What can be done about women’s economic inequality?

Alongside last week’s Davos meeting has been a welcome focus on global economic inequality – but much less on gender inequality. Everyone agrees that women’s economic inequality is important, especially in developing countries, but change is agonisingly slow. The proportion of women working globally has fallen slightly since 1990. Just 2 per cent of bilateral aid is directed towards women’s economic empowerment, and that figure has barely increased since 2007.

You know that women’s economic inequality is a problem, but do you know how bad it is? (I didn’t). Only half of women participate in the labour market, compared with 80 per cent of men. More than half of all employed women are in informal vulnerable employment. Women still earn between 10 and 30 per cent less than men. All this adds up to a staggering US$9 trillion annual cost to women in developing countries due to their lower pay and lesser access to paid jobs than men. That’s more than the GDP of Britain, France and Germany combined. It’s that bad. Learn more here.

The ray of hope here is to think outside the box. Women need equal pay, equal opportunities and development finance for gender equality. But there are also other avenues.

A number one reason for women’s economic inequality is the vastly greater amount of caring that they do. They look after children, cook and clean, and care for anyone in the family who is ill or infirm. Women in developing countries devote up to three daily hours more to housework than men, and spend up to 10 times as long as men looking after others.

While we wait for the time when women and men all over the world share this kind of domestic work equally, other policies can support progress. Decent public services make a vast different to women’s care responsibilities. Hospital and clinics, schools childcare services and social care all play their part. Where these are absent, the work of making up for them falls – you guessed it – on women. Where public services are functional, women have a much greater chance of holding down decent jobs. The far more comprehensive public services provision in developed countries is one of the reasons why the gender care gap, while still real and present, is proportionately much smaller.

So to close the gender gap, an area not generally considered to be about gender may prove vitally important. Decent public services for all – and sufficient taxes to pay for them – could provide a big part of the solution.

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Anna Thomas

About Anna Thomas

Anna Thomas is a policy analyst on a range of issues, from international tax co-operation to climate change. She currently works as head of policy at ActionAid UK, which she job shares; the rest of the time she advocates for a shorter working week. In a previous life she was a medical doctor.