Gender Disparities in African Labor Markets Caused by Jobs Scarcity, Not Discrimination – World Bank Study

November 1, 2010

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2010 – Gender inequalities remain a concern in African labor markets despite variations from one country to another, a new book published by the World Bank shows. The book, Gender Disparities in Africa’s Labor Market, reveals that overall there is a 17 percentage-point difference between the labor force participation rate for men (78.3 percent) and women (61 percent).

The study analyses household survey data collected in the early 2000s in 18 countries across Africa, looking into gender dimensions in employment, unemployment, pay gap, as well as the role of educational attainment.

The book shows that women’s participation rates in the labor market range from under 40 percent in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, to 80 percent and above in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. For Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, women’s employment ratio over the survey period is 25 percent lower than for men, respectively at 53 percent and nearly 70 percent.

Datasets indicate that in a number of African countries, women are almost twice as likely as men to be in the informal sector and about two times less likely to have a public or private formal job. Gender pay gap is high, but varies a great deal among countries. The ratio of average female-to-male weekly labor income ranged from 23 percent in Burkina Faso to 79 percent in Ghana.

Segmentation by sector of employment shows that 70 percent of women work in agriculture (compared to 64 percent of men), 6 percent in small industries (men’s rate is 13 percent), and 23 percent in the service sector. Overall, women were underrepresented in the industry and service sector.

“What we found is that these disparities are caused mainly by very limited job prospects, differences in education, power dynamics in the household, and other human capital variables. We found little evidence to support the idea that labor market discrimination is a key explanation for gender gaps in underdeveloped economies, especially those whose job markets are small and can only supply formal employment for a minority of the population,” says World Bank Senior Economist Jorge Arbache, one of the book's editors. “Disparities are indeed greater in countries that have few job opportunities to begin with and, conversely, countries with the highest job rate for men are also those with the least gender disparities. Job creation is therefore a critical prerequisite for gender equality.”

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

The book draws attention to the importance of educational attainment in helping bridge the gap. Survey data shows that on average the male-to-female earnings ratio is as high as 2.8 among individuals with no education, and as low as 0.9 among those with post-secondary education. The authors therefore recommend that policymakers adopt targeted measures that facilitate women's access to education, such as conditional cash transfer programs, that encourage families to enroll girls in schools.

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

The report also looked at job distribution by age groups and found that, in Africa, job rates among youth ranged from 15 to 80 percent for men and from 13 to 73 percent for women, suggesting that gender disparities in employment were generally much lower among young people. “One possible explanation is that investments made in universal education as part of the push to reach the MDGs are beginning to pay off,” according to Alexandre Kolev, head of a job skills development program at the International Labor Organization, also one of the editors. “We have observed that there are more highly educated women than men in private formal jobs, which shows that access to private formal jobs may be more competitive for women.”

Other policy recommendations made in the book include facilitating women’s ownership of land and access to microcredit, as well as targeted measures that increase their bargaining power within the household, including through sensitization campaigns. Likewise the combined efforts of improvements in a country’s business environment, along with investments in growth-critical infrastructure (such as reliable electricity supply), can go a long way in expanding job opportunities, and therefore reducing gender gaps. 

Notes to Editors:

The underlying study for the book is novel in providing a comparative analysis based on standardized, nationally representative survey data for 18 countries. The data were extracted from multi-topic integrated household surveys conducted in Africa around 2000 and recently harmonized as part of the World Bank Survey-based Harmonized Indicators Program.

The 18 African countries surveyed: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia.

Cases studies: Congo Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania.

Cross-country studies: Benin, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal and Uganda.

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