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Female Labor Force Participation

Rwandan student at computer

Female labor force participation (FLFP) is a vital element of women's economic empowerment, as well as for broader economic growth. But it remains inflexibly low in many developing countries, and it is also substantially lower than men's, in most countries, says Mary Anne Madeira, assistant professor of international relations. 

Madeira studies how trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), and natural resource exports affect female participation in the labor market and her research is providing insights into how economic globalization is affecting women's ability to join the workforce in developing countries.

She examined FLFP in 129 low- to middle-income economy countries over a 28-year period and found that in recent years, trade and inward FDI have a largely negative effect on FLFP.  Export-oriented FDI, however, may create more opportunities for women than domestic-oriented FDI and trade openness unaccompanied by significant foreign investment, she notes. Yet this more positive effect of export-oriented FDI depends on the extent to which a country has experienced industrial upgrading, suggesting that gender segregation by industry also affects the extent to which global economic integration creates employment opportunities for women in developing countries, she adds.

“It appears that the once feminizing impulse of economic globalization seems to be reversing itself in developing countries,” Madeira says. “Defeminization is largely a result of industrial upgrading, as developing countries increase their capacity to produce higher tech, more advanced goods. There's a lot of gender-based segregation in employment in developing countries, as a result of persistent discrimination and maybe cultural norms that view certain work as not appropriate for women. And automation plays a role here, as well too. So, as countries upgrade their industrial capacity, adopt more labor-saving technology, the overall labor demand may decrease. And we know that that often affects women disproportionately. Women are often the last to be hired and the first to be fired. That's kind of the story this work is telling.”

Governments can respond to this dynamic to ensure that the problem doesn't get worse. She argues that focusing on female education is a necessary but insufficient condition. Even where there is not a skills gap between men and women, women often remain segregated into lower-paid and less desirable industries and occupations. Governments should invest in services such as subsidized childcare, early childhood education and eldercare, to reduce women’s unpaid work burden at home and allow them more freedom to upgrade skills, retrain in order to advance professionally, and pursue a broader range of opportunities.  

Spotlight Recipient

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Mary Anne Madeira

Assistant Professor of International Relations

Article By:

Robert Nichols