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Jobs are Key to Closing Gender Gap in Africa

Available in: العربية
  • Gender inequalities remain a concern in African labor markets, with women being at a disadvantage
  • Gender-based disparities are caused primarily by narrow job prospects, not prejudice
  • Investing in job creation, infrastructure services, and women’s education will help bridge the gap

WASHINGTON, November 2, 2010— In the early 2000s, women’s weekly earnings as a fraction of male earnings were 79 percent in Ghana, 51 percent in Nigeria, 45 percent in Mozambique, and 23 percent in Burkina Faso. While it is tempting to conclude that this wage gap –pervasive throughout Africa –is a sign of discrimination against women in the labor market, a new report by the World Bank and Agence Française de Développement (AFD) argues that this is mostly a reflection of tiny labor markets that cannot supply enough employment for men or women.

The book, “Gender Disparities in Africa's Labor Market,” analyzes household survey data from 18 African countries to establish gender dynamics that impact work-related indicators such as employment, unemployment, sector of activity, and pay gap.

Gender equality is one of the Millennium Development Goals and a key target laid out by many African governments in their development blueprints known as Poverty Reduction Strategy papers.

The book shows that for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, job rationing causes those with better human capital (i.e. education) and those with more power in the household—usually the men—to take the few jobs available.

Beyond these aggregates, data varies considerably from one country to the next. For example, while in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda only 40 percent of women are part of the labor market, the women’s labor force participation rate stands at 80 percent. This number is even higher in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone.  

Discrimination not the main and only factor

According to Jorge Arbache, a senior economist at the World Bank and editor of the report, “gender disparities are symptomatic of economies that are not functioning well.”  “We found that gender disparities are greater in countries that have few job opportunities to begin with and, not surprisingly, countries with the highest job rate for men are also those with the least inequalities along gender lines.”

Thus, far from being a sign of prejudice against women, disparities in the African context arise where job opportunities are very limited. “Job creation is therefore a prerequisite for gender equality,” Arbache adds.

Discrimination should only be invoked after objective criteria such as educational background or prior professional experience have been ruled out, according to Arbache. Differences in education, power dynamics in the household, and other human capital variables explain best what happens in Africa, he says. “We found little evidence to support the idea that labor market discrimination is a key explanation.”

Unemployment not a Reliable Indicator of Economic Stress

In terms of unemployment, overall there is no significant difference between men and women in Africa, although the situation varies from one country to another. In fact, unemployment is not a reliable indicator of economic distress on the continent. For example, data indicates that in most countries the incidence of unemployment in affluent households is not very different from the level of unemployment observed in the poorest households. This is because the wealthy are more selective and would rather stay home until there is an opportunity that matches their expectations, the report finds.

In contrast, underemployment appears to be a more reliable indicator in Africa. In countries for which data was available, underemployment affects mostly women, who represent two-thirds of the total number of people who accept jobs that are below their potential. In that regard, one key observation is that the incidence of underemployment is lower among women living in affluent households.


Low-paid work remains a concern in the seven countries for which data was available. It is a problem that affects both men and women, although the incidence of low wage work is higher among self-employed women.

Youth Factor

The book reveals that the employment rate among young people – who make up the majority of the population in Africa— varies from 15 to 80 percent among men and 13 to 73 percent among women. Overall, the youth employment rate is substantially lower than that of older people. In almost all countries, with the notable exception of Sao Tome and Principe, gender disparities in employment are generally much lower among young people.

Spatial Disparities

In 12 of the 18 countries for which data was available, the gender gap in employment is somewhat higher in urban areas. In most of these countries, unemployment remains primarily an urban phenomenon that disproportionately affects women.

Feminization of the Informal Sector

At the continental level, women are about two times less likely than men to obtain formal employment. Women suffer from having fewer educational opportunities, limited access to credit, and less time to work in the job market because of their domestic chores. The household burden of women often allows them to engage only in productive activities compatible with their household duties. This helps explains why women are more often found in informal activities.

Education, Infrastructure Keys to Success

In view of the observations noted above, the report issues a few recommendations for policymakers in order to bridge the gender gap in the African labor market.  Among them: increase efforts towards job creation, expand education opportunities for women, invest in infrastructure, and address cultural norms that prevent women from participating fully in the economy.

Governments and development partners should intensify efforts toward job creation, notably through investments in adequate infrastructure services. It has been shown that private investment is likely to grow where there is better infrastructure. For example better roads enable women – who do the bulk of household upkeep – to spend less time running errands. They can devote time freed to engage in productive activities, which will further increase the income of their family. Likewise in the area of education, it has been shown that providing separate latrines for girls can significantly increase their enrollment rates.

On education, the report puts special emphasis. Datasets indicate that on average, the male-to-female earnings ratio can rise up to 2.8 among individuals without a formal education and drop to 0.9 among those with postsecondary education.

“In Africa, education not only has a favorable effect on earnings, but it also has a positive impact on gender wage equity,” Arbache says. “The higher the educational level, the lower the incidence of low-paid jobs.”

The report calls for the adoption of measures aimed at facilitating women’s access to education. One such measure would be the allocation of conditional cash transfers that encourage families to enroll girls. Public awareness campaigns can also help influence attitudes at the household level.  

“Ensuring women's access to jobs is essential to the fight against poverty and reaching the Millennium Development Goals,” according to Ewa Filipiak, project manager at Agence Française de Développement, and co-editor of the Gender Disparities report. “We say this not just because employed women make a direct contribution to the household, but also because it has been shown that well-paid jobs empower women to redirect spending on essential needs, notably in favor of children’s health and education.”

Ultimately, the report points out that considering the diversity noted across Africa, policy remedies should take into account the specific context of each country.

“These kinds of studies must continue and they must continue to include as many countries as possible,” says Zeinab ElBakri, a gender studies expert from Sudan. “They need to be supplemented by qualitative research, especially because the nature of gender issues in Africa can present certain unique characteristics that cannot be captured by survey data alone.”

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