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publication July 30, 2020

Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Women’s Equality

A woman employed by a copper and gold mine in Mongolia walks past bags ready for shipment

Research shows that trade creates better jobs for women. Companies that export employ more women, pay them higher wages, and offer better benefits and job security. Photo: © Khasar Sandag/IFC


Story Highlights

  • New trends in global trade—especially the rise in services, global value chains, and the digital economy—are opening up important economic opportunities for women.
  • Trade has the potential to expand women’s role in the economy, decrease inequality, and expand women’s access to skills and education.
  • But for women to reap these rewards countries need to adopt reforms in trade policy that reduce discrimination against women while building the significant human capital that women represent.

But women’s relationship with trade is complex, as it can also lead to job losses and a concentration of work in lower-skilled jobs To ensure that trade enhances opportunities for everyone—regardless of gender—policymakers should assess the potential impact of trade rules on various groups of people and develop policy responses based on evidence.  

Research on gender equality and trade has been held back by limited data and a lack of understanding of the connections between the economic roles women play as workers, consumers, and decision makers. Building on new analysis and new sex-disaggregated data, this report aims to advance understanding on the relationship between trade and gender equality and to identify a series of opportunities through which women can gain from trade.

Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Women’s Equalitya joint report by the World Bank Group and the World Trade Organization—marks the first major effort to quantify how women are affected by trade through the use of a new gender-disaggregated labor dataset. This analysis helps governments understand how trade policies will affect women and men differently.

Cover art for the report Women & Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Gender Equality

Download the report


"Over the past 30 years trade has been the engine of poverty reduction. This report shows that, provided the right policies are in place, it can also provide an engine to reduce the gender gap”, said World Bank Managing Director Mari Pangestu. “Trade can expand women’s role in the economy and decrease disparities with men by giving women more and better employment opportunities. Seizing these opportunities will be even more important in a post-COVID-19 world."
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Mari Pangestu
World Bank Managing Director

Key Findings

  • Exporters employ more women: In developing countries, women make up 33 percent of the workforce of exporting firms compared with just 24 percent of non-exporting firms.
  • Trade creates better jobs for women: When women are employed in sectors with high levels of exports, they are more likely to be formally employed in a job with better benefits, training and security.
  • Trade increases women’s wages and increases economic equality: Developing countries that double their manufacturing exports—a typical increase for developing countries that open themselves to trade—would see women increase their share of total manufacturing wages from 24% to 30% through a combination of increased employment and higher salaries.

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When Countries Trade, Women Win

By increasing trade, countries can help promote a more equitable future that benefits everyone.

Despite many advances, women across the world hold fewer jobs, are paid less, and are more likely to experience worse job conditions than men.

  • Fewer than one in two women works.
  • Among those who do work, 80% occupy medium- and low-skilled jobs.
  • Women are also overrepresented in the informal sector, with up to 90% of women informally employed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  •  Just 3% of female employees in low-income countries are skilled workers.

Trade policy is inadvertently biased against women, resulting in lower levels of employment and higher prices for consumer goods.

  • Although no country overtly imposes tariffs according to gender, implicit biases can amount to “pink tariffs” that put women at an economic disadvantage—as both producers and consumers.
  • Targeted policies can help women maximize the benefits of trade. These include removing trade barriers that impede women’s access to international markets and improving women’s access to education, financial services, and digital technologies.

A woman that is employed at a hotel in Papua New Guinea smiles while sitting at her computer
New trends in global trade—especially the rise in services, global value chains, and the digital economy—are opening up important economic opportunities for women. Photo: © Conor Ashleigh/World Bank

  • This report makes use of a new dataset that for the first time allows researchers to see labor data at the industry level by gender, reducing subjectivity of trade-related analysis.
  • This data sheds light on how women are employed, in which industries they work, what their income is and whether or not they are involved in global trade.
  • This analysis helps governments understand how trade policies will affect women and men differently.

  • More than two-thirds of women in developed countries were employed in the services sector in 2017, up from 45 percent in 1991. In developing countries, the proportion of women in the service sector jumped to 38 percent from 25 percent over the same period.
  • Countries are becoming more integrated with global value chains, which tend to create jobs and increase wages for women. GVC jobs tend to have positive, indirect benefits on other aspects of women’s livelihoods, such as education.
  • Digital technology and new online platforms create opportunities for women to bypass traditional trade barriers, expand their entrepreneurial skills and develop flexible careers that enable them to manage both work and household responsibilities.