This house believes the feminisation of Africa’s labour force is empowering women

In the 1990s the World Band and the IMF demanded that developing countries follow structural adjustment programmes to make their economies more market orientated. The resulting change to free market policy brought about changes in the labour market - changes in terms of who is involved in the labour force, what type of employment individuals are able to access, and the degree of risk associated with jobs. Loans were made conditional on the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs)  encouraging neoliberalism, flexibilisation, and a decentralisation in control over the economy. Conditions applied affected the lives of inhabitants both in urban and rural economies. Today Africa’s labour force is continuing to change following the economic crisis.

A feminisation of labour has been occurred in both periodic events. A ‘feminising’ labour force can be referred to in two aspects: firstly, an increase in the number of women being incorporated into paid work. Secondly, ‘feminisation’ refers to the increasing flexibilisation of work for both men and women. A shift in the nature of employment is found, with a rise in informal employment and irregular conditions of work. The feminisation of the labour force therefore means changes in the structure of who is employed and the structure of jobs available.

This debate focuses on labour force participation and empowerment[1]. The World Development Report (2013) argued jobs are key to development - more jobs are needed and focus should be on getting employment. However, by exploring the picture of female employment and jobs, does work provide empowerment - who is empowered; what kind of empowerment; and fundamentally, how long for? Will the convergence, and continued inclusion of women, in employment mean gender differences will disappear in Africa’s labour market and society? Finally, with women seen to be able to pioneer national development and GDP growth (i.e. Barsh and Lee, 2011) should we be encouraging more women to enter the labour force?

[1] Women’s empowerment is defined broadly as the processes of agency which enable women to achieve change in their lives and against the larger structures constraining, and subordinating them (Kabeer, 1999)


The importance of jobs in livelihoods - money

Jobs are empowerment. Building sustainable livelihoods, and tackling poverty in the long term, requires enabling access to capital assets. A key asset is financial capital. Jobs, and employment, provide a means to access and build financial capital required, whether through loans or wages. When a woman is able to work she is therefore able to take control of her own life. Additionally she may provide a second wage meaning the burden of poverty on households is cumulatively reduced. Having a job and the financial security it brings means that other benefits can be realised such as investing in good healthcare and education.[1].

Women working from home in Kenya, designing jewellery, shows the link between employment and earning an income[2]. The women have been empowered to improve their way of life.

[1] See further readings: Ellis et al, 2010.

[2] See further readings: Petty, 2013.


The relation between employment, money, and household poverty is not a simple correlation when we consider the type of jobs women are entering. In developing countries work in the informal economy is a large source of women’s employment (Chen et al, 2004). In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, 84% of women in non-agricultural work are in the informal economy (ILO, 2002). Only 63% of men work in the informal economy. Women represent a large proportion of individuals working in informal employment and within the informal sector. Informal employment means employment lacks protection and/or benefits, and the informal sector involves unregistered or unincorporated private enterprises.

Such a reality limits the capability to use employment to escape poverty (see Chant, 2010). With wages low, jobs casual and insecure, and limited access to social protection schemes or rights-based labour policies, women are integrated into vulnerable employment conditions. Data has shown informal employment to be correlated with income per capita (negative), and poverty (positive) (ILO, 2011). Further, the jobs are precarious and volatile - affected by global economic crisis.

Women’s employment in Africa needs to be met with ‘decent’ work[1], or women will be placed in risky conditions.

[1] See further readings: ILO, 2014.

The effects of unemployment

Unemployment has been linked to several health and wellbeing effects. Firstly, the psychological impact of unemployment involve a range of issues - from confidence to mental well-being.   Issues of mental health problems - such as depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance abuse, need recognition in Africa. The impact of mental health may not only be on the individual, but dispersed within families and across generations. Secondly, unemployment may result in a loss of social networks and networking skills. The power of social capital, or networks, in reducing vulnerability has been widely noted. Therefore encouraging women to participate within the labour market ensures new networks are built and retained through the vital communication skills used. Finally. unemployment may affect physical health status.

Unemployment may place individuals in a downward spiral, making it harder to re-enter the job market.


Again employment needs to be contextualised with what type of jobs are provided and entered into. It remains questionable as to whether the mental health of women improves if women are employed to work within hazardous work environments, or where there is no job security.

For example domestic workers remain vulnerable to different abuses - such as non payment, excessive work hours, abuse, and forced labour. Women may be vulnerable to gender based violence on their way to work. Furthermore, street traders are placed in a vulnerable position where the right to work is not respected. The forced eviction and harassment of female street-traders is a common story, underlined by political motivations. A recent example includes the eviction of street hawkers in Johannesburg[1].

[1] See further readings: WIEGO, 2013.

Labour participation and rights

Labour participation enables an awareness, and acquirement, of equal gender rights. Firstly, labour participation is challenging cultural ideologies and norms of which see the woman’s responsibility as limited to the reproductive sphere. Entering the productive sphere brings women equal work rights and the right to enter public space. By such a change gender norms of the male breadwinner are challenged. Secondly, labour force participation by women has resulted in the emergence of community lawyers and organisations to represent them. The Declaration of the African Regional Domestic Workers Network is a case in point.[1] With the rising number of female domestic workers, the network is working to change conditions - upholding Conferences, sharing information, and taking action.

