In most countries, women are less likely than men to participate in the labor market, that is, less likely to be employed or looking actively for a job.

Employment is defined as participation in an economic activity, which in turn covers all market production (paid work) and certain types of non-market production (unpaid work), including production of goods for own use. It excludes household chores in one’s own household, such as cooking, cleaning, or care for children or elderly members of the household. Labor force participation rates are defined as the number of active persons in the adult population (aged 15-64, or 15 and above).

As shown in the figure below, women’s participation rates tend to follow a U-shape with respect to countries’ level of development. Female participation in employment is high and the gender gap low in many low income countries where women are engaged in unpaid subsistence agriculture, although they are less involved in paid activities outside the household. Women also tend to be active in high income countries, where over two-thirds of the female adult population participate in the labor market and the gender gap in labor force participation rates is less than 15 percent on average. This is especially true in countries with extensive social protection coverage and societies where part-time work is possible and accepted. In contrast, men’s participation rates are rather stable across countries in different income groups.

Women’s participation rates vary greatly across developing regions

For developing countries, average patterns of women’s labor force participation are more mixed, ranging from a low of 21 percent in the Middle East & North Africa region in year 2010, to a high of 71 percent in the East Asia & Pacific region. The gender gaps in labor force participation are also highest in the Middle East & North Africa and South Asia regions, where men’s participation rates exceed women’s by over 50 percentage points.

Women are more likely to be engaged in vulnerable jobs in the South Asia and Middle East & North Africa regions

The low participation rates of women in these regions are coupled with vulnerable employment for the women who are employed. Vulnerable employment is defined as the proportion of workers engaged in unpaid family workers and own-account work as a percentage of total employment. While the proportion of men and women employed in vulnerable jobs are nearly equal in the Europe & Central Asia and Latin American & Caribbean regions, the average gender gaps range from 8 – 15 percentage points in the Middle East & North Africa and South Asia regions.

Regional trends show narrowing gender gaps in some regions, and widening gaps in others

From 1990 to 2010, the ratio of female to male labor force participation show mixed trends across developing country regions. Women’s participation rates in the Latin American & Caribbean region showed the most gains, increasing by 18 percentage points in the last two decades, although the size of the participation gap remains large – only two-thirds of men’s participation rates. Some improvements also occurred in the Sub-Saharan Africa (+8 percentage points) and the Middle East & North Africa regions (+3 percentage points).

On the other hand, the South Asia region experienced a slight widening of the gender gap in participation (-3 percentage points), and in the East Asia & Pacific and Europe & Central Asia regions (both fell by 1 percentage point).

These labor force trends contrasts with other economic and social changes which are expected to increase women’s access to labor markets. Women in low and middle income countries have seen significant improvements in human capital indicators: they study longer, have fewer children, have safer childbirths, and live longer. These improvements have translated to only minimal changes in the ratio of female to male labor force participation rates overall.

Low & Middle Income Countries, 1990-2010
Human capital measures 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010
Life expectancy at birth, female (years) 65 66 67 68 70 
Fertility rate, total (births per woman) 4 3 3 3
Maternal mortality ratio
(modeled estimate, per 100,000 live births)
440 400 350 290 230 
Ratio of female to male primary enrollment (%) 92 95 97
Ratio of female to male secondary enrollment (%) 90 94 96
Literacy rate, youth female
(% of females ages 15-24)
76 82 86
Gender Gap in Labor Force Participation
Ratio of female to male labor force
participation rate (%)
67 68 68 69 68 

How and when can policy assist women who wish to enter the labor market?

The mixed evidence suggests that interventions need to strike a balance between protecting women and lowering their opportunity costs of participating, without further exacerbating the segregation of labor markets. Countries must ensure monitoring and evaluation of active labor market policies to understand which policies work for women and which do not.

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