Despite the evidence that increasing women’s employment can accelerate development, 56% of the 2.9 billion women aged over 15 in the world today are “non-employed,” meaning the vast majority do not earn and control their own money. In contrast, just 30% of the 2.9 billion men aged over 15 are non-employed, according to the World Bank. These 1.6 billion non-employed women face enormous risks as they are often totally dependent on others, typically family members, for financial support and for the survival and development of their children.
As many of these women work very long hours caring for their children, other family members and households, they are constrained in their ability to minimize these risks and pursue income-earning activities. Their precarious situation has its roots in the family division of labor and in the unpaid nature of the “family work” that is assigned to women. In societies that hold fast to the traditional family division of labor, women are expected to gain access to money through marriage and not paid employment. Often the only women in these societies who are employed have lost their connection to a male earner through death, divorce, or separation. And women without husbands are often the most vulnerable of all because if they are unable to find work they, and their children, are among those at the highest risk of poverty.
And yet research suggests that a majority of non-employed women do in fact want to work. A Kaiser Family Foundation study of 32 million non-employed people in the USA (almost 70% are women), revealed that “family responsibilities” was the top reason for non-employment. But when asked, a majority of non-employed women said that they did in fact want a job and would consider returning to employment if flexible hours or working from home were offered. Similar studies have found the same desire for paid work among women in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank.
Seven out of every 10 non-employed women live in just ten countries with India, China, the USA and Pakistan accounting for more than 50% of all non-employed women in the world. As all of these countries are experiencing some combination of slow economic growth, high poverty, rising inequality, rapidly aging populations, and civil conflict, failing to capitalize on the productive capacity of large populations of working-age women represents a major missed opportunity.
And for those countries that have the lowest proportions (<20%) of women employed, almost all the Middle East, increasing women’s employment could yield major national and regional development returns, including increased economic growth, improvements in health and education, reductions in poverty and inequality, and potentially and very critically, a decline in conflict and insecurity. Increasing women’s employment could be especially important to peace and stability in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.