are low-income contexts with a large agricultural sector. In these economies, women tend to make up the higher share of the vulnerably employed. As country income levels rise, the gender gap also flips, with men being more likely to be in vulnerable work when they have a job than women.
From COVID-19 crisis to recovery
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these gender gaps in employment. Although comprehensive official statistics from labor force surveys are not yet available for all countries, emerging studies have consistently documented that working women are taking a harder hit from the crisis. Different patterns by sector and vulnerable work do not explain this. That is, this result is not driven by the sectors in which women work or their higher rates of vulnerable work—within specific work categories, women fared worse than men in terms of COVID-19 impacts on jobs.
COVID-19 impact on work stoppage was greater for women than men
Employment losses were greater for women of all categories.
Among other explanations is that women have borne the brunt of the increase in the demand for care work (especially for children). A strong and inclusive recovery will require efforts which address this and other underlying drivers of gender gaps in employment opportunities.