Gender inequality costs women in poor countries $9 trillion, ActionAid says

Gender inequality in work costs women in poor countries US$9 trillion each year – more than the combined GDPs of Britain, France and Germany – according to research released today by the international development agency ActionAid.

This huge inequality exists because women get paid less than men – known as the gender pay gap – and do not enjoy the same rates of employment – the gender employment gap.

As world leaders meet in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum and with public outrage growing at inequality in general, ActionAid’s report ‘Close the Gap!’ calls for exploitation of women’s work to take the spotlight. Closing the gaps could dramatically improve women’s lives and as well as help their wider communities, as women tend to spend increased income on food, health and education of their families.

There are two main causes of the huge inequality in the developing world:

  • Across the developing world, women do the most exploitative forms of work – jobs such as garment makers, roadside hawkers and domestic servants - for the lowest wages.
  • Women do not get the same employment opportunities as men, because they spend so much of their time caring for children, the sick and elderly, all work that is largely invisible and totally unpaid. According to the World Bank women spend up to 10 times more hours than men on unpaid care work. In poor countries women’s burden is increased by having to spend time on collecting fuel and water, and taking up the slack when governments cannot fund basic health and education services.

ActionAid Head of Policy, Lucia Fry, said: “Each year poor women’s work subsidises the global economy to the tune of $9 trillion. These women are at the bottom of the pile, trapped in low paid precarious forms of work while shouldering a heavy load of unpaid work caring for their families. 

“We are talking here about the woman in a Bangladeshi slum who queues for hours at a tap to collect water for her family, cooks meals on an open fire under a tarpaulin by a roadside, cleans her family home and then puts in a 12 hour shift in a garment factory, for poverty wages in terrible working conditions before returning home once again to care for her family.”

Women living in poverty have a vast mine of untapped potential which could improve their own lives and those of their families. The costs of economic inequality to women are not only monetary, but also affect their life choices, leaving them vulnerable to violence and other forms of discrimination and exploitation.

ActionAid is calling for concerted action from governments, businesses and international institutions to value women’s work in its entirety – from caring for families and communities, to toiling long hours on the factory floor.

Lucia Fry said: “This is a huge issue and not something we are going to be able to fix overnight, but there are steps we can take to make things better for millions of poor women around the world.

“We must stop piling up profits on poor women’s losses. We need governments and businesses to stick to globally agreed human and labour rights standards, get rid of discriminatory laws and practices, adopt family-friendly policies and promote women’s voices at all levels.”


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Editors' notes


  1. Download the full report here
  2. Methodology:

ActionAid has calculated the value in women’s wages of the gap between the earnings of women and men and the gap between their rates of participation in developing countries and globally. In other words we calculate the additional income women could earn if their wage and employment rates were brought in line with men’s.

In our analysis we use ILO data to show that women in developing countries are paid on average 14.9% less than men, while we draw on World Bank and UN population data  and find that 36.8% fewer women than men are employed in developing countries. Using this data, ActionAid is able to estimate that for developing countries, the value of closing these gaps is US$2 trillion for the wage gap, and US$6 trillion for the employment participation gap.

If both gaps were closed, however, the total would in fact be US$9 trillion – because more women would be in employment, at a higher rate of pay.

The analysis does not model the effect of such equalising on men’s wages and employment which would undoubtedly occur.