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Why do women earn less than men?

What barriers exist to women’s economic empowerment, and how can these be overcome?

Written by Mari Williams 2017 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Since hydropower arrived in her village, Shanti has been able to expand her tailoring business by working after dark. She can also use an electric sewing machine and an electric iron.
A woman selling eels and other fish in Hsipaw, Myanmar. Photo: Andrew Philip

From: Entrepreneurship – Footsteps 103

Practical advice on how to run a successful business

Across the world, women face many 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 inter-related and often 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 enrol in and complete secondary school in many countries. Lack of access to financial assets, such as loans and savings, and physical assets, such as land and property, are also major barriers. 

Beneath many of these barriers are harmful social and gender norms, which are rules of behaviour 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. 

Household tasks are often viewed as women's responsibility. Illustration: Petra Röhr-Rouendaal, Where there is no artist (second edition)

Household tasks are often viewed as women's responsibility.

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 programmes, 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 (see page 21
  • advocating to change laws, policies and practices that limit women's opportunities 
  • helping girls enrol 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. 

Tearfund’s resource Reveal includes many tools on the issues addressed in this article ( 

Will my livelihoods programme work for women? 

Here are some example questions to consider: 

  • How will you consult women and men in the design of the programme? For example, will you conduct separate women’s and men’s focus group discussions? 
  • Would some activities for women be more successful if supported by female programme staff? 
  • Are women able to attend any training etc? Will transport or child care need to be provided? 
  • What are women’s and men’s levels of literacy, and how can you adapt your materials accordingly? 
  • What effect will the project have on women and men in the short and longer term (socially, economically and politically)? How can you reduce any negative effects?

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Written by

Written by  Mari Williams

Mari Williams is a researcher and writer working with Tearfund’s Technical Team. Email: [email protected]

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