[1] See


For rights to be granted women need to be able to have a position within trade unions, and policy change is required.

A recent study shows fewer women than men are found in trade unions across eight African countries looked at in a study(Daily Guide, 2011). The greatest degree of women’s involvement was from teacher and nurses unions, however, there remains a lack of representation at leadership levels. The lack of a united, or recognised, women’s voice in trade unions undermines aims for gender equality and mainstreaming for those women who are working.

Additionally, at a larger scale, policy change is required. Empowerment cannot occur where unequal structures remain - therefore the system needs to be changed. Governments need to engender social policy and support women - providing protection, maternity cover, pension schemes, and security, which discriminate against women and informal workers.

The double burden

Despite a feminising labour market there has been no convergence, or equalisation, in unpaid domestic and care work. Women still play key roles in working the reproductive sphere and family care; therefore labour-force participation increases the overall burden placed on women. The burden is placed on time, physical, and mental demands.

We need to recognise the anxieties and burdens women face of being the bread-winner, as survival is becoming ‘feminised’ (Sassen, 2002). Additionally, women have always accounted for a significant proportion of the labour market - although their work has not been recognised. Therefore to what extent can we claim increased labour force participation is empowering when it is only just being recognised?


With the right to work within the productive sphere, the responsibility of care becomes shared. This may take some time but eventually equality will be the result. If you consider the changes occurring within the developed world - such as improved access to child-care facilities and the rise of stay at home dads, the integration of women into paid employment shows changes in gender roles. The double burden may occur temporarily, but in the long-run it will fade. 

Women need alternatives for empowerment

Empowerment cannot be gained for women through employment, alternatives are required. A gender lens needs to be applied to women’s life course from the start. To tackle the discriminatory causes of gender inequality access to sexual and reproductive health rights is required for women. Access to such rights ensures women in Africa will be able to control their body, go to school, and choose the type of employment they wish to enter into.

The importance of enabling sexual and reproductive health rights for women is being put on the agenda for Africa[1]. There is a lot to be done beyond workforce participation - ending violence against women, promoting equal access to resources, opportunities and participation. Such features will reinforce women’s labour market participation, but in the jobs they want.

[1] See further readings: Chissano, 2013; Puri, 2013.


How we define empowerment is broad - encompassing all changes that women are able to make, through agency, to tackle their subordinate position. Therefore labour force participation does provide empowerment. Labour participation provides an opportunity for women to control household resources, demand rights, and organise for equal justice. There is no silver bullet, or objective, to achieve women’s empowerment.  

Who are the women?

Women are a diverse group, and the feminisation of labour has incorporated a range of women of different ages, race, socioeconomic backgrounds and education. Such intersectionalities are important to recognise, as not all women are empowered and the empowerment is not equal.

For example, a study by Atieno (2006) revealed female participation in the labour market was influenced by education. Human capital influenced the transition into work: who was able to access labour opportunities, and which ones. Therefore inequalities among women determine the degrees, and capability, of empowerment it is therefore not labour force participation that empowers but education.


Yes education may help to determine the extent to which labour participation empowers women but it is the participation itself that is the actual tool that empowers. A well-educated woman who is kept at home doing nothing is not empowered no matter how good her education might have been.  In Saudi Arabia there are more women in university than men yet there is 36% unemployment for women against only 6% for men (Aluwaisheg, 2013). The women are educated, not empowered. 

Where are the men?

Is the feminisation of labour emerging with a de-masculinisation of jobs? If so, how do women cope in the work environment? Are methods being integrated to ensure a just work environment is maintained?

Overa’s (2007) study on gender relations within the informal economy indicates how tensions emerge with women and men being forced into similar occupations. The informal economy of retail trade in Ghana is becoming overcrowded as men enter into female jobs; competition is causing reductions in returns, and further, frustrations are rising against the state. Therefore if more women are entering male jobs, what are the reactions?


Within Gender and Development the importance of bringing men into the picture of gender discrimination has been recognised. Therefore working with men will change enable gender roles to be changed.


Aluwaisheg, Abdel Aziz, ‘Unemployment and gender in Saudi Arabia, Arab News, 12 May 2013,

Atieno, R., ‘Female Participation in the Labour Market: The Case of the Informal Sector in Kenya’, Africa Portal, 2006,

Barsh, J., and Yee, L., ‘Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy’, McKinsey & Company, 2011,

Chant, S., The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Cheltenham, 2010.

Chen, M., Vanek, J., and Carr, M., Mainstreaming Informal Employment and Gender in Poverty Reduction: A Handbook for Policy-Makers and Other Stakeholders, The Commonwealth Secretariat, London, 2004.

Daily Guide, ‘Less Women in Trade Unions - Study Reveals’, Modern Ghana, 2011,

Kabeer, N., ‘Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment’, Development and Change, 3, pp 435-464.

ILO (International Labour Organisation), Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, ILO, Geneva, 2002.

ILO (International Labour Organisation), Statistical Update on Employment in the Informal Economy, ILO Department of Statistics, 2011,

Sassen, S., ‘Women’s Burden: Counter-geographies of globalisation and the feminisation of survival’, Nordic Journal of International Law, 71, pp 255-74, 2002.

World Development Report (WDR), Jobs, World Bank, 2013,