Published on The Trade Post

Women's Untapped Potential: Examining Gender Dynamics in Global Trade

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A woman inspects her broccoli crop in Honduras. Source: knows she is good at selecting ripe tomatoes, but she doesn’t know any women who own nurseries like the one where she works in Honduras. Susan does housekeeping for a hotel in Kenya, but there is little chance that she would ever lead a safari. Salma, at a call center in Egypt, can calm down angry customers, but she has never seen a female manager in her office.

Global value chains (GVCs) are essential to modern trade, and women’s labor is essential to many products and services that are traded across countries. But many limitations hold women back from participating more fully and equally to men in this important and growing global labor force, as we show in a collaborative project by the International Trade Department and the Gender Division at the World Bank. Though the names above are fictional, the situations are representative of what we found in case studies in the horticulture sector in Honduras, the tourism sector in Kenya and the call center sector in the Arab Republic of Egypt.

The case studies show that GVCs have important gender dimensions and that integration and upgrading in GVCs are influenced by, and have an influence on, gender relations. Across these countries, we saw patterns of segregation in job assignments, a lack of access to economic opportunities for women, gender-intensified constraints, and constraints related to women’s primary responsibility for reproductive work. We use these case studies to provide general suggestions for interventions that could improve women’s possibilities in the workforce and in GVCs. In turn, these suggestions could help sectors and economies to grow and increase their competitiveness.

GVCs account for an increasing share of global trade, GDP and employment. No longer are products simply made in one country and shipped to another for sale. Indeed, products often go through many stages, traversing several borders and adding components and value before they reach their final markets. These GVCs connect many people to the global economy. They often provide opportunities for workers and entrepreneurs in developing countries to increase wages, sales and exports, learn new skills, and gain exposure to successful business practices. But they are also often based on low-skilled and low-waged workers and producers with problematic working conditions. Women can bear a greater share of the burden of these unfavorable conditions because of the gender perspectives and practices of both lead firms that govern GVCs and the countries where workers and producers are located. Furthermore, as women account for a large portion of the workforce in many GVCs, failing to engage and empower female workers, producers and entrepreneurs can undermine countries’ ability to be competitive on the world market. Ignoring women's potential also has important implications for a country’s ability to “upgrade,” or move from lower- to higher-value activities, a transition that allows workers, producers and countries to take better advantage of the benefits of global trade.

Horticulture, in general, is a sector increasingly driven by international trade. The sector provides more employment than cereal crops and offers more opportunities to add value after harvest (packing, storage, processing and marketing). In Honduras, there is a clear division of labor along gender lines. Women generally do work that requires careful handling and attention to detail: nursery work, transplanting, quality control, washing, grading and packing. Men do work that involves operating machinery, such as transportation and logistics, and hold management roles. In addition, despite a low number of men in smallholder production, women still face challenges that inhibit them from participating as entrepreneurs. They have less access to land – in the 1960s, they made up just 3 percent of the beneficiaries of land reform– and have a harder time getting loans from financial institutions. Female entrepreneurs also have less access to education and training, although this is changing with the intervention of foreign assistance organizations.

Around the world, tourism is thought of as a “pro-poor” industry because of the low barriers to entry for low-income people and communities. It includes employment opportunities in businesses such as travel agencies, tour operations, transportation companies and hotels. A typical path for workers and business owners to advance in the tour-operator segment of the tourism industry is to move through the following positions: guide, local arranger, national tour operator, regional tour operator. Someone in the hotel business could move to a larger or more luxurious hotel. In Kenya, tour operations are almost exclusively safaris, and the biggest tour operators are almost all owned and managed by men. Within the sector, women generally have office-based positions such as ticketing agents, client representatives or office receptionists. They are not often safari drivers or guides, the most fundamental position in the industry. When women do try to make a career in the safari business, they face resistance from family members, harassment from male colleagues and camp accommodations not set up to separate staff members by gender.

Call centers are an attractive industry because they offer relatively high wages and formal employment for skilled men and women. But women’s participation in the industry is generally limited to frontline agent positions, which make up the majority of the workforce. Women face fewer promotion opportunities in part because of long, inflexible shifts, the stigma associated with women working at night, a lack of gender-sensitive benefits, such as childcare facilities and maternity leave, and limited access to training. In Egypt, which has the largest call center industry in the Middle East and North Africa, women’s advancement – and hence the whole industries’ competitiveness and upgrading trajectory – is curtailed by these social and cultural constraints.

Policy interventions can help improve women’s role and possibilities in the workplace and in GVCs in the three sectors. These interventions are also important to supporting overall country competitiveness and upgrading in these sectors. First, access to key resources must be improved, including: access to training that accommodates women’s responsibilities for reproductive work; access to information and business networks commonly dominated by men; support of women’s groups and associations; and access to credit to initiate upgrading processes. Second, the gender division of reproductive work and the burden of women’s reproductive responsibilities must be addressed through policies such as improved infrastructure (i.e. access to water, electricity, transport) and regulations and services that facilitate combining paid and unpaid work (i.e. childcare, healthcare provisions, maternity and paternity leave). Given the power of lead firms that govern GVCs, they can have an important role in driving change by developing gender-sensitive policies and encouraging and supporting their suppliers to implement and enforce similar policies.


Penny Bamber

Affiliate, Duke Global Value Chains Center

Julia Oliver

Communications Officer

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