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Tools for increasing gender parity and economic inclusion

Monday 27 – Wednesday 29 March 2023 | WP3201

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The overriding message for solutions is the need for a comprehensive approach.  We have learnt that it is impossible to invest in the drivers of economic empowerment in isolation. We know that we cannot address the barriers facing women without addressing the wider issues of gender-based violence, attitudinal barriers and access to affordable and inclusive health care, assistive devices and social protection systems.

Existing best practice to drive women’s economic empowerment, identified by a report commissioned by the FCDO on the High Level Drivers includes:

  • Working with children and adolescents on shifting harmful social norms and engaging male leaders and partners in interventions.
  • Supporting quality and affordable care services that can reduce and redistribute the heavy and unequal unpaid care work, increase entrepreneurship, reduce stress and increase incomes and wellbeing for women and their families.
  • And finally, designing financial products that give women greater control and protect them from others’ demands, such as mobile payments and direct deposits.

Multi-pronged approaches help advance women’s economic empowerment, including information, Cash Plus economic inclusion programmes (financial inclusion, mentoring, socio-economic skills), Care (childcare incentive fund, care economy), Community services and outreach (social workers, community health workers and other community workers; local religious and cultural leaders) and social norms and mindsets.

Key tools discussed were:

Education and training

Efforts to increase women and girls’ access to education have been substantial and seen many successes. Better educated women are marrying more educated men, later, and marrying less first cousins. They are spending more time outside the home, and socialising more, but this is not yet translating into labour participation.

Notable approaches include using education projects and support to make schools a safe place for girls to learn life skills and reproductive rights. This has been shown to make a huge difference to their economic empowerment. Adolescent girls empowerment programmes are showing great results providing resilience in fragile and conflict affected states, and delivering sustained improvements in earnings. Digital platforms have offered education, training and skills to those who are not getting this face to face.

Education and skills however have proved necessary, but not sufficient for tackling issues, with education too often just taking women to the next barrier – for example, in Pakistan 50% of graduates are women, but only 10% end up in the work force. In MENA women are highly educated, including in STEM, but these women are outside of the paid labour force – hence the investments going into STEM are not seeing returns.

Roadblocks in the school to work transition arise from:

  • Skills mismatch: When curriculums are not competency based the courses do not prepare students sufficiently to meet the demands of the labour market, so their aspirations are not met.
  • Schooling not aimed at preparing students for work but for unpaid care: In some cultures, educated women are seen to make better homemakers and mothers, and that’s the purpose of the investments in their education.
  • Women need to do more to prove themselves to employers: In Asia, female technical and vocational training graduates report having to do unpaid internships to prove themselves before getting longer term contracts more often than male counterparts.
  • Social norms: If we educate and train women, but do not address the norms that mean women must prioritise marriage and family life above this, we will see no change. 40% women in Uganda are married before the age of 18, often due to pressure from parents. This limits the ability of women to pursue personal career dreams.
  • Timing: Other lifecycle transitions that overlap with this time include starting a family, and having limited finances, which together disrupt the career plans of young women.

Access to decent jobs

Access to decent jobs in safe workplaces is limited, and this needs a multipronged approach to change. The first, clear barrier is a lack of appropriate jobs which comes from low economic growth in regions with high population growth, compounded by a misalignment of this jobs supply with demand. For example, in South Asia (other than Bangladesh) we see that female labour force participation is not where growth would suggest. Even short distances between workplaces and homes can prove barriers, and better transport and flexible working options could help overcome this. Multiple projects have shown that there is space for local negotiation here. Home working options can be seen to impinge on women’s rights as much as support them, though, with some concerned that it can ‘keep women in the household’. Furthermore, domestic violence can increase with women working from home.

For those who can travel, workplaces themselves can prove inaccessible or unsafe, especially for those with disabilities. A lack of reasonable workplace adjustments, including the availability of personal assistants, reduces the opportunities for women with disabilities to engage in meaningful work. The FCDO funded Sightsavers to produce a ‘Disability Confident Employers toolkit’ to help employers, property managers and HR professionals build inclusive workplaces that enable everyone to thrive.

