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Women's Economic Empowerment in the Global Division of Labour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2404 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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What is understood by women’s economic empowerment and what are the arguments for and against it being achieved within the contemporary global division of labour and associated forms of employment. Please provide examples. 

Women’s economic empowerment has increasingly become a priority topic for development and global policy in recent years. It is widely considered an effective entry point into other forms of empowerment and gender equality at large – and also a smart policy approach to economic growth. This essay begins to explore how women’s economic empowerment is conceptualised to encompass choice and agency; and also discusses the possibilities of this being achieved within particular context of the global division of labour and associated forms of employment. A dominant narrative is that globalisation – driven by neoliberal policies – has provided transformative opportunities to empower women through increased labour market participation. However, a closer look shines light on how the current global division of labour is not, in reality, entirely empowering for women (particularly across the global south) – and in many cases is quite the opposite; it is exploitive. Furthermore, the inter-relationship between market labour and household labour compounds the gendered patterns of division that continue to reassert themselves time again, perpetuating barriers to empowerment.

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As Kabeer (2012, 8) highlights, prevailing narratives of women’s empowerment have always encompassed an economic dimension. With greater emphasis placed on this particular dimension in recent years, it has become extremely visible in mainstream development policy discourse. The increasing priority placed on women’s economic empowerment has been driven by the potential for positive contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals; indeed, associated targets can be seen cutting across multiple goals. Furthermore, efforts to drive progress have been amplified by the former UN Secretary General’s convening of a dedicated High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (Hunt, 2016).

However, no one set definition of women’s economic empowerment has been adopted (which perhaps reflects the complexities in achieving it). Attempts to offer definition all differ slightly – each ultimately shaped by the particular organisations from which they evolved. However, all seem to have distinct overlaps ‘with agency, choice and decision-making in relation to markets featuring as a common theme’ (Kabeer, 2012: 9). Kabeer (2012, 9) takes these commonalities and the understanding of ‘empowerment’ as a starting point to outline how women’s economic empowerment therefore, ‘relates to the enhancement of women’s capacity for strategic choice and agency in the sphere of the economy and to the possibilities this opens up for change in other spheres of their lives’.

Question of how this is measured (i.e. the degree of agency, choice, etc.) – and who does and sets the measurement – is important. What does a woman who is economically empowered ‘look like’ in comparison to one who is considered not empowered; can direct comparisons be made within different contexts? Many of the barriers that are considered to hinder women’s economic empowerment exist across borders, but experiences of them differ. There are a number of other interesting socio-economic inequalities (such as race, class, etc.) that contextualise the specific differences of experience. Therefore, women’s economic empowerment cannot be conceptualised by thinking of women as a homogeneous group.

To move forward with the second half of discussion, if women’s economic empowerment broadly relates to women’s choice and agency in relation to the economy, it is important to first briefly consider the contemporary context of the economy. Since the late 1970s, there has been a paradigm shift towards neoliberal ideologies, which have turbo-charged globalisation. Expressed through the Structural Adjustment Programmes and the Washington Consensus policies throughout the 1980s/90s, these policies promoted global economic integration and interdependence. Such macroeconomic conditions were governed through the expansion of markets beyond national borders; rapid formation of multilateral companies; technology advances; and transformation of the way production processes are organised (Berería, Berik, Floro, 2016: 93).

On the back of this, there has been a striking increase in women’s global labour force participation (Berería et al, 2016: 112), which is viewed as a core strategy to achieve economic empowerment. Mainstream economic growth narratives have been keen to highlight that the contemporary global division of labour (in waged work) is moving towards increased opportunities to empower women. Export-orientated development (the dominant economic growth model) has created increased opportunities for labour participation throughout the global south. For example, increased trade liberalisation has led to the rapid expansion of garment factories in Bangladesh, with women accounting for around 80% of the workforce[1].

With increased opportunities to enter the labour market and earn income, many studies have demonstrated that women become economic agents – increasingly empowered economically with positive spill-overs (Berería et al, 2016: 130). For example, through the ‘empowering work’ theme of Pathways of Women’s Empowerment[2], Kabeer (2012, 19) found that ‘women’s paid work appeared to constitute an economic pathway to changes in their lives that went beyond the economic domain’. In a study of the effects of women’s integration into the global fruit chain, Barrientos and Perrons (1998, 159) noted that the women felt the work gave them ‘a greater sense of independence…and allows them to earn their own money’.

However, whilst women’s lived experiences cannot be ignored, perceived choice and opportunities within still persistent constraints does not seem to encompass full economic empowerment (if independent choice and agency underpins its definition). If Sen’s capabilities approach (Sen, 1999) was applied, for example, as a framework of measurement of choice and agency, it would seem that the possibilities for empowerment remain within a limited horizon. These women may perhaps feel empowered, but this is by choices made within certain conditions of freedom. ‘Prescribing integration into existing market economies ignores the significance of inequalities within the labour market’ (Perrons, 2015:210); its unequal nature restricts women’s economic opportunities.

As Kabeer (2009, 10) argues, ‘the feminisation of labour has occurred at a time when employment is becoming more precarious and insecure’; the result of global economic liberalisation has seen countries compete in increasingly global markets with women seen crowded into ‘limited gender-specific segments of the labour market’. In most parts of the world, and particularly across the global south, women are often concentrated in low-paid and undervalued jobs with poor working conditions (ILO, 2015: 1) – and these jobs seem to be concentrated in the informal sector for women across poorer regions of the world. With the liberalisation and integration of economies, transnational corporations have concentrated their production in countries throughout the global south; able to move to wherever the costs of production are lowest.

For example, Ross (2014) explores informal economy and “sweated labour” in the global apparel production – highlighting that most of the hourly or piece-rate employees in garment production are sewing machinists, and it is women who are concentrated in these roles; at the very bottom of the pyramid. Located in the global south, these factories, or in some cases home-based production (mobilised to manage overflow of production) are plagued with poor working conditions and claims of exploitation. To take another example, Peet (2016) explores how marginalised women in India are contributing to India’s economy through transnational commercial surrogacy (as surrogates) – however, despite this, ‘the Indian Government does not recognize as a productive form of employment’. Therefore, not only are surrogates not counted in national employment statistics, they are also not protected by labour laws or other employment provisions (Peet, 201:179). As Wright (2006,1) highlights, ‘everyday, around the world, women who work in the third world factories of global firms face the idea that they are disposable’. The labour market exploits, and in many ways perpetuates, women’s traditional gender roles and the intersecting socio-economic inequalities that make up the identity of their realities.

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Furthermore, division of labour within the household is often also seen as a cause of women’s participation within labour market – specifically of what form that participation takes. Whether gender-based division persists in the household because of capitalism, patriarchy or an intertwined combination of the two, it is still prevalent – and is therefore an important consideration when thinking about women’s economic empowerment being achieved in contemporary global division of labour. Women around the world face the ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid labour. As Kabeer (2012, 18) highlights, ‘increasing entry into paid work has not been accompanied by a commensurate change in the gender division of unpaid labor in the domestic economy’. For example, according to WEF (2008), employed women in Turkey spend 28 hours per week on household labour, whilst men spend just seven hours. Examples such as this highlight the rise in the phenomenon of ‘time poverty’ – which has an inevitable impact on the ability to empower women economically. These realities also shape the work women are able to take on – for example, Barrientos et al (1998) found that both groups of women in their comparative study (Chile and UK) were required to choose particular labour opportunities that worked around their household responsibilities such as childcare (of which they still had primary responsibility).

To conclude, women’s economic empowerment is conceptualised through independent strategic choice and agency in relation to the economy in the first instance; a transformation from limitation to advancement. Increased participation in the labour market is often seen as a core strategy in achieving such empowerment, and there has indeed been progress (with collateral benefits evidenced). However, it is hard to conclude that such empowerment will be achieved holistically within limited choice, and furthermore, in the context of the contemporary global division of labour. The gendered division of labour (market and household) remains ubiquitous to the disadvantage of women (particularly in relation to quality and value). There is a far more finite picture to women’s economic empowerment; it is an extremely complex and multidimensional process.


  • Barrientos, S. Perrons, D. (1999) ‘Gender and the global food chain: A comparative study of Chile and the UK’ in Afshar,H and Barrientos,S (eds) Women Globalisation and Fragmentation in the Developing World. Palgrave Macmillan, pp.150-173
  • Berería, L. Berik, G. Floro, M. (2016) Gender, Development, and Globalisatiom: Economics as if All People Mattered. London: Routledge. (2nd Edition)
  • Heath,R. Mobarak, A.M. (2015, August 4) Manufacturing growth and the lives of Bangladeshi women https://www.theigc.org/blog/manufacturing-growth-and-the-lives-of-bangladeshi-women/
  • Hunt, A. (2016, September 12) ‘Five myths about global women’s economic empowerment’ in The Guardian. London.
  • Kabeer,N. (2012) Women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth: labour markets and enterprise development; Discussion Paper 29/12, Centre for Development Policy & Research, School of Oriental & African Studies.
  • Kabeer, N. (2009) ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment: Key Issues and Policy Options’; SIDA Policy Publication series: Women’s Economic Empowerment (available on www.side.se)
  • Peet, J. (2016) ‘A Womb That Is (Not Always) One’s Own: Commercial Surrogacy in a Globalized World’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 18 (2): 171-189
  • Perrons, D. (2015) ‘Gendering the inequality debate’, Gender and Development, 23(2): 207-222
  • Ross, R. J. S. (2014) ‘In Chains at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Gender, the Informal Economy, and Sweated Labour in Global Apparel Production’, in Dunaway, W.A. (ed.) Gendered Commodity Chains: Seeing women’s work and households in global Production. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, pp. 91-104
  • Sen, A. (1990) Development As Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wright, M. (2006) Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, New York: Routledge.

[1] Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association 2013; taken from blog post: https://www.theigc.org/blog/manufacturing-growth-and-the-lives-of-bangladeshi-women/

[2] The programme was funded by DFID, with additional funding from NORAD and IDRC. For more

information, see www.pathwaysofempowerment.org


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