Women, Jobs, and Development

Contributor Notes

The author discusses the employment of women in developing countries in the light of recent changes in emphasis on the strategy and objectives of economic development.

This paper discusses the employment of women in developing countries in the light of recent changes in emphasis on the strategy and objectives of economic development. The paper highlights that in the vast majority of countries—both developed and developing—the role of women is still limited and their responsibilities restricted. This paper examines automated manufacturing techniques in developing economies. The operations and transactions of the special drawing account are discussed. The paper also analyzes Latin America’s prospects for overcoming historical attitudes and other constraints to achieve wider economic integration.


This paper discusses the employment of women in developing countries in the light of recent changes in emphasis on the strategy and objectives of economic development. The paper highlights that in the vast majority of countries—both developed and developing—the role of women is still limited and their responsibilities restricted. This paper examines automated manufacturing techniques in developing economies. The operations and transactions of the special drawing account are discussed. The paper also analyzes Latin America’s prospects for overcoming historical attitudes and other constraints to achieve wider economic integration.

Margaret G. de Vries

Among the revolutionary social changes that have taken place in the world during the last 50 years, none has been more marked than the changes throughout the world in the status of women. In country after country, women have gained the right to vote, to enter all forms of paid employment, and to seek educational qualifications on equal terms with men. Nonetheless, in the vast majority of countries—both developed and developing—the role of women is still limited and their responsibilities restricted. Consideration of the ways in which this role can be expanded leads us into a complex and muitifaceted subject. The extent to which women in any country make up the labor force, as that term is conventionally defined, and the nature of the specific tasks they perform, are determined only in part by economic forces. Social and cultural factors are much more decisive. These influence the concepts that both men and women have of their respective roles in society, the division of the labor market into traditionally male and female sectors, and the initiative taken by women to gain access to the labor market. Any question of increased participation by women in economic pursuits excites argument and disagreement. Hence, analysis of what, to economists, is the basic problem—how best to use the human resources available—is hedged in by “noneconomic” considerations, which economists technically refer to as “constraints on the problem.” Indeed, the social constraints on the subject of the role of women in an economy have been so severe as virtually to preclude serious study of it.

The scope of this article is accordingly narrow: it discusses only economic considerations, and not even all of these. By contrast, the aims are broad: to identify specifically the nature of the special problems of women in the developing countries as economic development takes place, and to stress how important it is for that process that the productive potentials of women are not neglected.

The discussion I have in mind touches on important questions:

  • What specific contributions might women make to economic development?

  • What, if any, connections may be observed between the process of development and the participation of women in the economic life of their countries?

  • Are there economic forces, as distinct from non-economic ones, that help explain the differences among countries, as frequently observed by sociologists and anthropologists, in women’s economic activities?

  • How can the better utilization of women’s talent accelerate development?

These broad questions are the type that many economists are beginning to raise in several fields as new socioeconomic concerns have come into the limelight. For example, because of the persistence of chronic unemployment in developing countries, the whole design of economic development is being re-examined from the point of view of creating employment. In fact, the thinking of economists about the strategy and the objectives of economic development seems to have taken a marked turn in the last year or two. The development decade of the 1960s (now called the First Development Decade) had as its goals general economic targets—larger annual percentage rates of growth, higher gross national product. In this decade attention was directed to savings and investment, progress toward industrialization, and the need for good export performance.

The Second Development Decade

The second decade of development, that of the 1970s, places a new emphasis on what might be called the social, or economic welfare, aspects of development. The focus is on mass unemployment, the population explosion, lack of education, vast inequities in income distribution, and miserable living conditions (such as inadequate housing, deficient nutrition, and prevalence of disease). Whereas in the past it had been assumed that higher levels of gross national product would automatically accomplish the ultimate aims of economic progress, such as enlarged employment opportunities, decent housing, and improved health, there is now a conviction that these aims must be explicitly incorporated in development planning.

The new trend also reflects an increased feeling that the development programs and plans of the past have failed to involve large and important sectors of the population. Accordingly, concern is now less with economic aggregates, such as the gross national product, and more with the individual and how he (and she) can benefit from, and participate in, development. In dealing with the problem of employment, for instance, economists are using the concept of unemployment in a much wider sense than its traditional definition: it is being used to encompass tasks done with low productivity and poor utilization of available human resources as well as the absence of jobs per se.

Bringing Women into the Development Process

There are several reasons why women need to be brought directly into the development process—reasons that are almost obvious when one makes even a superficial comparison between the ways of life of most of the population of the developing and developed countries. Fortunately, these advantages of using woman-power more fully are becoming recognized by developing countries. First of all, developing countries have limited resources and must use all available human talent in order to progress as quickly as possible. The results of the UN questionnaire, “Participation of Women in the Economic and Social Development of Their Countries” (1970), reveal that the measures being taken in many countries to increase the participation of women in economic and social development are prompted not so much by a desire to bring about a fundamental change in the role of men and women in society as by the realization that overall development requires a greater utilization of the potential labor force.

Second, many aims of improved living, such as better nutrition and sanitation in the home, must be accomplished mainly by women.

Third, since women have more contact with children than do men, it is their influence that can facilitate or hinder the healthy growth and development of children. Thus, even if the only purpose were to help women become better mothers and homemakers, it is essential to provide increasing educational and training facilities for them and to encourage their sharing fully in all the responsibilities of community life.

Many of the tasks that engage much of the time and energy of most women in all countries are not included in the statistics of economic activity or in national income. But how women perform these tasks (whether they are done productively or not, with some of the new methods and know-how) is in a very real sense a matter of how usefully and effectively the female members of society are “employed.” Improved cooking and sewing skills are imperative. So is literacy imperative: in many developing countries the rate of illiteracy is much higher for females than for males.

But beyond these purposes for training women, developing countries have an urgent need for teachers, nurses, dietitians, and other specialists in the field of health and nutrition, social workers, home economists, and librarians. These are occupations which in the developed countries have been filled almost exclusively by women. The need of developing countries for persons trained in middle-level skills of these types may far exceed the need for very highly trained professional specialists. The high rate of unemployment of doctors, scientists, and engineers in many developing countries certainly raises this question: is it not preferable to teach somewhat less advanced skills to a much greater number of people?

Economic Progress and Changing Roles

A better way of life for all is, of course, the very goal of development. There can be no disputing that economic progress is beneficial for male and female alike. The consequences of economic advance from the impoverished standards of living of most developing countries are, quite possibly, even more important for women than for men. With economic progress, a decreasing number of women die in childbirth or are exhausted by numerous pregnancies. More of their children live beyond infancy. Because statistics of life expectancy for the developed countries—where detailed figures of this type are available—usually reveal a current life span for women several years longer than that for men, we should not lose sight of the fact that the graveyards of these countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were filled with young women who died in their twenties and thirties and with their infants.

But the process of achieving longer life spans and higher living standards has, in the developed countries, been accompanied by many related phenomena: technological advance, industrialization, urbanization, wider education, increased scientific and medical knowledge, new methods of communication, and accelerated mobility. These aspects of economic development have transformed the entire way of life. And, as these vast social changes have taken place, corresponding changes have occurred in the roles of men and women in society. In fact, the full implications for women of the radical transformations associated with economic progress are not yet clear even in countries of the West, where economic growth has been occurring for some decades.

In many developing countries, similar changes in the relations between men and women are taking place, and in some, such changes have been sharply accelerated by newly won political independence and greater participation in international affairs. However, it is by no means an automatic consequence of economic development that the economic or social position of women is improved. In fact, as is indicated below, there is a risk that women may be forced into greater economic dependence upon their menfolk when a country or a region of a country abandons a barter economy in favor of an industrial monetary economy. This happened, for example, in Sweden and a number of other European countries at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

The Early Stages of Development

While the relation between economic progress and the type of jobs that women perform in advanced economies, and the extent to which they hold paying jobs at all, is being studied, much more attention also needs to be directed to this relation is the developing countries. It is likely, for example, that the changes in production techniques associated with the early stages of development may operate sharply to reduce women’s participation in the labor force, a trend which may be reversed again only at a much later stage of development. Mrs. Ester Boserup, in her book Woman’s Role in Economic Development, provides several explanations for this phenomenon. For one thing, in the initial stages of an economy women grow their own crops, using only primitive hand tools, as is still done in many regions. When agricultural development reaches the stage where plows drawn by animals, or tractors, are used, women cease to grow crops of their own and become assistants on their husbands’ farms. In the last few decades increasing population pressure has accelerated the changeover from the first system of agriculture, which requires much land per family, to other systems that use land more frugally, thus depriving women of many of their traditional farming activities. The failure of many communities to train women, as well as men, in the newer agricultural methods being introduced may be another factor that gradually reduces the relative productivity of women.

Since, in the early stages of development, agriculture is the predominant occupation, the role that women have in agriculture exerts a profound influence on their role both in other parts of the economy and in the family. Commonly, the sex whose task it is to grow the crop is also the one that sells the crop and handles the bulk of local market trade. This accounts for the fact that in some countries, such as in Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo, local retail trade is conducted largely by women. By contrast, where men are the farmers, women are usually absent from the markets as sellers—and oftentimes as buyers. Thus, with development of the agricultural sector, not only does production but also trade pass from female into male hands. Mrs. Boserup argues further that the changeover from female to male trade is often promoted by foreign merchants from communities with male trading traditions.

In nonagricultual economic activities, the same dislocation is observed. When economic development reaches the stage where production of such items as cloth, household tools, and the like moves out of the family dwelling to special workshops or factories, women tend to drop out of the labor force because they can no longer combine this work with the tasks of caring for the household and the children. Because it is the specialization of production in particular premises which causes women to drop out of the labor market, their withdrawal from the labor force may happen long before industrialization results in the establishment of mechanized large-scale industries.

At the same time, the female dropout from the traditional occupations of agriculture, market trade, and home industries is not offset by a corresponding rapid recruitment of women into the growing modern sector. One reason is the priority given to boys in schools and in vocational training establishments for work in the labor market. Women thereupon soon become less well equipped than men to fill posts in the growing modern sectors. Indeed, economic development may proceed far before the overall decline in the percentage of women in the labor force is reversed. Even in some highly industrialized countries the rapid decline in recent years of the share of farm labor in the total labor force has occasioned a reduction of the number of women in the labor force, despite a continued rise of female participation in modern, urban occupations.

A Scarcity of Jobs?

One could interpret a declining rate of female participation in the labor force as a measure of progress: it suggests a reduction in economic pressure on women to supplement the income of their husbands. Certainly, the model of the advanced economies, at least in the West, has been that of a single family breadwinner who provides sufficient means to relieve his wife of the need to earn an income in order to devote herself solely to home and children; traditionally, as a family upgraded itself from lower to middle-class status, the wife has ceased to be a wage earner.

This stereotype is being discarded in developed countries, as an increasing number of educated middle-class women go out to work. But, regardless of the concepts of the developed countries, economies that are still “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,” and families that are living in substandard conditions simply cannot afford to let productive members of the labor force be withdrawn or forced out. In developed countries, despite the stereotype of the nonworking wife, periods of mass production efforts have been characterized by heavy recruitment of female labor. During World War II, for example, a popular figure in the United States was that of “Rosie the Riveter” bolting together the steel pieces of ships, tanks, and aircraft; in the United Kingdom, the mobilization of women was carried to great lengths—women were, for example, flying military aircraft from factories to Royal Air Force delivery points.

The crux of the difficulty is that, in contrast to the labor shortages of the wartime United States or United Kingdom, the concern in the developing countries is with a surplus of labor. It is often argued that because developing countries have insufficient jobs for their male population, the advantage to some families of employment of women is offset by a corresponding loss for other families whose breadwinner loses his job to a woman.

How to deal with chronic unemployment in developing countries is, as noted above, currently being scrutinized from virtually every angle. The point made here is that, as the strategy of development is re-examined, it is essential to consider how the total labor force, both male and female, is best utilized. It is small profit for a developing economy if the gains made in male productivity are neutralized by losses in the productivity of females.

Relation to Population Control

The answer to the unemployment problem, at least in the long run, is considered by many experts to be a reduction in the rate of population growth. The subject of population control has, of course, many sides. One aspect, sometimes overlooked, concerns the motivation of women regarding numbers of children and family planning. To what extent—and how—can women be motivated in directions other than motherhood? One simple correlation that is observed in almost all countries is that the higher the educational level of women the smaller the size of the family. Education, therefore, is one route to raising motivations for reducing the number of children. That women should be used to inform other women about family planning seems so evidently advantageous it is amazing that it has not been widely instituted. Moreover, policies which induce women to accept employment rather than stay at home, and which increase their occupational opportunities, may well be even more effective in curbing the population explosion. When women are employed, the age at which marriage occurs and the age at which childbearing commences tend to be delayed, and the number of children per family is likely to be reduced.

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In sum, there is a new conciousness, in many countries, concerning the status of women. There is also, quite independently, a changed emphasis on the strategy and objectives of economic development, with more emphasis on the human and personal side. It is essential that these two new strains in thinking be intertwined: that those working for the development of low-income countries should not overlook the contributions to economic advancement that can be made, with particular effectiveness, by women.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Ester Boserup, Woman’s Role in Economic Development, St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1970).

  • United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General, Participation of Women in the Economic and Social Development of Their Countries, E/CN.6/513 (New York, 1970).

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  • United Nations, Economic Commission for Africa, Social Development Section, The Status and Role of Women in East Africa (New York, 1967).

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  • Barbara E. Ward, ed., Women in the New Asia: The Changing Social Roles of Men and Women in South and South-East Asia, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Paris, 1963).

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