We all need a world of work free from violence and harassment. The Experiences of violence and harassment at work survey from ILO showed that young people and migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the workplace, and everybody is found to be at risk of psychological violence. Part of the decent work agenda also needs to be closing the gender pay gap. The Equal Pay International Coalition led by the ILO, UN Women and OECD is one international, multi-sector coalition aiming to make equal pay for work of equal value a reality across all countries and sectors.


Care is the most precious public good that humanity has in its hands, and it is essential to the transition to a green economy. The closure of schools and care facilities during the pandemic highlighted the impact of these responsibilities on women’s economic opportunities across all corners of the globe, and this created a moment for change. Women spend more hours on unpaid care work than men in every single country in the world.

Both feminist justice and care are common goods that require a rethinking of fiscal priorities, to devote more of national budgets to the care economy. The ILO launched a technical assistance and advocacy tool for advocating for care policies – the Care policy investment simulator  – based on macroeconomic calculations of the investment required in 4 care policy areas and the related employment and gender equality benefits for 82 countries. This demonstrates the employment benefits, investment return in terms of taxes and impact on the gender pay gap these investments would result in. Alongside this, the OECD has a large family database – an interactive tool that allows users to analyse how wages, taxes and social benefits affect the income of different family types across OECD countries.

The Irish Government’s upcoming referendum in November 2023 on potentially referencing the value of care in the Constitution could prove a model for change for other countries to follow. Work is underway to build a coalition of actors in support of women’s economic empowerment ahead of the vote. These conversations are using care as a way to unlock acknowledgement of the wider inequality the most vulnerable women face. Migrant women are often hit hardest by pressures to decrease the cost and therefore pay associated with care work, as a lot of caring staffing in Ireland are from low income countries. Women’s workers rights, migrants rights, and cultural allocation of care duties are now all issues falling under the unifying campaign for care.

There is a tension worth noting though, between those who see the marketisation and privatisation of care work as leading to lower value being ascribed to this work, and a race to the bottom for wages and training; and those who emphasise that care marketisation and professionalisation brings dignity to care work, and ensures it is at least paid. 

Lower income countries have less fiscal space for this agenda, and we know countries in Africa are not prioritising care in the top long term objectives, but maternity and paternity rights should be a priority. Ultimately economic ministries need to shift from seeing care primarily as a cost, to an investment in human capital capable of driving growth. Recognising, redistributing and rewarding care work including through care cooperatives is needed. Initiatives showing models for success include rural creches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for women farmers which are cooperatively managed and have shown increased participation in the paid workforce from both men and women, improved childhood development, and increased earnings.


The Alison Rose Review identified 6 key life moments where women fall behind men financially. These have only been applied to developed countries so far, but there’s good reason to expect a heightened penalty for those with intersecting disadvantages including disabilities and / or in development settings. The impact is cumulative. These moments are:

  1. Growing up, studying and requalifying: Girls are less likely to go to school, to do STEM subjects, and female apprentices are less well paid than men because of the sectors they choose to go into.
  2. Entering and re-entering the workplace: At the point of entry women are already earning less and working fewer hours. Women work disproportionately in informal sector.
  3. Relationships: 1 in 5 girls globally are married as children which comes with huge social and economic costs. Marriage locks women into financial dependence, where men can control every aspect of women’s lives.
  4. Becoming a mother and/or carer: Women are more likely to take on primary carer responsibilities for relatives.
  5. Later life planning and entering retirement: 75% of people earning below auto-enrolment pension threshold in UK are women. By the time of retirement they have 20% the value of men’s pensions; Women are left either reliant on family and / or continuing to work past retirement age.
  6. Health deterioration: Women continue to play the care function very late into life.

These are the moments that interventions should be structured around to maximise impact and resilience. We also may consider a 7th life moment – the inter-generational impact of financial inequality, where girls suffer from the lower starting point of their mother, deepening the cycle of poverty.

Promoting financial inclusion is the first step in empowering women economically. However, many women, particularly in sectors like agriculture, face barriers due to high ticket prices set by Development Finance Institutions (DFIs). Tackling these barriers is key to unlocking women’s earning potential. Financial literacy is also a fundamental building block. Equipping women with knowledge about the returns associated with different trades and investments can shift their behaviour towards making informed financial decisions. This enables them to choose economically viable activities and investments.

