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Women weavers of the “Vida Nueva” collective in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, sit on a bench in front of their work.
Ryan Gall/Global Citizen
Girls & Women

How Women Are Shut Out of the Global Workforce


Why Global Citizens Should Care
If all women had the same work opportunities as men, trillions of dollars could be added to the global economy, which would not only help lift their families out of poverty but also entire communities. Still, most countries have at least one law on the books today that discriminates against working women, and gender stereotypes keep many women from chasing their career aspirations. You can learn more about these issues in the documentary series ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement, premiering on Sept. 5, and take action on these issues here

Women make up half the world’s population, but, in most places, they don’t make up half its workforce. It’s not because they don’t want to work or have career aspirations of their own; it’s because gender discrimination and inequality continue to hold women back, keeping them out of the workforce and trapping them in the cycle of poverty.

Advancing gender equality could enable millions of women to pursue their dreams, work, and become financially independent, adding $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

But, while 75% of working-age men are employed or looking for employment, less than 49% of working-age women have jobs or are actively searching for them, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). That figure tends to be much lower in middle-income countries like Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Mexico, where economies are quickly growing, but gender equality may not be advancing as rapidly.

Whether it’s lack of education opportunities for girls, stubborn cultural attitudes about what jobs are appropriate for women, or gender discriminatory laws that prevent women from registering a business through the same process as men, women face barriers to gainful employment — and a way out of poverty — that most men simply do not.

Legal Obstacles

Just six countries — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden — give men and women equal rights when it comes to work, according to the World Bank. In these countries, men and women are entitled to the same legal protections against sexual harassment in the work place, equal pay is mandated, and both parents have the right to take paid parental leave.

But, in at least 180 other countries, this is far from the case.

In Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, which the World Bank ranks among the worst countries for gender equality when it comes to laws regulating work, equal pay for equal work is not legally required. And women are not allowed to work the same hours, particularly during the night, as men, limiting the job opportunities they can seek.

Women in Bhutan and Pakistan can’t sign their own names to take the steps necessary to start their own businesses, like registering a company or getting a loan. Instead, they are legally required to sign these documents with their fathers’ or husbands’ names.

There has been progress in recent years to reform gender discriminatory laws governing work. Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia needed a male guardian’s permission to start a business. And, in all but one country, women can now sign contracts under the same conditions as men. Equatorial Guinea remains the only country in which a woman still requires her husband’s permission in order to sign a contract, according to the World Bank.

However, in many countries, much change is still needed to establish gender equality in the labor force.

In Bahrain, women may only leave their marital home to work or for other purposes when given permission by their husbands. And though it is not legally mandated, many employers in Iran will require written consent from a woman’s husband in order to allow her to work, Human Rights Watch reported.

These kinds of laws not only prevent women from getting jobs, but also make it difficult for them to keep those jobs, to be safe in those jobs, and to be fairly paid for their work. And even in countries that do have gender equality in work-related laws, there is still a long way to go until women are actually equals in the workforce.

Both Sweden and France have grappled with their own #MeToo movements in the past two years, with hundreds of Swedish actors speaking out against workplace sexual harassment in the country’s entertainment industry, and tens of thousands of women taking to social media to break their silence about harassment at work with the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc — meaning “squeal on your pig” in French — in 2017.

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Cultural Challenges

Women are underrepresented in the global workforce, but they are working. They just aren’t always paid or recognized for that work.

In many cultures, men are still seen as “breadwinners,” while a woman’s place is considered to be in the home. Attempting to break away from this long-held norm can make women vulnerable to domestic violence or abuse. A woman’s “job” — frequently, even if she has another job — is raising children, caring for sick or elderly family members, cooking, and looking after the household. All of this is work, for which women typically are not compensated.

Often, in developing countries or within families living in poverty, women must work out of economic necessity, but the jobs considered “appropriate” for them to take on may be limited by cultural norms. For example, in India, teaching is considered a suitable job for women; however, working as a mechanic or a driver is considered inappropriate.

Prescriptive gender roles that limit job opportunities don’t just affect women in developing countries. In Japan, women are encouraged to pursue careers that align with traditional gender roles, like nursing and teaching, but they are discriminated against in business, engineering, medicine, and even sushi-making, which are all still considered men’s fields.

These persistent gender stereotypes mean women are also more likely than men to be contributing family workers, meaning they work for a family member. These are often informal arrangements that are not typically covered by many legal protections in which a woman may not be paid for her work at market rate, if at all.

Though, globally, men make up 63% of informal workers, hundreds of millions of women around the world work in the informal labor market, as agricultural workers, domestic workers, and small vendors. And in developing countries, a higher proportion of working women are employed as informal workers than men. In fact, 92% of employed women in low-income countries work in informal jobs, which can leave them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

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Education Barriers

High rates of informal work are closely tied to low education rates, according to the ILO. And, globally, 132 million girls are out of school, and with conflict, natural disasters, and displacement on the rise, that increasing.

But without education, girls, who grow up to be women with career aspirations, face limited job opportunities. A lack of education is also correlated with higher rates of child marriage and early childbearing. And without education, girls and women may have to rely on their families or husbands to manage their finances, preventing them from becoming independent.

Women with secondary school education don’t just have better job opportunities available to them, they have greater earning potential and can therefore provide a better life for themselves and their families. A woman who has a secondary school education earns nearly double what a woman with no education earns on average, according to the World Bank.

However, girls and women face several barriers to education, including a lack of infrastructure and learning materials. But for many girls whose families live in poverty, the same gender discriminatory attitudes that prevent women from securing good jobs, also prevent girls from completing their education.

Families who cannot afford to send all their children to school often curtail their daughters’ educations, believing they don’t need to be highly educated because they won’t work in jobs that require that level of education. And this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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How We Can Change This

Today, only about one-third of businesses are owned or partly owned by women, according to World Bank data. And, globally, women make up just 21% of employers globally, the ILO says.

But by empowering girls and women with education, eliminating gender discrimination from legislation surrounding work, and reforming cultural attitudes, women can be empowered to achieve their full potential. If women were treated as true equals and given the same opportunities as men to work, they could add as much as $28 trillion to the global economy — a stunning sum that could help end extreme poverty.

ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement, a new six-part documentary series developed by National Geographic and Procter & Gamble and co-produced by Global Citizen and RadicalMedia, showcases the power individuals have to hold lawmakers and companies accountable to advance gender equality and support women-owned businesses.

In the first episode, which premieres Sept. 5, viewers follow singer Becky G and Global Citizen as they travel to Mexico to meet with women whose lives and whose families’ lives have been changed through fair and safe work opportunities.

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How to Tune In

ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement will air weekly in select markets beginning Sept. 5 on the National Geographic channel or globalcitizen.org/activate.


ACTIVATE: THE GLOBAL CITIZEN MOVEMENT is a six-part documentary series from National Geographic and Procter & Gamble, co-produced by Global Citizen and RadicalMedia. ACTIVATE raises awareness around extreme poverty, inequality, and sustainability issues to mobilize global citizens to take action and drive meaningful and lasting change. The series will premiere globally in fall 2019 on National Geographic in 172 countries and 43 languages. You can learn more here.

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