Helping women in developing countries transition from jobs to careers

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Traditional Sri Lankan handloom and batik product manufacturing workshop in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: SamanWeeratunga / Traditional Sri Lankan handloom and batik product manufacturing workshop in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: SamanWeeratunga /

Throughout the 20th century, women’s employment, education, and family were transformed by what economist Claudia Goldin called a “quiet revolution.” Women began to gain a greater sense of self-worth from being able to contribute to family, the workplace, and society, and their incomes became more of a complement than a substitute to spousal income.

But women in developing countries remain far from experiencing such a shift, as around 60 percent of them are employed in the informal sector. Bringing more women into the formal labor force is critical for economic development.   Across the world, integrating female-intensive industries, such as apparel, into international trade has helped increase female labor force participation. But is an apparel-led export strategy sufficient to induce a broader shift from just jobs to a long-run view of the labor market experience and identity –careers–?

A new World Bank report answers this question by analyzing the promotion of women’s careers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam – countries where apparel is vital to exports. For them, the jobs-to-careers transition is dotted with barriers that hinder women’s pursuit of long-term participation in the labor force and better-paid occupations. 

From Jobs to Careers: Apparel Exports and Career Paths for Women in Developing Countries says that while countries should take advantage of the apparel industry to bring more women in the labor force, they also need policies to tackle the three key barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers (see figure).  

Pathway from job to careers

Three barriers to securing careers

Low demand for career-related occupations in the service sector. In lower middle-income countries, agricultural and entry-level manufacturing jobs –which require primary education levels or less– account for the largest share of workers (see table below). But in high-income countries, the driver is demand for services for the domestic market and services that add value to products produced in foreign markets and consumed globally. These occupations require upper secondary and tertiary education. Monetary returns from employment in the occupations available in lower-middle-income countries are perhaps not sufficient to draw women into the workforce, especially given the additional education required and the number of hours worked compared to wages received.

Employment characteristics across country income levels

Low education levels. This barrier also arises as a country moves up the development curve, and it applies to both women and men. It matters greatly because of its integral link with the requirements for each occupation, regardless of industry.  Our findings suggest that education levels in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Pakistan are insufficient to meet the needs of education-related career occupations, particularly for women.  But in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam, education levels for women are not only sufficient but also equal to or higher than education levels for men. Thus, the problem looks likely to be low demand for specific industries, and misalignment in education and workforce development.

Societal and cultural norms that inhibit or dissuade women working. In practice, these norms lead to unfavorable workplace practices, regulations, laws, and behaviors toward women. In most of our case countries, some laws –for example on hiring and mobility restrictions– limit the ability of women to undertake certain occupations, earn and move between occupations equally as men, or lack protections to limit discrimination in the workplace. Gender norms further limit women’s involvement in the labor force or diminish the workplace environment, deterring their stay. 

Possible ways to spur the “quiet revolution”

Apparel-exporting countries can take several actions to create an environment that supports female career development.  First, they can increase the participation of female production workers in export-oriented apparel manufacturing and related industries, especially by enhancing transport mobility and addressing safety concerns for women to go to work. They can also increase the number of women with upper secondary education in supervisory positions, as the less industry-specific skills such roles demand can enhance opportunities for job mobility across industries.

Second, in low- and middle-income countries, a lower education level than men is a primary reason why women represent a lower share of higher-skill positions in apparel factories . This applies to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Pakistan, where education levels are still quite low and where a very small share of the female workforce has at least the upper-secondary education that is typically necessary to meet the basic requirements for clerical and supervisory roles or for managerial and professional jobs. Expanding women’s access to education in these countries can help them transition into careers. In countries where women have higher level of education, such as Egypt or Sri Lanka, programs are needed that provide scholarships and stipends to young females to stay in school to pursue careers in the apparel industry. 

Third, most of our case countries do not have laws to guarantee equal pay or equal access to certain occupations. In fact, all except Cambodia either have laws that prohibit women from working in certain industries or lack anti-discrimination laws that protect women in the workplace. Governments should coordinate reforms that address family laws, workplace harassment, discrimination in hiring and wages, and even certain trade policies (such as those that can have gendered effects that benefit certain female-dominated industries like apparel).

With the help of such evidence-based policies, a “quiet revolution” to transform women’s employment in developing countries need not take as long as it did in the past.


This research was funded in part by the South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program, a trust fund financed by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Program for Asia Connectivity and Trade, a trust fund financed by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.


Stacey Frederick

Director and Research Scientist, Duke GVC Center

Gladys Lopez-Acevedo

Lead Economist and Program Lead, Poverty & Equity GP, World Bank

Raymond Robertson

Professor and holder of the Helen and Roy Ryu Chair in Economics and Government

Mexico Vergara

Consultant, Poverty Global Practice Group, World Bank

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