Why Women Work



“Because I get money that I can decide how to spend.”

A young school teacher in Chitwan District in Nepal was chatting to me about some of the reasons she’s participating in UNDP-supported trainings for micro-entrepreneurs.

She said she was making a profit, but she didn’t have anything particular in mind to buy with that money. She’d invest her profits in expanding her business, she said. For her, the fact that she didn’t have to consult anyone how to spend the money she earned was a good enough reason to continue this initiative.

Work isn’t just about earning money. Work is about gaining self-confidence, gaining respect and recognition, and having a role in public life.

That sense of empowerment a woman can experience from having her ‘own money’ resonated with me. I’ve heard it from so many women, including my own mother.

My mother started working again after she gave birth to two children, because she wanted to be able to make and act on her own choices. She did not see why she should have to consult her husband every time she needed money.

Regardless of how a family handles its finances, in the modern world, not having one’s own income makes you powerless. It makes you ‘subordinate’. A woman may be part of a family with a sizable and steady income, but if she has no independent control over the use of that income, she is not empowered by it.

My neighbour in Colombo back in 2007, a young woman married to a man with a well-paid job, was unable to purchase a basket that cost $10, without first obtaining her husband’s approval.

However, that is not the only reason for women to earn money. The father of my friend once fell seriously ill, and he had to take time off from work for two years. The family was only able to cope with the loss of his income, because his wife was a qualified nurse who had a job at a local hospital. If the wife was unable to earn, then the entire family would have faced a much worse fate. Thanks to the income brought home by her mother, my friend managed to complete her schooling.

Work isn’t just about earning money. Work is about gaining self-confidence, gaining respect and recognition, and having a role in public life. But there is invisible work, unpaid work, work that exploits, demeans, and discriminates. And this work is largely done by women around the world.

There are innumerable studies suggesting that as women enter the work force in greater numbers, the more economic growth for countries. However, as reconfirmed in UNDP’s 2015 Human Development Report, women are mostly engaged in the unpaid work (see graph below). And in the paid work, women are often disadvantaged.

Three out of every four hours of unpaid work globally, is done by women. Unpaid work, and in particular unpaid care work, is an immense barrier to women’s full and equal participation in the work force.

Women have been entering the work force for decades, but men have only begun to discover ways to enter the world of unpaid work.

The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human capital, including the skills and productivity.

Gender equality and GDP per capita are strongly correlated. It is a fact that the more equality there is among the sexes in a society, the more likely it is that the society is also prosperous, educated and healthy.

According to the 2015 Asian Development Bank Report, women’s participation in the labour force across Asia and the Pacific was a high 53% (in 2014) with significant variations across countries. In Afghanistan, the female-to-male labour force participation ratio is less than 20%, whereas in Lao PDR, the ratio is over 90%, and in Japan, the ratio is just over 60%.

The 2015 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum shares an estimation that Asia and the Pacific loses US$42 billion to US$47 billion annually as a region because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities.

The positive impact of women accessing ‘Decent Work’ is observed across many fronts. In pursuing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), these estimated development gains through increased women’s labour force participation cannot be disregarded. We need to keep stepping up our efforts.

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Editing: Mahtab Haider / Copyright UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

Goal 5 Gender equality blog series Women's empowerment

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