Women's Work
Photo: USAID

Recognizing women’s work is a smart move towards economic sustainability

By Flora Mutahi

The writer is the Chairlady of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. She can be reached on info@kam.co.ke

An economic transformation for our continent is only possible through Women’s active and recognized participation. In theory, this statement is universally acknowledged, in practice efforts towards this lag, especially in the corporate and enterprise spaces.

Persistently, women’s labour and contribution continues to be under-valued for the outcome it brings, and is not accorded the same gravitas as men’s contribution. In most cases even the vocabularies applied to describe Women’s work, will either domesticate or undermine their participation in the economy.  Their work is presented ‘naturally’ as negligible or low-paying and therefore underserving of recognition.  Yet recognition principally empowers women to gain mobility and agency in the society.

Agency is the ability for women to acquire their own capacity to take charge of their income streams, to invest, own land and produce and take part in their civic duty in order to construct policies that are designed to change the economic future of their communities.  It is the boost that guarantees quality output, creation of economic opportunities and social advancement. Therefore undervaluing the work of women takes away this agency, which is a critical component to the advancement of our sustainable economic goals as a continent and as a country.

It is important to state that the call to recognize the economic value of women is not a call towards ‘women empowerment’ but rather, it is a wake-up call to embrace smart economics. The recognition of Women’s work has been attributed to the decline or advancement of economies all over the world.


In a 2013 study published by OECD titled Women In Africa, 70% of the agricultural work force and 90% of foodstuff production was done by Women. The report also stated that ‘African women produce 61.9% of economic goods’ a number exceeding the average produce output of the OECD at the time. However, most of this economic activity is classified as informal which results in under-representation of its contribution.

In many cases, data that seeks to capture women’s labour participation overlooks, the ‘informal sector’ and accounts only for the services industry, especially ICT and Telecoms. The outcome is consequently biased because these sectors, due to their nature, are inaccessible to majority of women.

AFDB’s ‘Recognizing Africa’s Informal Sector’ report states that nine in 10 rural and urban workers have informal jobs and most of them are women and youth. This demographic also constitutes 80 per cent of the labour force, which subsequently contributes to approximately 55% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP. What we are seeing here is a testament to the fact that the productivity of many women’s work in the continent finds nurturing grounds in the informal sector.

However, because this sector is already facing biases in terms of recognition as ‘prestigious’ and valued work, it is incapable of providing the social benefits and infrastructure found in the formal sector. These benefits are designed to protect workers by providing a safe and productive environment for them to operate in, thereby optimizing their labour for increased quality output. 

Meaning that, in many ways, the informal sector environment exacerbates the undermining of the value of women’s work. By so doing it does very little to lift majority of the women’s population out of poverty. Hence we are left with a situation in which the women in Africa are the hardest working and most productive, but also the most impoverished. 


The Economist has, in a past article, indicated that in the next decade nearly 1 billion women are likely to enter the global labour force. Going by this information, it is time to reconfigure our structures and resources to work favourably towards women because it is the only way that we can be sure of a stable future. The same piece while quoting a report by Booz & Company, gives a scenario of transformations to the GDP we are likely to see should we begin to value the work that women do.  For example, a 5% and 9% increase in GDP by 2020 to both America and Japan respectively. So imagine how much more developing countries whose numbers are voluminous in this regard stand to gain.

One way to do this, especially for Africa, is to make the formalization processes more accommodating and nurturing. As it is right now, many women prefer to remain in the informal sector despite its challenges because the alternative has been made inaccessible owing to issues such as expensive permits, multiple levies, and rigid tax regimes that favour big businesses. Therefore for most micro or small businesses trying to penetrate this seemingly ‘protected space’, it’s a long and painful process. It is discouraging and stifles the spirit of entrepreneurship.

More importantly as a society the perceptions of Women’s participation and contribution need to change. In a world where language is part of any society’s core, we must begin to alter the language used to define Women’s contribution. The newly adopted International Labour Organization definition of Decent Work as Opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity – is a good place to start to embrace the way in which we recognize women’s participation in building the economy.

A win for women is a win for everyone and more importantly, it is a guaranteed way to secure the future of our economies.