Social protection

Social protection encompasses four main groups of interventions:

  • Social assistance/social safety nets: These are non-contributory schemes that can take the form of cash transfers, in-kind assistance, asset transfers, and public work programmes aimed at income generation, or waivers and subsidies.
  • Social insurance: These schemes require contributions and often provide benefits like pensions and social security.
  • Labour market policies: These include skills training and job placement programmes to facilitate women’s access to employment opportunities.
  • Social care services: These services, such as childcare and eldercare, play a crucial role in enabling women to participate in the workforce.

Social protection has gained prominence across governments, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, where it became a primary tool to mitigate food insecurity and poverty. The World Bank has significantly expanded its social protection portfolio, indicating its continued relevance in addressing ongoing economic challenges like climate issues, conflicts such as Ukraine, and inflation. Although the pandemic represented a global crisis, the level of support for care and social protection should not revert to pre-pandemic, but instead reflect the ongoing need for comprehensive social protection.

It is essential to design social protection programmes that maximise benefits for both men and women. To overcome the challenge of constrained fiscal resources, finance ministers must re-prioritise by looking at the bigger picture, to enhance women’s productivity, income, savings, and overall economic growth. Focusing on a narrative shift from “Protection to Production” can enable this change, with demonstrated benefits for female-headed households.

Social protection plays a significant role in reducing stress related to poverty. Studies, such as those by CGD, explore the impacts of social protection on economic outcomes and cost-benefit analysis. Combining public work programmes with childcare can enhance the welfare of beneficiaries, showing that innovative approaches are necessary. To reach those in informal sectors, social protection programmes should ideally be near-universal or universal in nature. However, there are specific challenges in fragile and conflict-affected settings (FCAS). In these settings, risks of misappropriation can increase violence. Innovations in digital transfers can make it easier for women to navigate and use these resources for their intended purposes. Social protection can also encourage and safeguard climate-friendly practices.

However, women with disabilities face additional costs and barriers to participation. Assistive devices and technology are often prohibitively expensive, making it challenging for them to achieve independence and engage in the workforce. Some social protection systems can be incompatible with work, forcing women with disabilities to choose between employment and social protection support, especially if they have families. Gender issues can be exacerbated by social insurance programmes tied to labour market participation. Investment in childcare can lead to significant benefits, as women are often overburdened.

Cash Plus programmes offer a dynamic strategy for women’s economic empowerment by providing opportunities, autonomy, and the means to challenge stereotypes.

  • BRAC Graduation Programme: The BRAC Graduation Programme serves as a valuable model, offering a ladder out of poverty. This programme upended the negative stereotype of the “lazy social welfare recipient” showing that the poorest of the poor can experience sustained income improvements when provided with the right opportunities.
  • Agency over Aid: Women have shown a remarkable willingness to choose employment opportunities over cash transfers, even when it means accepting a 30 percent reduction in pay. This choice reflects the agency and self-sufficiency that comes with having a job, which holds great value for women.
  • Bypassing macro barriers in humanitarian settings: Cash transfers can play a vital role in circumventing macro-level barriers, especially in humanitarian settings. This approach ensures that assistance reaches those in need efficiently and effectively.
  • Overcoming geographic barriers: Geographic barriers, such as training programmes being provided outside of villages, can hinder women’s access to opportunities. In Pakistan, an inspiring solution was found through the provision of women-only transport services. This innovation significantly increased the uptake of training programmes by addressing logistical challenges.

Men and boys

In the pursuit of women’s economic empowerment, the active engagement of men is critical to addressing harmful gender norms and preventing gender-based violence (GBV).

