A world apart – why political and businesses elites need to remember working women

Recent experience suggests that women - and men - are reaching the end of their tether. It’s now high time to address the structural causes behind inequality in women’s work.

Kasia Staszewska
29 January 2015
ActionAid-trained women garment workers in Savar, marching to demand their rights under Bangladesh labour laws.

ActionAid-trained women garment workers in Savar, marching to demand their rights under Bangladesh labour laws.

It’s that time of the year again: the World Economic Forum (WEF) has come to the end and the global elite, mostly men, are heading back after countless discussions about the state of the world and global economy today.

But while this year’s Davos event, and media around it, took up the issue of economic inequality and jobless growth as the most pressing of the top 10 trends for 2015, and prominent women rued the lack of female voices in the boardroom, the issue of women’s economic inequality remained largely out of the spotlight.

To reveal the scale of this neglected crisis, ActionAid has calculated the cost to women of inequality in pay and rates of employment. Our new briefing paper Close the gap! shows that women in poor countries could be a staggering US$9 trillion better off if their pay and access to paid work were equal to that of men.  Globally the figure is even higher and accounts for US$17 trillion, with the potential raise of women’s income by up to 76%.

To arrive at this figure, ActionAid used ILO, UN and World Bank data to calculate the increase in women’s wages that would occur as a result of closing the gaps between women’s and men’s average wages as well as between women’s and men’s average of rates of employment, in poor countries. Although the figure of $9 trillion is mind-boggling, the calculation does not even factor in raising incomes to the level of a living wage, nor estimate for the contribution of women’s unpaid care work. This means that the real cost is likely to be considerably higher.

Other statistics bear out the same story: globally women’s labour force participation has stagnated at around 50 per cent, while that of men, although decreasing, still hovers at around 80 per cent; worldwide more than half of employed women are in informal employment and in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia over 80 per cent of all jobs for women are vulnerable work. Women often work in exploitative conditions and also shoulder disproportionate unpaid care responsibilities (such as child rearing, domestic chores, and caring for the sick and elderly). For example in India, women spend ten times as much time on unpaid care work than men and as many as 45 per cent of women of working age are confined solely to domestic duties.

Recent experience suggests that women - and men - are reaching the end of their tether. In January 2014, exasperation at years of low pay erupted into nationwide strikes in Cambodia, where women make up 90 per cent of employees in the garment industry. While Cambodia’s GDP almost doubled between 2007 and 2013 - fuelled significantly by the country’s multibillion dollar garment industry – the gender wage gap in the country more than doubled between 2004 and 2009, despite the fact that women’s labour has been a major contributor to the country’s economic rise.

One garment worker and worker’s rights activist told us: “We want an economic system that allows people to live with dignity, not in slavery. We’re not asking to live like CEOs, but to at least get paid a living wage. Corporates are earning millions, even billions a year.”

But gender inequality in work not only has consequences for women; without the subsidy the women’s work provides the world economy could not function. And on the other hand, women enjoying decent work and equal and living wages is a path to poverty eradication, gender equality, sustainable development and inclusive growth. According to the ILO US$1.6 trillion in output could be generated by reducing the prevailing gender employment gap. Indeed, valuing and recognising women‘s work, both paid and unpaid, might be also one of the most important factor for keeping many households out of poverty,  thus driving progress and prosperity for all.

Women’s economic inequality hasn’t come about by accident. As Close the gap! reveals, it is a result of the unjust politics that shape our economy, such as pursuit of growth at any cost, or the fact that women’s voices continue to be silenced and ignored. And while men and women alike struggle to secure decently paid work, the fact that women are at the bottom of the economic pile is also a result, and further driver, of the wider gender discrimination in society – for example violence against women and girls or violations of their sexual and reproductive rights.

Until now, the international community has all too often approached the issue of women’s economic inequality as if extending a helping hand to women – such as through microcredit or corporate social responsibility initiatives (CSR) – would solve the problem altogether. It’s now high time that governments, businesses and international institutions rise up to the challenge and address the structural causes to fix the crucial issue of inequality in women’s work.

Top image: Nicola Bailey/ActionAid. All rights reserved

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