Securing Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Strengthened Labor Market Institutions

Authored by Solidarity Center

To achieve women’s economic empowerment and make lasting progress toward gender equality, the US must integrate programs and policies to support women’s gainful employment and labor rights in all its overseas development assistance. For the vast majority of the over 1.3 billion women workers in the global economy, economic empowerment is inextricably linked to labor rights, including the internationally sanctioned right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Despite important gains in gender equality and poverty reduction over the past several decades, significant labor market barriers hinder women’s economic empowerment. Even many new forms of work in globalizing economy, such as work in global supply chains, are built on gendered structures of exploitation and discrimination that perpetuate women’s poverty and inequality though a pronounced segregation of women into lower paying sectors and informal employment. Gender wage gaps pervade worldwide, and women’s labor force participation rates have decreased since 19951 in spite of an increase in development programs that focus on women’s economic empowerment. Gender-based violence in the world of work is also pervasive, undermining women’s safety, productivity, and sense of power and agency, while negatively impacting countries’ productivity and economic growth.

Globally, women and girls do more unpaid work than men. Nearly one fourth of women are defined as unpaid contributing family workers, receiving no direct pay for their labor. When women spend more hours on unpaid work, they have less time for paid work, education, or leisure activities. Employers also make hiring, firing, and promotion choices that reflect stereotypes about women’s role as primary caregivers and secondary earners, while societal pressure steers women towards jobs where that are not perceived to suffer skill loss if there is a break in employment. Consequently, labor markets are shaped by and reinforce women’s unpaid care duties, with women more likely to work part-time, on-call, in their own homes or in paid caring labor. Across the globe, this loss of opportunity perpetuates deeply entrenched economic disadvantages for women and girls. According to the UN, women’s unemployment is significantly higher than men’s in most countries, and women earn less than men across all sectors and occupations, with women working full-time earning between 70 and 90 per cent of what men earn.2

US foreign assistance cannot simply focus on entrepreneurial paths to women’s economic empowerment, but must recognize the importance of promoting gainful employment, fundamental labor rights, a voice on the job, and freedom from discrimination and gender-based violence at work. US policies and programs to support women’s economic empowerment must recognize that strengthened labor market institutions provide a direct path to improving the well-being of working women and their families, while promoting inclusive economic growth.

  • Women invest virtually all of their income into their families and communities, so increasing women’s income through minimum living wage, equal pay, and other policies to reduce gender wage gaps can sustainably reduce poverty and improve the well-being of families and communities.

  • Extending social protections to all workers in the formal and informal economy, and investing in social infrastructure such as schools, social services, and child care reduces the burden of unpaid care work on women, enhancing their economic empowerment, productivity, health, and well- being.

  • Women’s voice and advocacy is key to both launching and sustaining processes to improve labor market institutions. Laws and practice that guarantee labor rights such as collective bargaining and freedom of association are key to supporting women’s empowerment.

Upcoming Opportunities

Ensure that US foreign assistance supports simultaneous implementation and joint monitoring of SDGs 5 (gender equality) and 8 (decent work), which are mutually reinforcing and indivisible.

Prioritize women’s labor rights and decent work as primary aspects of women’s economic empowerment at the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women meeting.

Actively encourage partner governments and US employers to support the development and ratification of a binding standard to combat gender-based violence in the world of work at the International Labour Organization. Within US-funded development programs to combat gender-based violence, include a focus on workplace gender-based violence.

Implement foreign assistance programs that provide economic and technical support to assist partner governments to develop labor market institutions and economic policies that promote decent work and full employment for women, guided by tripartite engagement between policy makers, employers and women workers and their unions and allies to ensure policies are grounded in the reality of women workers, and address the particular systemic discrimination they face.

Resource Documents

“Transforming Women’s Work: Policies for an Inclusive Economic Agenda”, AFL- CIO/Solidarity Center/Rutgers Center for Global Women’s Leadership, March 2016.

“Leave No One Behind: A Call to Action for Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment,” Report of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Sept 2016. publ/documents/publication/wcms_457317.pdf


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