  1. Reducing risky behaviour through education: One approach involves addressing these issues within social settings, such as soccer clubs, where group discussions on GBV can be fruitful if participants have positive associations with the activity and let their guard down.
  2. Understanding the lifecycle and trigger points: A comprehensive strategy involves mapping the lifecycle of a girl growing up and identifying the ‘trigger points’ for social protection. Simultaneously, it is imperative to consider the roles and needs of men and boys in this journey. Unemployment among young men can lead to various social problems. A lack of economic opportunities increases the risk of difficult behaviours, alcoholism and violence against women. A further trigger point is the widening economic circumstance that separate men and women, as men are more likely to migrate for work in countries where gendered work demands vary. For example, South Africa predominantly employs male miners, while the United Arab Emirates relies on female domestic workers. Recommendations include creating culturally appropriate resources to be disseminated.
  3. Community leadership and inclusivity: To effectively addressing the unique needs and challenges faced by different groups within the community, it is crucial to involve local leaders in the process. They can play a pivotal role in reaching the most marginalised individuals, including those living with HIV and disabilities.

The active engagement of men and boys is essential to address underlying issues related to gender-based violence, harmful gender norms, and the economic challenges faced by young men. By integrating education, awareness, and community leadership, a more inclusive and effective approach can be achieved in promoting women’s economic empowerment.

We need to flip the narrative – women’s economic empowerment isn’t just a way to achieve our macroeconomic growth objectives, macroeconomic tools need to be used as a tool for achieving WEE.”

Macroeconomic policy

Our strategy must include improving the broader market conditions, national budget priorities and underlying macroeconomic assumptions that shape the economies women must navigate. Economic growth, for instance, has the potential to create jobs, and often, these opportunities extend to various demographic groups, including women. However, it is essential to recognise that the rising tide of economic growth does not automatically lift all boats. In many cases, it fails to address the unique challenges faced by women in the workforce.

We also need to address failures in the delivery of public goods, particularly in fragile states, where there is a stark absence of gender-sensitive solutions. By fixing or  improving inclusive access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure we can create an environment where women can fully participate in the economy. In fragile states, these public goods become even more critical, as they are essential to ensure the inclusion and economic participation of women.

Addressing intergenerational inequality through a holistic approach

Intergenerational inequality is a complex issue that accumulates over the life course, as extensively explored by the OECD. The challenge lies in bridging the gap between recognising this problem and implementing comprehensive solutions.

One of the key roadblocks encountered is the compartmentalisation of government actions, with various government departments focusing on child welfare, education, and health individually, often operating in silos. Developing a comprehensive policy framework can help to implement strategies that consider the broader impact of government policies on individuals and families across generations. A data-driven approach is essential to understanding the scope of the problem. With empirical evidence, it becomes easier to make a case for collaborative, government-level interventions.

A commitment to addressing intergenerational inequality requires strong long-term leadership and political will. Public awareness and advocacy play a key role in holding political leaders to account and pressuring governments to act holistically. Civil society, community organisations, and individual advocates can be catalysts for change. 

Beyond programmes, into power

Moving beyond isolated programmes, emphasis must be placed on a cycle of continuous testing, iteration, and replication that maximises learning and impact. It is imperative to explore the political dimensions of this work, from the household level up. Key considerations include:

  • Advancing women’s agency: Empowering women means advancing their agency both in public spaces and in the home. It is about giving women the tools and opportunities to have better negotiating power within their families and communities. This can translate to more equitable distribution of resources, responsibilities, and opportunities. For example, facilitating women’s access to bank accounts in their own name can foster financial autonomy, which in turn empowers women to make decisions about their economic lives.
  • Broadening career horizons: To encourage women to pursue a wide range of careers, we need to expand the definition of success. Women should not feel compelled to become doctors or lawyers to be considered successful. Encouraging a passion for public service amongst African women for example gets little attention compared to pushing access to STEM fields. Such encouragement however, could equally help break down traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
  • Addressing gender disparities in key institutions: Key institutions like the Ministries of Finance, African Development Bank (AfDB), and Central Banks have a significant influence on economic policies and resources. However, these institutions are often dominated by men. To address this disparity, it is essential to promote gender diversity and inclusivity in leadership positions, ensuring diverse populations are represented by decision-makers.
  • Reassessing our values as a society: The undervaluation and devaluation of women’s work reproduces inequality. To drive meaningful change and challenge these embedded value systems involves assessing how values are produced and structured on local, national, and global levels.

Progress since the UN High-Level Panel


Navigating the geopolitical context

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