What do we want to know?
Despite significant global progress toward gender equality across several key indicators in the economic, social, political and legal realms, a substantial difference persists in labour force participation rates between men and women in low- and middle-income countries. The current review advances knowledge of women’s economic empowerment by systematically reviewing qualitative literature to address the following key question: What are the main barriers to, and facilitators of, women’s employment in male-dominated sectors with higher or growing productivity in low–and middle–income countries? By focusing on qualitative research, which is deeply contextual, this systematic review speaks to aspects of social and economic experiences that cannot be fully captured in quantitative analysis.
What did we find?
The review found gender norms established by religious beliefs, tribal governance structures, and the history of communities create significant barriers to women’s economic empowerment and labour force participation in low–and middle–income countries, especially in higher productivity, male-dominated sectors. Lack of social networks, infrastructure, technology, education and training; laws and gender norms that restrict women’s access to resources; and gender discrimination can hold women back. Conversely, infrastructure, technology, cooperatives and social networks, training opportunities, rescinding restrictive laws, and prohibiting discrimination are recognised as conducive to women’s economic empowerment. Global macroeconomic forces and external events like war, conflict and environmental crises can operate as both barriers and facilitators – in some cases hurting women’s economic empowerment, but in others opening opportunities for women.
What are the implications?
We highlight four broad policy-relevant lessons from the findings described above. First, social norms about gender create important barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Second, global macroeconomic forces and other external factors that affect the economy can have positive and negative effects on women’s economic empowerment. Third, Barriers to women’s labour market participation can be broadly categorised as either actionable or less malleable barriers. Actionable barriers are easier to change through policies and programmes. Fourth, the degree of women’s economic empowerment and the ways in which external events and internal investments affect opportunities for women vary by study, country, and region. There is heterogeneity both in the levels of women’s economic empowerment and the ways in which changes in women’s economic empowerment respond to external events and internal investments.
Who conducted this review;
Elizabeth Peters from the Urban Institute led this review. She worked closely with a team comprising colleagues from the Urban Institute and the University of Florida. Experts at the EPPI-Centre also provided advisory support for this research.