Four Barriers to Women’s Economic Empowerment in Emerging Economies 

TechnoServe helps hardworking women around the world to overcome economic barriers and improve their lives. Here are four of these barriers.

Women’s economic empowerment is not a “women’s issue” – it affects everyone. Evidence indicates that when women are excluded from the formal economies of low-income countries, rates of poverty reduction and economic growth suffer. 

With over 50 years of work supporting women’s economic empowerment around the world, here are four substantial barriers that TechnoServe has determined limit women’s economic advancement.

A group of women who are a part of TechnoServe’s kitchen garden program, gather for a training in a house in Bamanwali village, Bikaner, Rajasthan, India on October 24th, 2016.

Lack of access to resources

Around the world, women are significantly less likely than men to have access to productive resources such as land, finance, and information. For instance:

In Peru, for instance, where many rural women in particular struggle to access finance, TechnoServe helped women coffee farmers find new solutions. This expanded financing helped them double their monthly coffee production and improve their incomes.

“[We] are happy and are working together towards the shared goal of being able to save, invest, access low-interest loans, obtain capital and bring our earnings home to improve the quality of life of our families,” said Karen Guevara Sánchez, one of the farmers.

Women work in Ethiopia, District: Limu Kossa, Village: Wolensu, Zone: Jimma, Cooperative: Wolensu, 10 January 2010:

Discriminatory societal norms

Gender-based discrimination presents an entrenched barrier to women’s economic empowerment. Deeply held beliefs about what women should and should not do exist in many different contexts—in their homes, their communities, and their workplaces, restrictive social norms can affect every aspect of women’s lives. 

Gender-based discrimination and prohibitive societal norms both limit women’s access to decent employment and directly affect their experiences in the workplace. For instance, gender-based harassment at work costs the global economy an estimated $12 trillion every year. In many developing economies, women are specifically prohibited from holding certain jobs, or from working in roles where they must mix with men. Globally, 2.7 billion women are restricted from having the same employment choices as men. 

These restrictive societal norms often leave women relegated to informal, vulnerable, and low-wage employment. On occasion, these socially enforced restrictions are codified. As of 2018, 104 of 184 economies studied had laws specifically preventing women from working in certain roles, and 59 had no laws at all about sexual harrassment or violence in the workplace. 

Women in India often struggle to overcome family disapproval of their working outside the home. TechnoServe therefore engages families directly in its programs to help Indian youth from disadvantaged backgrounds find corporate employment

“My parents were unsure earlier, but now they both are supporting me,” reported one woman participant.

Women pick coffee in Tanzania.

Unequal domestic responsibilities 

Women are more likely to be unemployed than men, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this gap—as of February 2022, the global labor force participation rate among men was 72%. For women, it was only 47%. What’s more, many women around the world, employed and unemployed, bear heavy, unequal domestic workloads. 

Around the world, women shoulder disproportionate responsibility for domestic work and unpaid care–tasks essential to the functioning of the economy. It has been estimated that if women’s unpaid domestic labor were assigned a monetary value, it would make up between 10 and 39% of the GDP. 

This unequal divide in domestic labor is perpetuated by laws restricting what work women can do outside of the home, as well as by social expectations. For example, recent qualitative studies from East Africa found that, while attitudes towards “women’s work” were changing somewhat, criticism of the perceived quality of working women’s domestic skills persisted, and the idea that undertaking domestic responsibilities made men “unmanly” remained common. 

In Mozambique, small business owner Gilda Lourenço faced an acute version of this problem when COVID-19 shut down local schools. “I couldn’t reconcile working and looking after my children as they were studying from home,” she said.

She eventually joined a TechnoServe program that improved her business skills, and was able to increase her sales by 70%. But her daunting domestic responsibilities nearly prevented that. “I was on the verge of closing my business,” she recalled.

Women work in Honduras.

Gender-based violence

According to Human Rights Watch, millions of women workers around the world are subjected to intimidating, hostile, or humiliating work environments where they experience many different forms of unwelcome sexual conduct. 

Though sexual harassment at work is a widespread and relatively well-known issue, many women are unable to report this behavior due to fear of social or professional retaliation, civil or criminal consequences or backlash, loss of immigration status, and fear of being disbelieved or blamed for their own experiences. Fear of experiencing gender-based violence in the workplace is yet another factor constraining women’s economic opportunities and contributing to gendered job segregation. In collaboration with the Ford Foundation, TechnoServe is leading a study to gain a clearer understanding of the relationship between gender based violence (GBV) and women’s economic empowerment in Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal and provide recommendations to create safer working conditions for women entrepreneurs and workers. 

Learn more about how TechnoServe is helping hardworking women around the world to overcome these barriers and improve their lives.