The paper aims to examine how empowerment has been conceptualised in the field of gender and development as well as the emergence of an explicit concern with women’s economic empowerment. It also reviews empirical literature on gender and labour markets in order to draw out what they tell us about the blockages and barriers to women’s progress within the economy and about policies and programmes that can help to overcome them.
- Not all forms of economic activity are equally empowering: studies suggest that formal regular waged work has the greatest transformative potential although paid work outside the domestic domain can also have positive impacts on women’s lives. What such findings suggest is the need for not just more, but also better jobs for women. However, this is likely to constitute a major challenge for a number of reasons.
- There has been a steady contraction in the availability of formal employment in most regions of the world. This is unlikely to be reversed unless there is greater attention to employment generation in current macro-economic policies and limits placed on the steady deregulation of labour markets.
- Labour markets are not impersonal arenas for the purchase and sale of labour, along economic textbook lines, but stratified by power relations along class, gender, racial and ethnic lines. Women’s lower levels of labour force participation relative to men, and their concentration in the poorest segments of highly gender segmented labour markets reflect the intersection of the gender-specific constraints reflecting the rules, norms, roles and responsibilities of the intrinsically gendered relations of family and kinship with the ‘imposed’ constraints embodied in the rules and norms of the purportedly gender neutral institutions of states, markets and civil society as well as the attitudes and behaviour of different institutional actors.
- Gender inequalities in capacity and returns appear to be more marked at the survival end of the spectrum than at the growth-oriented end. The most important factor dampening returns to women’s enterprises and their capacity to grow appears to be their concentration in a few overcrowded women-specific segments of the occupational structure.
- The motivations that brought women into enterprise activity appear to differ between the more and less successful entrepreneurs. The former were more likely to treat enterprise as their primary activity and to have chosen it for its earning potential while the later were more likely to treat it is as sideline activity, an attempt at diversification, or because it had low capital requirements.
- The question of motivation is relevant because it helps to distinguish women who took up enterprise as a de fault option and those who active chose it and are likely to flourish. There may not be a great deal of difference among women in wage labour and self employment at the survival/bad jobs end of the labour market continuum as neither were making an active choice about their work. It may be that those in survivalist enterprise would have opted for reasonably well paid waged work were it available while those in ‘bad’ wage jobs might have preferred to take up entrepreneurial activities if they had the start-up capital and the market access.
- With the shrinking of formal public sector employment, a major source of secure work with decent working conditions for women, there are fewer unambiguously good jobs around. By and large, their best options appear to be in large scale, modern enterprises often associated with global value chains. These appear to offer higher pay and better working conditions, not necessarily because they are more virtuous in their outlook but because they are under greater public scrutiny from a variety of actors including NGOs, trade unions, consumer groups and so on. However, for all their size and modernity, these enterprises remain ‘bearers of gender’, organizing the vertical and horizontal division of labour along markedly gendered lines.
- Gender intensified many of the constraints associated with poverty and other forms of inequality. Women tended to have less education and training, poorer access to credit, were less likely to own property of their own, were harder hit by complex business registration procedures, were more likely to be excluded from business networks and suffered more in the absence of infrastructure and utilities.