• Opinion
  • March 8, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

When better is possible for women in work, more is not enough

Opinion: If women earned as much as men, global wealth would increase 14%

labour force participation

This piece was written by Andrew Morrison, Division Chief of the Gender and Diversity Division at the Inter-American Development Bank. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


One of the most notable economic and social transformations in the last 50 years has been the growing participation of women in the labour markets. Latin America is not an exception: while in the 1960s only two out of 10 adult women worked or actively sought work, today that number has tripled.

Despite this great progress, female labour participation in the region is still 30 average points below that of men. Even among women, the picture is far from homogeneous. Great differences prevail in participation rates between countries, as well as large gaps among different population groups within each country.

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For example, if we look at Mexico and Peru, two countries with similar population distribution, average household size and educational attainment level — all of which are associated with women’s participation in the labour market — we find very different participation rates. While in Mexico 58.5% of women between 25 and 54 years of age are working or actively seeking employment, in Peru the figure is 79.6%.

What explains such a large gap between these countries?

A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Centre for Distributive, Labour and Social Studies (CEDLAS) found that the gap is explained by a greater proportion of Peruvian women working in precarious, informal or unpaid jobs, especially in rural areas.

Women need jobs that guarantee them a decent salary, independence and economic security

The lesson is clear: higher participation rates do not automatically mean good quality jobs. Quality is as important as quantity. Women need jobs that guarantee them a decent salary, independence and economic security.

The labour participation of women is essential for the growth and productivity of a country. The evidence is pretty compelling. A study indicates that the Gross Domestic Product of Latin America could grow by 2.6 trillion dollars (34%) if the gender gap in labour force participation were completely closed. In terms of wages, estimates show that if women earned as much as men, global wealth would increase 14% — wealth that would fuel the economy.

Gender equality in labour markets is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do — for governments and for the private sector.

Today, Argentina, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica are implementing, with the support of IDB and the World Economic Forum (WEF), Gender Parity Taskforces, a model of high-level public-private collaboration to increase female labor participation, reduce the wage gap and promote the participation of women in leadership positions.

These taskforces are a tool to increase not only women’s employment, but their employment in quality jobs.

What other actions can governments and companies undertake to promote more and better jobs for women?

One way is to expand access to affordable high-quality child care services, preschools, schools with extended hours and elder care services. Domestic responsibilities and time-intensive caregiving duties at home are one the main obstacles for women to join the workforce.

Waiting over two centuries to close the Economic Gender Gap isn’t an option

Another sensible policy is the expansion of balanced and non-transferable maternity and paternity leave that encourages shared responsibility at home and reduces the cost women must bear to join the labour market. A recent IDB study showed that increasing female labour participation through the expansion of childcare can lead to a growth in GDP per capita between 4% and 6%.

The participation of women in the labour market generates increased growth rates, but it does much more — including driving improved children’s nutrition and educational outcomes and a host of other positive outcomes in families and communities.

The promotion of female employment should be one of the priority policy objectives in the region. Waiting over two centuries to close the Economic Gender Gap — that’s how long it will take if we stay on the current trajectory — isn’t an option. Success will depend on all of us — governments, companies, civil society, men and women — joining in these efforts. — Andrew Morrison

(Picture credit: Flickr/CIFOR)

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