Time to close the gap on women’s economic inequality


A new report by ActionAid UK, Close the Gap!, reveals that women in developing countries could be better off by an astounding US$9 trillion every year if the gender gaps in wages and women’s labour market participation were closed.

The findings were released as the powerful and influential gathered in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum, where the subject of inequality was high on the agenda.

But what of women’s economic inequality?

Everywhere in the world, women’s work remains undervalued, underpaid, and often invisible.

Women are concentrated in the lowest paid, insecure jobs, both in the informal sector as well as in exploitative export manufacturing sectors, where they endure immiserating conditions so that multinational corporations can prosper and GDPs can swell.

Women’s opportunities to access decent work are further hampered by their disproportionate caring responsibilities – looking after children, the sick and the elderly, collecting water and preparing food.

Such work is all the more demanding in contexts of poverty, where access to social protection, public services and infrastructure are often lacking.

Such care work is integral to the fabric of our societies, and is vital to building economies and sustaining a healthy workforce. However, it remains largely invisible.

This means that where opportunities do arise for women to enter the paid workforce, their overall work burden simply increases, leaving them with little time for rest or leisure, or activism to defend their rights.


Inequitable and unsustainable

Such exploitation of women’s work is subsidising the global economy, leading to growth that is both inequitable and unsustainable.

Calls for our broken global economic system to be urgently and radically reformed in the interests of equality have been mounting since the 2008 financial crisis.

Such reform must include measures to redress women’s economic inequality. For it is clear that economic growth alone is not enough.

There is also a need for strong policies that promote gender equality by guaranteeing women’s right to decent, well-paid work, and which redistribute the vast wealth generated by the backbreaking labour of billions of poor women (and men) through the provision of social protection, public services and infrastructure.

As Chidi King, head of the equality department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) puts it:

“It is no coincidence that rising inequalities and deepening gender gaps come at the same time as the systematic dismantling of key labour market institutions and stabilisers such as collective bargaining, freedom of association and universal social protection.

“Reducing women’s inequality is keenly linked to their power to negotiate their terms and conditions of work collectively. If governments and policy makers want to address women’s economic inequality they must strengthen these institutions – not weaken them.”

The case for action on this issue – both on the basis of social justice as well as sustainable economic growth – is not new. However, progress remains excruciating slow.

This year offers a critical opportunity for renewed action by governments, international bodies, businesses and civil society to end women’s economic inequality.

The Sustainable Development Goals (replacing the Millennium Development Goals) will be finalised, entailing new pledges and commitments for eradicating poverty and promoting gender equality.

These must take a transformative approach and seek to address the root causes of women’s economic inequality as well as the harmful policies and practices that further perpetuate them.