Changes in the gendered patterns of work in the context of the international economy have been an area of research for feminist economists since the late 1970s. They have explored the relationship between patterns of integration in the world economy through international trade and international investment, and changes in patterns of paid and unpaid work in the general context of market liberalization policies. Also showing interest in this topic, neoclassical economists have recently argued that trade liberalization, as well as labour market deregulation, have been beneficial to women, especially in the global South. In their view, women have benefited either through employment gains or reductions in gender-based wage gaps. However, feminist economists (as well as a variety of institutionalist and other types of heterodox economists) either offer more complex empirical findings than those of neo-classical economists, or differ from neo-classical economists in the interpretation of the same findings.
On the basis of mainstream economic theory, it is often argued that women stand to gain more than men from both trade liberalization and labour market deregulation. This claim is derived from a simple supply and demand analysis, in which trade unions are assumed to keep wages above the market clearing level. Because trade unions are also portrayed as bastions of male privilege and labour aristocracy, women presumably improve their chances of employment when labour markets are freed of distortions created by unions.
The strategy of labour market deregulation is therefore expected to be beneficial to women.34 There are a number of problems with these arguments, as pointed out by institutionalist and feminist economists Mainstream trade theory would also lead to the expectation that women stand to gain more than men from trade liberalization. This can be deduced from the distributive theorems of the Heckscher-Ohlin-Samuelson (H-O-S) theory of international trade which, despite its unrealistic assumptions and problems with empirical verification, is still the basis of much policy-making on issues of trade. These theorems analyse the distributive impact within each nation of moving from a state of autarky to “free trade” for the owners of different
“factors of production”, such as labour and capital, or more recently skilled versus unskilled labour.36 If the two factors of production are unskilled and skilled labour and the comparative advantage of the developing countries lies in goods that make intensive use of unskilled labour, the wage differentials between the two types of labour should close with trade liberalization. In developing countries, because women workers generally comprise a disproportionately larger segment of the “less skilled” workers, opening up to trade would also have the effect of closing gender-based wage gaps. The opposite would be expected to happen in industrialized countries, where the wage differences between skilled and unskilled workers would increase.
Again, to the extent that women comprise a disproportionately larger part of unskilled workers in developed countries as well, this would in this instance have the effect of widening the gender-based wage gap. Yet another argument has been made on the basis of the mainstream theory to support the claim that trade liberalization would have the effect of closing gender-based wage gaps. According to this view, most commonly associated with Gary Becker’s theory of discrimination (1971), gender gaps in relation to wages, just like any other wage gap that might be caused by any other form of discrimination, can only persist if there is too little competition. Becker’s theory of discrimination posits that employers have a “taste for discrimination” and that firms in less competitive industries are able to pay for their discriminatory behaviour. As trade would result in increased competition, it would also erode the ability of firms to pay for discrimination and thus lead to a reduction in gender-based wage gaps. According to this argument, which appears to have become popular recently, the distinctions between developing/developed countries and between skilled/unskilled workers do not matter. Whatever the context, it is argued that increased exposure to trade would have the effect of decreasing gender-based wage gaps.
Feminist economists start from different methodological premises and ask a broader range of questions. They explore the role that gender inequalities play in international competitiveness, as well as the manner in which international competition reshapes and reconstitutes gender inequalities. For example, as discussed below, they have argued that there is a two-way relationship between gender inequalities and trade performance. Feminist economists place emphasis on the complex, sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory relationship between different types of inequalities (based on gender and class, as well as inequalities across countries). This is because they are concerned, not only with gender relations and inequalities, but also with the role of other types of social relations (which are also power relations) in the determination of economic outcomes and patterns of accumulation, and vice versa.
Feminist economists have emphasized the fact that labour markets are highly segmented, although these patterns may change over time. They have argued that outcomes of trade policies are mediated by labour market institutions, which include labour laws, social norms and trade unions, as well as the behaviour of employers, but in ways that are different from the neo-classical arguments.
Feminist economists redefine the sphere of economic analysis to include unpaid domestic and community labour so as to understand the relationship between production and reproduction, and the role that trade and investment plays in that interaction. All these different methodological starting points have led not only to different questions, but also to complex findings with regard to gendered patterns of work in the context of globalization. In particular, from a feminist point of view, while the effects of international trade and investment policies have been different on women and men, they have also been differentiated across different classes of women (and men), as well as women (and men) in different types of economies.
Within the last two decades, women’s participation in paid employment in developing countries has risen significantly around the globe. While other causes were also at play, the importance of integration into the world economy through trade appears to have been paramount, with quite similar gender effects being observed across diverse regions and groups of countries, especially in the developing world. Starting with Elson and Pearson (1981), an increasing number of authors have emphasized that female workers have become the preferred labour supply in the export-oriented production of cheap manufactured goods in such sectors as textiles, apparel, electronics, leather products and food processing in one developing country after another. By now, the association between export-oriented manufacturing and women’s increased share in paid employment is well established, supporting the view that the feminization of paid employment in the developing world is mainly caused by the shift to export orientation (see, among others: Joekes, 1987, 1995 and 1999; Standing, 1989 and 1999; Wood, 1991; Joekes and Weston, 1994; Çağatay and Ozler, 1995; Çağatay, 1996 and 2001; Fontana et al., 1998; Ozler, 2000 and 2001; United Nations, 1999). Similarly, within the last two decades there has been an increased informalization of labour use, especially in Latin America and Africa (van der Hoeven, 2000), and a trend towards the more flexible use of labour (Standing, 1989, 1999 and 2000), with profound implications for gendered patterns of paid work.
The following are some of the other empirical trends with gender asymmetric effects that have emerged:
(a) Many of the trade-related gains in employment for women have occurred in export processing zones (EPZs), subcontracting chains producing for multinational corporations and in informal work. In all of these, women’s employment is characterized by long hours, job insecurity and unhealthy working conditions, as well as low pay.37 However, women’s wages and working conditions in export-oriented production, particularly in multinationals or their subcontractors can be better than the alternatives (Lim, 1990) and these jobs may even be coveted by women (Kabeer, 2000), indicating just how harsh conditions are for them in alternative forms of work in general (Sen, G., 1999).38
(b) In most industrialized economies, the general trend has been a decrease in the female share of employment in the manufacturing sector. In many sectors with large concentrations of women, such as textiles, apparel and leather goods, increased trade has led to a disproportionate loss of female employment (Kucera and Milberg, 2000). Unsurprisingly, the trend towards the feminization of paid employment seems to have been weaker in predominantly agriculture-based economies, where trade liberalization may in fact have jeopardized women’s livelihoods and well-being. For instance, in many sub-Saharan African countries, trade liberalization has often had the effect of stimulating the production of cash crops, while at the same time increasing import competition for producers of food crops. Women have generally been adversely affected, since they are usually small farmers predominantly engaged in the production of food crops, with little control over cash crops, even though they comprise the backbone of agricultural production (Gladwin, 1991; Fontana et al., 1998). In general, women are slow to take advantage of new opportunities that emerge because of their relative disadvantages in gaining access, for example, to credit, new technologies and marketing networks. Fontana et. al. (1998) point out that the impact of these changes is likely to be more severe for women-headed households and poor women. Moreover, in cases in which unpaid family work is the prevalent norm, the livelihoods of poor women tend to be adversely affected by the corrosive effect of market liberalization on the environment and common property resources. In economies where self-employment or unpaid family work is more prevalent, genderbased differences in resource control have more adverse consequences for women than they do in semi-industrialized economies in which there are more opportunities for wage labour. In the latter, gender inequality in pay may make women the preferred workers, leading to the feminization of employment. In the former, the impact of trade liberalization is mediated more forcefully by what happens to common property resources and gender differentiation in private property rights within poorer and rural households. If trade liberalization in practice leads to environmental degradation and the erosion of common property resources, then there are adverse impacts, especially on the livelihoods of poor women (Joekes, 1999).
(c) Whatever its benefits, the feminization of the labour force may prove to be temporary and to be reversed as production moves up the skill ladder in the later stages of export promotion (Joekes, 1995 and 1999; Ghosh, 2001; Fussel, 2000).
(d) The increase in paid employment might end up raising the overall work burden of women if there is no corresponding reduction in their unpaid household labour. Even though studies are scarce, there is some evidence pointing in this direction (Fontana and Wood, 2000).
(e) Market liberalization can cause a polarization among women as it creates “winners” and “losers”, even where female labour force participation and employment rises in the aggregate and compared to that of men. For instance, in India, just as skilled workers were making significant gains, employment losses mounted in the informal sector (Winters, 1999). Even though gender-specific evidence is scarce, if those losing employment as a result of import competition are concentrated in informal work, among small farmers, in small firms and among low-skilled workers, poor women are likely to suffer disproportionately, while more advantaged or skilled women make inroads into paid work (Çağatay, 2001).
(f) The feminization of the labour force and employment may be accompanied by the persistence of the poorer conditions of work and lower pay that characterize female employment. Indeed, improvements in job security, health and occupational safety and pay might be sluggish or non-existent. There might even be deterioration on account of intensified international competition, despite the evidence that trade liberalization has been beneficial to women, especially in the semi-industrialized countries where the female share of paid employment has increased markedly.
(g) The world trading regime, which remains biased against the economies of the global South in general (UNDP, 2003) (for example in agriculture, textiles through the Multifibre Agreement (MFA), tariff escalation and tariff peaks), is also biased against the expansion of women’s employment and livelihoods in the South. Agricultural subsidies in the North make it especially difficult for women farmers (who are generally small farmers) to remain competitive. The MFA has limited the expansion of manufacturing exports from the South to the North in feminized sectors, such as apparel and textiles. The phasing out of the MFA is likely to have adverse effects for women in the North and it might not be clear which women in the South it will benefit. But, overall, the MFA has had the effect of limiting the expansion of women’s employment in the South.