Increasing Women’s Access to Decent Work: Precise Policy Action for Gender Equality

Motherhood responsibilities, precarious jobs with little or no social security, and limited education are preventing women of the Global South from realizing their full potential in the workplace. This is according to new findings from Kenya, Sri Lanka, Peru, Brazil, Senegal, and the Philippines. Teams of local researchers recently conducted studies Addressing Context-Specific Barriers to Women's Participation in Decent Work as part of a PEP research program funded by Co-Impact.

To promote gender equality, women need to be able to participate in decent work. While many countries recognize gender equality and a number have ratified international conventions, their economic, legal, infrastructural, and social contexts continue to hamper women’s access to decent work.

Decent work provides a fair income, safe and healthy working conditions, job security, as well as equal opportunities and treatment for all, according to the International Labour Organization definition.

However, social gender norms cause or amplify the barriers to decent work that women face in all the countries studied. These norms disproportionately place childcare and household responsibilities on women, limit girls’ and women’s access to education, and create unsafe travel and work environments for women.

The effect is striking. In Kenya, even though over 75% of women participate in the labor market, only 39% of these are employed in the modern wage sector (formal in terms of registration, taxation, and official recording). Seven out of ten women in Senegal are employed in vulnerable jobs. In Sri Lanka, only 7.6% of working-age women are employed in decent work, with most low-skilled women employed in agriculture and manufacturing. Meanwhile in Brazil—where women head half of all households and 87% of single-parent households—only 18% of female household heads have access to decent work.

So that women may participate in decent work—as is their fundamental right—a range of targeted policy interventions must be implemented. Furthermore, these policies need tailoring to the local realities, to overcome their specific obstacles and build upon their specific opportunities.


Provide affordable, accessible childcare services

The lack of childcare services or inadequate childcare provisions, be it public or private, limits women’s access to quality work across all the countries studied. Providing quality public or affordable childcare services is the single most useful policy reform that could transform women’s ability to work and empower them financially.

Currently in Sri Lanka, childcare is inadequate and unregulated. Daycare facilities lack basic amenities and the caregivers are not well-trained. Here, the policy suggestions go beyond improving existing mechanisms to also provide incentives for more private sector involvement in providing childcare services.

In Brazil, the focus is on establishing widely-available, affordable childcare that is compatible with full-time work. Mothers tend to be the ones sacrificing decent jobs as daycare hours do not align with regular work hours. Additionally, to change the norm that mothers’ careers are valued less than fathers’, a key policy reform would be to increase paternity leave or transition to shared parental leave.


Increase girls’ and women’s access to education and training

Data from across the countries demonstrated that education, especially higher education, increases women’s access to decent work.

Quantitative analysis in Senegal showed that a woman with primary education is 8.5% more likely to be in decent work than a woman with no education, while secondary education further increases this probability by 40%. Policies are thus needed for a concerted and coordinated approach to invest in women’s education and training.

In Kenya, researchers found that secondary education increased women’s likelihood of participating in decent work by 14%. Hence, a key policy suggestion focused on scaling up existing programs for providing higher education loans to enable students to join either technical or vocational training or access tertiary education by joining universities.


Ensure women’s safety in public and workspaces

Another important barrier identified through the studies is the need to ensure women’s safety. The research shows that women often select low-quality employment that is close to their residences and offers flexible working hours. The teams in Sri Lanka and Senegal identified areas where policies can address this barrier. It is important to guarantee reliable and safe public transport, adequate street lighting, and require employers to provide safeguards when employing women.


Longer-term structural changes

Increasing women’s participation in the formal job market will be a culmination of the various specific policy measures highlighted in this piece, as well as broader actions to be realized over the long term.

The Kenyan team, for example, suggests creating more opportunities for decent work for women by supporting new businesses to remain formal through targeted government programs and related support (mentorship, training etc.).

Changing sexist gender norms is also essential. The team in Senegal suggests enforcing the laws that can address prevailing social norms both inside and outside the workplace (such as labor and workplace discrimination laws). Peru’s team additionally suggests running awareness programs to change gender norms in schools and communities. They also suggest taking a gender-transformative approach to public employment services, such as including services that address gender violence.

As structural and societal changes take time, action to take up and implement the policy suggestions identified through these studies must begin in the immediate to near future. Ensuring decent work for women is a vital step towards ensuring gender equality for all, especially in the Global South.


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