Women as “underutilized assets”

Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 12:01

A critical review of IMF advice on female labour force participation and fiscal consolidation

By virtually every global measure, women are disadvantaged relative to men. Access to decent work is no exception. Women are overrepresented in the least paid, most insecure and vulnerable jobs, and have less opportunity and access to resources to start and develop their own businesses than men.

Deeply-embedded patriarchal norms mean that women have a dual role in the economy: productive and reproductive. This reality – and the failure of governments, businesses and institutions to recognise and address it – mean that women’s unpaid labour is too often exploited or unrecognised, even as it provides a massive subsidy to states and economies.

This double burden on women has negative health and well-being impacts. This also gives rise to the phenomenon of time poverty and impacts on the type of paid work women can engage in. When paid and unpaid work hours are counted, women work longer days than men in nearly all countries. Analysis and advice on getting more women into the workforce needs to address these structural injustices.

Recent IMF surveillance reports contain country-specific advice on increasing women's participation in the labour force. In these, the economic argument for enabling more women to join the workforce is strongly made, though no clear recognition of women’s current levels of unpaid care and domestic work is present in many of the reports. The view of women as currently "underutilised" is both implicitly and explicitly stated. This is a dangerous analytical starting point.

The most important and complementary role that the IMF can take in support for women’s rights and gender equality is likely to be supporting its member countries in identifying progressive ways to create the fiscal space needed for crucial reforms.

Some of the recent IMF surveillance reports recognises the need for investments in the care economy in the female labour force participation advice. However, a large majority of the countries that were advised to increase female labour force participation were also told to start, increase or not deviate from plans on fiscal consolidation, without addressing the gendered impacts of this advice.

Fiscal policy advice will impact on the realisation of gender equality and women’s economic and social rights, including and beyond their access to decent work. More fundamentally, if the IMF wants to address gender inequality, it needs to first examine the impact of previous and current IMF policies on women’s productive and reproductive work.

Mainstream macroeconomic policy has greater gendered impacts than any separate advice can compensate for. In line with work by Global Unions and the Bretton Woods Project, ActionAid calls on the IMF to ensure that every aspect of its country surveillance, alongside its lending and technical assistance, contributes to the reduction of gender inequality and the realisation of human rights.

Read our report: Women as “underutilized assets”, A critical review of IMF advice on female labour force participation and fiscal consolidation