Is Economic Growth Bad for Female Workers? Sometimes

The triumph of women in the American office place has been perhaps the greatest economic story of the last century. In 1900, only 19 percent of women participated in the labor force. In 112 years, that number has tripled, and just a few years ago, there were more officially employed women than men in the United States.

But the rise of working women has been much slower around the world. Here's a graph, via the International Labor Organization, comparing the gap between youth male and female participation rates around the world in 1991, 2001, and 2011. Worldwide, the gap has barely budged. In South Asia, it's still terribly high. In East Asia, the gap is totally inverted: women are officially working more than men.

What's going on here?

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Sometimes the biases behind these gaps are purely institutional. In Sudan, for example, women still lack access to bank accounts, and in Yemen, it is illegal for women to leave the home "without permission from a male family member or an escort," according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In some cases, the gap is cultural. The women don't expect to work because their mothers didn't work, or because the national values don't emphasize employment as a "female" virtue. In Pakistan, for example, male participation rates are among the highest in the world, but less than "one out of five young Pakistani women participates in labor markets, which primarily seems to reflect cultural barriers to female labor force participation."

But some of the most interesting barriers are economic. In underdeveloped economies with large informal sectors (such as families selling their wares at bazaars), a strong economy ironically pushes women out of the workforce because the men find that their income alone can support the family. (Studies of countries in South Asia have often found that when household income goes up, female participation goes down, according to the ILO.) The introduction of a manufacturing sector -- an essential part of any country's industrialization -- overwhelmingly benefits men, opening up a wider gap between male and female employment and earnings.

As a result, female participation rates don't rise in a straight diagonal line like we tend to see in most positive trends. Instead, it follows a funky U-shaped pattern, with high female participation rates in many struggling countries, low participation rates as manufacturing transforms the economy, and higher participation rates as the service sector develops. This helps to explain why extremely strong economic growth in South Asia has done little to reduce gender gaps, even though the gap has declined relatively strongly in the slower-growing Middle East.

Growth is a requirement for the betterment of women's (and men's) lives everywhere. But the international road to equality through growth is loopy.