CSW61: What does a changing world of work mean for women?

9th March 2017

This week we have a new blog post from Madhushala Senaratne writing ahead of the forthcoming session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61).

The 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), which will be held from March 13-24, 2017, in New York, centres on the priority theme, ‘women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’. Ahead of the conference, bringing together a range of key resources, we explore what a changing world of work means for women, and reflect on key entry points for accelerating women’s economic empowerment. We also look at work done by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) alongside international partners, that shares knowledge on women’s economic empowerment with a focus on the balance between paid work and unpaid care work.  

Progresses and challenges in a changing world of work 

Since the Beijing conference in 1995, progress has been made in advancing women’s economic empowerment, with more women working, and gaining greater access to employment, among others. Yet, persistent inequalities remain. For example, women are often concentrated at the bottom of the global value chain, working in low-wage jobs, with little or no access to decent work and social protection. Structural barriers to gender equality and gender-based discrimination have led to further gender gaps in labour force participation and pay. In addition, women’s unpaid domestic and care work is often overlooked or ignored in policy and programming. 

Yet, the world of work is changing rapidly, amidst increasing informalities and mobility of labour, and advancements in digital and information and communications technologies. These changes can either be a productive or disruptive force for accelerating women’s economic empowerment. Considering the factors that hinder women’s technology access and use, specifically in developing regions, for instance, is vital to ensuring that women benefit from the positive impacts of technology on work and livelihoods. Amidst such a changing world, the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment puts forth an urgent call for action, placing four systematic constraints to women’s economic empowerment high on the political agenda: adverse social norms; discriminatory laws; failure to recongise, reduce and redistribute unpaid household work and care; and lack of access to financial, digital and property assets. 

What is being done globally to advance women’s economic empowerment? 

Empowering women economically and closing gender gaps at work are crucial to achieving the targets set under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This requires collaborative, targeted, and context-specific approaches. 

Abigail Hunt and Emma Samman show how a savings-led microfinance programme in Nepal is helping women develop their own ‘village banks’ and small businesses, leading to positive outcomes in women’s education, access to work and financial services, and changes in gender norms. They also draw lessons from Mexico where subsidised childcare services for mothers are increasing women’s labour market participation. At the same time, inclusive business approaches can help transform the economic and social conditions of women. With examples from Asia and Latin America, the Asian Development Bank makes a case for the need for greater awareness of women’s needs and constraints by businesses, investors, and other stakeholders for tangible benefits in implementing such approaches. 

Drawing on learning from women’s experiences and approaches to reducing inequality in Brazil, Haiti, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, ActionAid finds that women feel better equipped to address challenges when taking collective action, while women who are more economically autonomous are more engaged in local organising. Yet, challenges to women’s economic empowerment are often worse in conflict, post-conflict, refugee, and fragile contexts. CARE highlights the need to bring together gender, peace, and economic dimensions in strengthening women’s capacity to adjust to shock and operate effectively within market systems during crisis. 

Connecting perspectives on women’s economic empowerment, the authors of this IDS bulletin draw on the intersections between the economic, social, and political dimensions of empowerment. They reinforce the need for collective action in addressing structural inequalities and inequitable power relations, and enhancing women’s agency, to expand opportunities and choice.  

Balancing unpaid care work and paid work 

With renewed emphasis on women’s unpaid care and domestic work, there is a need for a wider understanding of economic empowerment, comprising both the market economy, where women participate in the labour market, and the care economy, which sustains and nurtures the market economy. While women’s economic empowerment can lead to economic growth, it is essential to understand that this does not merely involve their labour force participation, rather, extends to cover women’s choice to work, the sector of work, location, and working hours. 

Issues such as migration, HIV, and ageing, bring questions of unpaid care to the forefront to women’s empowerment, increase the care burden for women. More progressive tax policies to finance quality public services can shift the burden of care away from women, while unfair tax policies also impact on the provision of care. A training curriculum highlights how redistributing care work can accelerate gender equality and justice. 

Participating at two panel discussions during CSW61, members of Growth and Equal Opportunities for Women (GrOW) (of which IDS is a partner) will present further evidence on current care dynamics. Drawing on the dual role of women as caregivers and workers, a strong focus will be on the links between gender responsive public services (such as childcare, sexual and reproductive health services, water and sanitation services), and women’s access to economic opportunities. With the care economy high on the policy agenda, as this video, ‘Who Cares: Unpaid care work, poverty and women's / girl's human rights’, reminds us, a woman caregiver’s journey is full of challenges that need urgent attention, targeted, and collaborative action, to create more economically empowering conditions for women. 

GrOW Panel Discussions at CSW61: 

March 13, 2017: Transforming ‘work’: linking care, public services and women’s economic empowerment (Church Center for the United Nations, 6.15 pm) March 17, 2017: Details to be confirmed (Church Center for the United Nations, 4.30pm)


Madhushala Senaratne

Madhushala Senaratne is currently a DPhil student at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK.