Women and the Future of Work – What Roles for Development Programmes?

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 23. October 2018

“A sip of tea is a sip of Sri Lanka, where tea leaves are picked carefully by hand. By women.” This is how the June-August 2018 flight magazine of Edelweiss Air, a Swiss airline, introduced Sri Lanka. The point is how much care is given to harvesting tea leaves, which need human care.

Laying aside any stereotypes or assumptions, women are generally said to have care and devotion to work. Turning this to employment, such qualities are liked by employers in hiring women. In fact, this is not an assumption; there is evidence that having more women in a company contributes more both financially and in terms of creativity and innovation.

I read the flight magazine of Edelweiss Air that I cited above when I was travelling to Kosovo. The country has the lowest employment rates in Europe. There are several reasons for this. For example, there is an oversupply of certain skill profiles, and often the skills sought by employers are substantially undersupplied. Even when job seekers have the right skill-sets, potential employers seeking to fill jobs cannot identify them. Women face more problems….

It is timely to talk about the world of work. Following the 2014 seminal report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the 2018 “The Future of Jobs Report” by the World Economic Forum and the 2019 World Development Report by the World Bank have brought the topic of the changing nature of work back firmly on the policy agenda.

One of the key takeaways from all the reports is that despite improvements, the world of work is very much a man’s world. Gender gaps are serious challenges facing the world of work. Men outnumber women across all broadly defined occupations – they are (75%) more likely to participate in labour markets than women (49%).

It is easy to talk at length about the problem. Then, what can and is being done about it by development programmes?  

Unpacking the future of work

When we talk about jobs, the first issue that often gets our attention is the (un)employment numbers. While creating jobs is an important objective, there are, however, two additional elements: who gets the jobs and what kind of jobs. In other words, labour markets are more than (un)employment numbers. Unpaid work, parental leave, legal barriers, social protection and digital divide are factors that determine labour market participation by women and men.

Many women “do not work” or are not in the labour force (entering, returning to, or integrating) for several reasons.

Inaccessibility or lack of opportunities: many disadvantaged women living in remote and rural areas where opportunities for better skills development and employment are limited. A youth employment programme in Albania, Risi, is addressing this problem by working with training providers through distant and affordable skills development courses. Flexible learning programmes allow disadvantaged women to improve their skills at their convenience. One of the key features in the changing nature of work is traditional education and training systems are evolving towards lifelong learning. This means that most jobs will require specific skills (e.g. combination of technological know-how, problem-solving, and critical thinking as well as soft skills).

Another youth employment programme, Enhancing Youth Skills in Kosovo, facilitates the first training and course listing platform in Kosovo that enables users to search training offered and compare them by price, time, location and provider. Additionally, users will have access to a job announcement page where businesses will announce job openings. In order to adapt to the changing nature of work, it is therefore important to define skills as one component of knowledge system that includes know-how, attitudes and competencies.

Weak or absent labour market information and career guidance: attractive and relevant career guidance and labour market information is not readily available. A youth employment programme in Bosnia & Herzegovina, MarketMakers, targets “pre-further education” with the goal of influencing career choices among young women. It is also launching IT Careers Portal for profiling successful women in the IT industry and their pathways into the sector, as well as “FAQs-style” content that seeks to pre-empt and answer questions that women (and men) have when researching IT careers and IT education options.

In addition, changing the way the media report about labour market information is critical. The Risi programme has been successful in this case. Currently, the programme focuses on leveraging successful models and shifting them from broader labour market information for young women (and men) to relevant and specific information for deciding on a career path and starting professional life.

Child care services are either non-existent or expensive: formal work is time-consuming due to childrearing responsibilities and other household chores. On average women fulfil two and a half times unpaid household and care work than men. This is one of the reasons why they are less engaged in paid labour. The ILO estimates that while 22% of men’s productive potential is underutilised, women’s is as high as 50%.

The Risi programme in Albania conducted a study to identify why affordable and flexible childcare services do not exist, which currently is designing interventions to tackle the root causes. There have also been other initiatives in Nepal and Kyrgyzstan which found out that care work is rarely recognised by development programmes. These initiatives took the first step of valuing the importance of unpaid care. The initiatives took concrete actions through the introduction of technological innovations and infrastructure measures (e.g. launching a community child care centre in Nepal).  

Adaptively managing the future of work  

As the report of the World Economic Forum states, if the changing nature of work is managed poorly, it will “pose the risk of widening skills gaps, greater inequality and broader polarisation”. Under the changing nature of the future of work – often in complex, dynamic and unpredictable manners – women who succeed in finding employment are typically hired into low-skilled, low-productivity positions, often in the informal sector. For those who do not find work, the impact of long-term unemployment can be devastating and have long-lasting consequences, putting social cohesion and families at threat.

Solutions proposed to tackle unemployment (in its different dimensions) should, therefore, focus on the following areas:

First, initiatives tackling gender and the future of work should not exist in a vacuum – that is, they clearly cannot be “disconnected from the societies in which they seek to facilitate change, sometimes very technical interventions can be so specifically focused that they do not sufficiently consider the broader social issues around them.” Practically speaking, they need to engage and work with a number of actors – be it private companies, governments, individual actors, etc. Indeed, these actors/players are the ones who must own the initiatives from the beginning and take it to the next level, through deepening and broadening the impacts.  

Second and in relation to the first point, the changing nature of work is not simply driven by technological innovations. It is hard to deny the impact of technological innovations. Yet as the 2019 World Development Report asserts, this is not happing like “machines are coming to take our jobs”. There are also issues of demography of the workforce, the globalisation of markets, and the laws and regulations governing work and employment relations. Good analysis is thus an essential part of our daily work and this has to treat women as part of the surrounding informal rules and social norms. In other words, it is not simply the interaction between women and men that determines the outcome of equitable relationships of labour markets. In the changing nature of work, we should pay attention to the multidimensional aspects of barriers – “opportunity exclusion” (insufficiency), “poverty exclusion” (unaffordability), “local exclusion” (inaccessibility) and “usage exclusion” (inappropriateness/less relevance).

Third, analysis has to be translated into actions. Experiences show that development programmes can be successful when they assume more a facilitative role than doing things by themselves. For this, getting partners on board is essential, as long-term and large-scale impacts require the participation of those who have the power and leverage to work with poor and disadvantaged women (and men). Getting there requires bringing on-board champions from the start – public and private sector as well as civil society and community leaders who are not afraid to challenge the status quo. Partners have to share the vision of empowering women; this has important implications for their selection from the outset, and subsequent interactions regarding capacity building and incentives.

Fourth, changes happen quickly, and strategies need to be adapted continuously. Using results for adaptive management, therefore, requires having in place a right-sized and functional monitoring and results measurement systems that utilise technological innovations. The 2019 World Development Report admits the shocking lack of capacities in the world to even monitor the most basic information. The future of work needs relevant and usable data (both quantitative and qualitative) to know what works and what does not and why. It is only based on such a system that it is possible for initiatives to make decisions on whether initial successes are linked to long-term and bigger impacts beyond the targeted primary stakeholders.


Additional sources

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies