Why do women earn less than men?

Across the world, women face obstacles to getting involved in entrepreneurship and business. Women generally earn less than men, have less control of assets and have less decision-making power about money. Why is this? What barriers exist to women’s economic empowerment, and how can these be overcome?

There are many complex factors that help or hinder women’s economic empowerment. Access to education and training for both women and girls is a key area. Despite progress in recent years, girls are still less likely than boys to enroll in and complete secondary school in many countries. Lack of access to loans, savings, land, and property are also major barriers.

These women in Ethiopia spend hours each day traveling to the nearest water source.

Beneath many of these barriers are harmful social and gender norms, which are rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group or society. These determine what roles are seen as appropriate for women and men, girls and boys. Often, men are seen as the wage-earners, while women are responsible for household tasks, such as collecting water and fuel, cooking and cleaning. This means that women and girls have less time available to earn a living and to participate in projects and decision-making processes.  

There are also many structural factors – government policies, regulations and laws – that can support or prevent women’s economic empowerment.

What can be done?

Bringing about women’s economic empowerment requires change and action in every area – within individuals, households, communities, institutions, NGOs, the private sector and governments. No single change will be able to tackle everything. When supporting communities to develop livelihoods programs, it is therefore important to think through the whole range of barriers that may be limiting women’s engagement.

There are many positive steps that can be taken. Here are some examples:

  • tackling harmful social and gender norms through community training
  • reducing the burden of unpaid care work through developments such as improved cooking stoves and better access to clean water and sanitation
  • advocating to ensure that any paid work women engage in has an adequate minimum wage, secure contracts and safe working conditions
  • helping women access training in literacy and other skills promoting savings and loans groups and self-help groups.
  • advocating to change laws, policies and practices that limit women's opportunities
  • helping girls enroll in, and complete, school. This may include challenging social norms and tackling the lack of sanitation facilities that girls require to attend school during menstruation.

When women are not economically empowered, it is not only women who suffer – the whole community is affected. However, when women are economically empowered, the whole community benefits from happier and healthier families, improved relationships, increased productivity and reduced poverty.

Give today to help create more economic opportunities for women in the most vulnerable communities.

Mari Williams is a researcher and writer working with Tearfund’s Technical Team.


This post originally appeared in Footsteps 103.