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publication December 1, 2021

From Jobs to Careers: Apparel Exports and Career Paths for Women in Developing Countries


An oft-cited strategy to advance economic development is to further integrate developing countries into global trade, particularly through global value chains, bolstered by the expansion of female-intensive industries that bring more women into the formal labor force. As a result, a frequent debate centers on whether the apparel industry—the most female-intensive and globally engaged manufacturing industry—can be a key player in this regard.

In recent decades, the apparel industry has shifted production to low-wage developing countries, increasing the demand for women, closing male-female wage gaps, and bringing women into the formal labor force from agriculture and informal work. But is an apparel-led export strategy sufficient to induce a broader transition from jobs women do to survive to careers promising stable employment and a sense of identity?

From Jobs to Careers: Apparel Exports and Career Paths for Women in Developing Countries answers this question by focusing on seven countries where apparel plays a vital role in their export baskets—Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam. It finds that the apparel industry indeed can serve as a launching pad to bring more women into the labor market. But for this approach to work, complementary policies must tackle the barriers that hinder women in their pursuit of long-term workforce participation and better-paid occupations. Key policy recommendations include increasing the participation of female production workers in export-oriented apparel manufacturing and associated industries, upgrading within apparel to manufacturing-related industries, boosting access to education, and breaking glass ceilings.

The report also seeks to shift the paradigm of how we think of women in the labor force by stressing the importance of their transition from jobs to careers—the so-called “quiet revolution.”