Regressive social norms disadvantage women wanting to work

Over the last two decades, the Partnership for Economic Policy has supported over 100 projects in more than 45 countries in the Global South that focus primarily on gender issues.

On International Women’s Day 2024, this blog provides highlights from recent and ongoing research programs that demonstrate how regressive social norms continue to impede women’s economic growth and perpetuate gender inequality.


Understanding context-specific barriers to women’s access to decent work across six Southern countries

Decent work is defined as work that includes social security, normal working hours, adequate pay, and rights. However, these basic conditions elude most women in Southern countries. For example, in Kenya, even though over 75% of women participate in the labor market, only 39% of these are employed in jobs that are formal in terms of registration, taxation, and official recording. Meanwhile, over the past three decades in Senegal, seven out of ten women have been employed in vulnerable jobs, and in Sri Lanka, only 7.6% of working-age women are employed in decent work.

Recent studies conducted by local PEP researchers across KenyaSri LankaPeruBrazilSenegal, and the Philippines found that motherhood and associated childcare responsibilities presented a major barrier to women’s access to decent work. Childcare responsibilities are disproportionately placed on women due to existing social norms, hindering their potential to participate fully in the workplace.

Each study identified the importance for policy solutions to be tailored to the specific reality and challenges of that country. For instance, in Brazil, researchers recommended increasing the operational hours of existing full-time public daycare centers to accommodate the 44-hour workweek of parents in formal employment. However, in Sri Lanka, the research team suggested providing incentives to encourage the private sector to engage more in childcare provision.

Kenyan researchers specifically suggested installing daycare facilities in public schools, and in the Philippines, the research team advocated for sustainable childcare investments, especially through improving remuneration and benefits for daycare workers (currently being pushed by the Congress).

To find out more about the context-specific solutions that can help overcome the “motherhood barrier” and advance gender equality, read this LinkedIn newsletter by our Executive Director, Prof. Jane Mariara.  

The studies, which were part of a PEP research program that focused on Addressing Context-Specific Barriers to Women's Participation in Decent Work and funded by Co-Impact, also identified most women being employed in precarious jobs with little or no social security and women’s limited access to education as major barriers to decent work.

To address these barriers requires a long-term structural approach, and a range of precise, targeted policy solutions adapted to contextual variations. Such solutions must not only focus on providing affordable, safe, quality childcare as mentioned above, but also on increasing girl’s and women’s access to education and training; ensuring their safety in public and at workspaces; as well as changing sexist gender norms through legislative interventions and cultural campaigns. Read more about the findings and policy approaches identified across the six countries in this PEP blog.

In addition to education, soft-skills training as part of vocational courses (for men as well as women) may improve women’s labor market outcomes.

Local PEP researchers in Kenya are seeking to understand the supply-side and demand-side factors believed to contribute to existing gender gaps in labor market participation and continued gender-based employment segregation. Their ongoing study, as part of the research program Gender-sensitive Interventions to Improve Women’s Labor Market Outcomes, supported by the International Development Research Centre, focuses on how gender-sensitive interventions can improve labor market outcomes for young women. These interventions are implemented through the Technical, Vocational Education, and Training (TVET) Centers operating under the Kenyan Ministry of Education. The research team is testing how providing gender-sensitive soft-skills training through TVET centers can help address the barriers faced by young women as they make the transition from school to work.

The midline survey findings show interesting results in that the soft-skills training appears to be effective for improving job search and ultimate labor market outcomes for women, and for encouraging women graduates to consider self-employment as a career path (which was not the case at the time of the baseline survey). Importantly, the training has shown improvement in young men’s perceptions and attitudes about women’s work, including women’s right to work, equal pay, and more. The endline survey findings and the final policy recommendations will follow soon.

Two female youth entrepreneurs in Uganda
Photo: Karin Bridger for USAID

Understanding what works for young women’s employment in Africa

As part of an ongoing research program in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, PEP researchers recently reviewed current employment policies and programs in 10 African countries to understand how these advance youth employment. This research hopes to contribute to the Foundation’s ambitious goal of enabling thirty million young Africans, particularly young women, to secure dignified and fulfilling work by 2030 under its Young Africa Works strategy.

That women are the more disadvantaged gender among youth was a finding that cut across many countries. For instance, in Ghana, youth unemployment is higher among women (22.3%) than among men (17.4%). The rate of women not in education, employment, or training (NEET) in Ethiopia is significant (23.9% in 2021). Additionally, the NEET rates for women are higher than those for men in multiple countries. In Uganda, 50.5% of young women are NEET compared to 29% of young men and in Nigeria, 31% of women are NEET compared to 25.3% of men. In Niger, between 2005 and 2018, the proportion of people aged 15-24 who are NEET increased from 23% to 69%, with the rate three times higher among young women than men.

Some countries provide targeted or inclusive solutions such as the “integrated green jobs programme” in Ghana, which is open to all youth regardless of their gender or disability, or Uganda’s two flagship programmes launched especially for women: the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) that provides entrepreneurship training and access to financial services, and the Presidential Initiative on Skilling the Girl Child that provides vocational training plus a grant upon graduation.

However, young women continue to face greater obstacles in labor market participation as compared to young men and the majority of employment programs and policies currently being implemented are falling short for women. With limited program access for women and policies that do not take the specific needs of women into account, regressive social norms continue to be a factor.

There is thus an urgent need to prioritize women specifically in policy solutions. Find out more about this ongoing program investigating What Works for Youth Employment in Africa.

Uganda-women fetch water

Women in the informal sector, especially agriculture, disproportionately bear the negative impacts of climate shocks

In the face of climate shocks, female farmers confront escalating challenges that exacerbate their vulnerability. This compromises both their agricultural production and income, according to recent findings by local PEP researchers across five African countries (Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria, and Cameroon). These studies were conducted as part of a recently concluded research program on Climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: impacts and responses for women and girls supported by Global Affairs Canada.

Despite agriculture being the primary source of livelihood for approximately 80% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa with women representing at least half of the region’s food producers, their ability to respond and adapt to climate shocks is much lower than that of men.

This is primarily because of women’s limited access to or control over agricultural resources such as land and capital, socio-cultural norms that dictated the division of labor between men and women, and women’s limited decision-making power on agricultural strategies.

Policy solutions thus have to focus on increasing women’s leadership in defining and implementing solutions to mitigate or adapt to climate change effects, as well as on mitigating the effects of climate change on gender equality and life chances among children.

For instance, the researchers found that more state land and support services for women are needed to mitigate the effects of variable rainfall in Burkina Faso, while crop diversification can provide positive effects for households with women plot managers in Nigeria. In Cameroon, agricultural fertilizer subsidies can improve food security and in Tanzania, climate-smart agriculture technology can increase women's productivity. Lastly, adopting erosion control strategies could aid in reducing the gender gap in crop productivity in Malawi. Find out more about the findings as well as the policy recommendations and pathways across all countries in this PEP blog.

Additionally, findings by researchers in Malawi show that even as existing resilience programs empower women, these fail to enable women to withstand climate shocks. This is particularly relevant given that up to 15% of the Malawian population faced acute food insecurity between June to September 2023, with the situation set to deteriorate due to droughts, erratic rains, tropical storms and other climate change disasters.

The success of current resilience programs is affected by matrilineal and patrilineal social norms, which determine the ownership of productive resources such as land and capital. The vulnerability of women during droughts risks the sustainability of the businesses established through the resilience programs. This occurs because gender norms are not explicitly considered during the policymaking process.

This study was conducted as part of a research program analyzing the role of social gender norms on women’s economic resilience and empowerment under income shocks, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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