Who is the greatest untapped force for development?

More than half of the world’s 2.7 billion women aged over 15 are “non-employed”, meaning they are not in the labor force earning their own money. These 1.5 billion “non-employed” women – 20% of the planet’s population – dwarf the 750 million men who are in the same situation and represent the single largest untapped source for global development.

The vast majority of these non-employed women face enormous risks as they are most often totally dependent on others, typically family members, for financial support and for the survival of the children they care for. As many work very long hours caring for children, other family members and households, they are constrained in their ability to minimize these risks and to pursue income-generating activities.

Non-employed women are concentrated in just ten countries – India (400 million), China (234 million), the USA (63 million), Indonesia (50 million), Pakistan (49 million), Brazil (47 million), Bangladesh (41 million), Russia (30 million), Japan (29 million), and Nigeria (29 million) – where capitalizing on the productive capacity of working-age women may well offer the best antidote to a raft of ills – slowing economic growth, rising poverty and inequality, and rapidly aging populations.

And for those countries with the lowest proportions of women employed (<20%) – Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt – increasing women’s employment would not only yield major human development returns but could trigger a long-term decline in the currently high levels of conflict and insecurity.

Throwing open the doors of the labor market to “non-employed” women

The precarious situation of the planet’s 1.5 billion “non-employed” women has its roots in the family division of labor and in the unpaid nature of the “family work” that was historically assigned to women. In societies that hold fast to the traditional division of labor, women are expected to gain access to money through marriage and not paid employment, whereas in more progressive societies women may have the right to work, but still confront many barriers as workplaces and societal norms are still modeled on the old divisions.

Research suggests that a majority of non-employed women do in fact want to work. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of non-employed people in the United States (almost 70% of whom are women), revealed “family responsibilities” as the top reason for non-employment. When asked, most women said they would consider returning to paid work if flexible hours or working from home was part of the deal.

Other studies have found the same desire for paid work among women in low and middle income countries and documented the extremes women will  endure to secure and retain a wage.

Throwing open the doors to the labor market for non-employed women should be a central plank of both national and international development policies. Governments should set ambitious targets to increase the female employment to population ratio to above 50% by 2020 and to above 60% by 2030. Countries who have already achieved this level (e.g., China and several African countries) should set a new goal of equalizing the male and female employment ratios and improving the quality of female employment (e.g., pay and working conditions).

To increase the supply of women who are “work-enabled” and demand for their employment, governments in low income countries will need to encourage jobs growth in “female-friendly” industries and reduce legal barriers to female employment. At the same time increasing the use of modern contraception, improving female literacy and changing social norms that restrict women’s mobility will help.

Governments in high-income countries will need to focus on closing remaining pay gaps, increasing access to paid parental leave and quality, affordable childcare, and ensuring that the tax and welfare systems are not disadvantaging women who work for pay.

The United Nations (UN) and its agencies should elevate women’s employment to center stage in the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring that all agencies understand the primacy of women’s incomes to development and incorporate a women’s employment agenda into their programs. Getting back on the convergence track with males and female employment ratios could drive the next wave of global growth and development, lifting 1.5 billion women out of poverty and their families, communities, and nations with them.