Urban Wire Gender Norms and Women’s Economic Empowerment in Low-Income Countries: What We Learned by Reviewing the Evidence
H. Elizabeth Peters, Shirley Adelstein, Robert Abare
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Women around the world face barriers to participating in the labor force, especially in traditionally male-dominated sectors. Addressing these barriers in low-income countries can improve both women’s well-being and the countries’ entire economies (PDF).

Building on Urban’s prior research, we recently completed a systematic review (PDF) of qualitative studies of women’s labor force participation and upward mobility. We focused on studies of the higher-productivity, male-dominated sectors of commercial agriculture, mining, and trade and found studies from 18 low-income countries, mostly those in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America.

Barriers to economic empowerment observed by the studies were far ranging, including gender-related laws, violence and sexual harassment, and limited access to land, technology, technology skills, credit and capital, and social and business networks. But one of the strongest and most consistent findings from our review was the influence of social norms about gender.

Gender norms are woven through other barriers

These norms, which can stem from religious beliefs, tribal governance, or local history, emerged in most of the studies as an important underlying factor in nearly all the barriers and facilitators that women experience.

Gender norms can restrict women’s economic opportunities by limiting their access to information and networks, jobs, and assets. Gender norms also justify a gendered occupational segregation that often relegates women to jobs that are deemed less valuable and thus pay lower wages.

Gender norms are also cited to justify violence toward women and sexual harassment. In some cases, laws to protect women either don’t exist or aren’t enforced.

Gender norms dictate the economic role women “should” play

Gender norms primarily affect women’s economic empowerment by influencing perceptions about the appropriate roles that men and women should play in society, at home, and in the economic sphere.

A study of women in Nigeria’s agricultural sector found that men’s typical roles were viewed as being higher skilled and more valuable. Interviewees said that climbing trees (e.g., to harvest nuts) was believed to be the purview of men, while women were better at cleaning, which is related to their work in the home.

Similar gender norms defined roles in mining, where men were viewed as being better at jobs—such as breaking, hauling, and heaving rocks—that required physical strength (Lauwo 2016). Many gender norms, however, do not have any basis in biological gender differences. Several of the studies described a belief that men were better at technology:

Any technical equipment is always associated with masculinity. The two grinding machines that are owned by women are being operated by men even though women can operate them. It is a general view that the machines will last longer when men operate them because men’s usage of such machinery is deemed normal. (Afolabi 2015)

Gender norms are important across sectors

We consistently found that gender norms play an important role in shaping women’s access to employment in male-dominated sectors. Social and religious factors can play a role in determining gender norms that have varied impacts across sectors. Koomson (2017) describes a gender norm among the Talensi in Ghana that restricts married women from working closely with men who are not their relatives. This norm makes it difficult for women to work in the mines but not in farming:

Mining pits are considered “hidden” and “secluded,” so they are not conducive environments for men and women to work together. Talensi men and women regularly work together in open farm fields, but not in areas that are out of the public view. (Koomson 2017)

Another example of the importance of religious beliefs is described by Akter and colleagues (2017) who report that:

Indonesia… has a large Muslim population where religious restrictions impede women’s mobility outside the house and prohibit communication between the sexes…. This could be one of the reasons for women’s lack of access to [agricultural] extension service in Indonesia, where the extension staff are predominantly male.

(Agricultural extension services exist in many countries, including the United States. They provide technical assistance and training to farmers on land use, crop selection, and various agricultural methods.)

Gender norms can change over time

The evidence we reviewed also provided examples of how gender norms can change. In one study in Nigeria, men living in rural areas moved to the cities to take advantage of new economic opportunities, and the women they left behind took over the farming roles:

Male migration out of Yekemi has been a key factor in enabling women to move into cash crop farming. This not only impacts on the gendered organization of farming in the community but also on divisions of labour and power within households and the wider community. Migration in and out of Yekemi and the changed economic status of women cash crop farmers is facilitating a transformation in patriarchal relations. (Afolabi 2015)

By taking on new roles, women challenged the prevailing gender norms, suggesting that increasing women’s ability to participate in the labor market and earn income can create a feedback loop—improving gender relations while enhancing women’s economic empowerment subsequently changes gender norms even more.

While our review encompassed a variety of facilitators and barriers to women’s economic empowerment, the role of gender norms was pervasive, both directly through influencing the roles and jobs that are considered acceptable for women and indirectly through limiting access to resources such as land, credit, technology, and business networks. Policy makers must understand that programs that increase women’s skills and access to resources may not be enough and that directly taking on the issue of gender norms is essential.


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Research Areas Global issues
Tags International civil society and democratic institutions Women and girls International development and governance
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population