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The future of work and gender equality in developing countries

The future of work and gender equality in developing countriesThe changing landscape of work has potential to deepen existing inequalities. Influenced by artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, digitization, and the internet of things as part of the ‘fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the future of work is accompanied by massive jobs losses in the process of creating new jobs. Based on the fight for greater social justice and inclusion, gender equality is an important component in observing how vulnerable groups in society may be affected in this transition. While the initial impact of the transition ostensibly excludes the poor, lower-skilled and uneducated workers, women specifically are at a greater disadvantage. The following commentary piece focuses on gender equality with a particular focus on women and the future of work.

Gender is an essential part of our cultures and societies, it has shaped and been a pivotal factor in allocating power, privileges and opportunities. The inequality in gender is multifaceted, it is one of the most prevalent forms of inequality and discrimination against women and affects most cultures and societies worldwide. Its issues cut across race, politics, religion, social class and education amongst other variables. In pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the full participation of women is imperative for both advanced economies and developing economies. A large number of uneducated and low-skilled women in low and non-paying jobs is concentrated in developing countries, thus demanding an urgent response from governments and all stakeholders to act. The loss of trust in democratic institutions of many African governments leaves much concern on whether effective and timely implementation of policy will be a reality.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 11% of female jobs over the next twenty years will be automated as compared to the 9% of male jobs. Valerie Cliff of the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific also outlined that in Asia for instance, factory ‘sewbots’ in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia amongst others will replace human labour and women form a substantial percentage of the total 9 million individuals who depend on such jobs.

For instance, Bangladesh has consistently experienced an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) average growth rate of 7% during the past four years, achieved its MDG targets by bringing half of its population out of extreme poverty, reduced infant mortality, and made significant improvements with regards to gender equality and access to education. It is on the basis of these achievements that Bangladesh in the authors view serves as a model that can be emulated by other developing countries. In its efforts towards gender equality and adapting to the changing nature of work, the Bangladeshi government together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated a youth ‘digital economy’ entrepreneurship programme which has over five thousand high speed internet “digital centres that provide public services to remote communities”. They have delivered over 237 million services (life insurance policies, birth registrations and telemedicine services) and are run by a female in partnership with a male to guarantee equal opportunities and leadership.

In the context of Africa and more specifically South Africa, there has been slow progress in the fight against poverty and inequality remains an enormous setback. Crippled by the lack of employment opportunities, obsolete human labour and women being most affected. Furthermore, those with some form of employment are still in poverty due to low remuneration rates.  According to the 2017 Africa Sustainable Development report on Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063, one in every three employed individuals in 2015 lived in extreme poverty. Although gender disparities in acquiring basic education has improved, limited education has been an impediment for women in seeking better employment in formal and informal sectors. Traditional and cultural stereotypes and norms, although not as prevalent today, do still contribute to gender inequality by prohibiting females to fully participate in education or economic activities due to domestic responsibilities. Secretariat, call centre, receptionist, bank telling amongst other jobs are increasingly being digitized and replaced with computers and robots thus affecting the progress in empowering women.

Gig economies, digitization or other forms of work to be created will benefit the ‘tech-savvy’ and educated, hence policies and programmes to bridge the gap for the less educated, especially in the area of science and technology, mathematics and engineering for women are necessary. Programmes such as STEMbees in Ghana -a women led initiative- aimed at empowering young women in these areas are commendable initiatives that can be emulated elsewhere. Effective, responsive and timely policies that will endow women with mandatory skills, increased investment in education -e.g. long distance and e-learning facilities to ensure inclusive access to opportunities even for women and individuals in remote areas- could mend the digital divide and better position women to develop and harness their capabilities.


Ms. Makhethe Makamase is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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