By Max Lawson

Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host

Recent decades have seen millions of women participating in formal employment for the first time, which can often be an empowering and liberating experience. Yet all too often it seems to me that their involvement in the economy is predicated on exploitation. Worldwide, women’s participation in the workforce is primarily through the informal sector, in poorly paid, precarious employment, which comes on top of many hours of unpaid care.  In this way I think inequality between women and men is exploited to drive an economic model that prioritizes generating wealth for those at the top, who are predominantly men.

It is certainly the case that when it comes to gender and political and economic leadership, the world still has a long way to go. Across the 149 countries assessed for the 2018 World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap’ report.[1] There are just 17 countries that currently have women as heads of state, while, on average, just 18% of ministers and 24% of parliamentarians globally are women. Similarly, women hold just 34% of managerial positions across the countries where data is available.  Across the world, women are held back from participating in politics and the economy and are disproportionately represented as the bottom of the income distribution.

Gender inequality in our economies is not an accident nor is it new: our economies have been built by and on behalf of rich and powerful men.  Capitalism doesn’t just ignore these barriers or remain blind to gender inequality.  Instead the economy makes use of and exploits traditional sexist beliefs and values that disempower women[2]. Over the last forty years, the dominant neoliberal economic model has in turn supercharged this exploitation- cuts to public services like health and education, cuts to taxes for the richest and increased taxation of the poor, the race to the bottom on wages and labour rights; all have hurt women more than men[3].

Countries with large export-orientated sectors particularly benefit from a large low-skilled and voiceless labour force. Many of these jobs are reserved for women based on their ‘competitive disadvantage’. They are working for poverty wages and with few rights in export processing zones or special economic zones, who provide the cheap labour the global market needs.[4]

It’s no accident that women are 95 percent of Cambodia’s special economic zone workers. The Asian Development Bank, which promotes special economic zones in the region, made explicit the logic of hiring women in a 2015 report: ‘It is said that females possess the nimble fingers and patience with routine tasks required by the labor-intensive processes generally occurring in the zones and that they are also less likely than males to strike or disrupt production in other ways.’ [5]

A review[6] of 183 studies on exhaustion concluded that women are more likely to feel exhausted than men and their rates of burnout are 80 per 1,000 higher. Women workers all over the world often suffer serious injury, risks to their health and sexual violence in the workplace. 35% of women – 818 million women globally – over the age of 15 have experienced sexual or physical violence at home, in their communities or in the workplace[7].

Oxfam’s research has shown this clearly. Hotel workers interviewed in the Dominican Republic, Canada and Thailand reported regular instances of sexual harassment and assault by male guests.[8] Hotel workers also reported ill health due to regular use of chemicals. In Bangladesh, many young women were found to suffer from repeated urinary tract infections because of not being allowed to go the toilet. Similarly, a study by Oxfam of poultry workers in the United States found that they were wearing diapers as they were not permitted to go to the toilet[9].

Gender inequality also intersects with other inequalities, particularly race. Our economy of wealth extraction is as based on racism as it is sexism.[10] These inequalities are together put at the service of the economic system, as women of colour are consistently found at the bottom of the economic pile, cleaning the houses and offices of the rich and powerful for example[11].

Because economies can exploit, rather than challenge these traditional sexist beliefs and values, gender inequality intersects with economic inequality, resulting in women being disproportionately represented at the lower end of the economic distribution, and men being disproportionately represented at the top. Many recent studies, particularly by the IMF[12] and by McKinsey[13] have shown the huge potential value to the global economy of more participation of women.  Countries like Italy and Japan, with low labour market participation by women, are encouraged to address this to boost their flagging economies. In this way, arguably at times feminism has been used by elites to defend the current economic model rather than challenge it, focusing instead on the personal and the cultural.[14]  But the trouble is without challenging these economic power imbalances, the main beneficiaries of this big boost to economic growth will not be women workers themselves, but instead will be those at the very top of the economy.  What seems clear to many is that it is not enough to integrate women into existing economic structures, to celebrate the greater participation of women in a system that thrives on their exploitation. The full, free and fair participation of women in the economy will require instead a new, fairer, feminist economic model.

Economic inequality and unpaid care

One core way in which gender inequality supports growing economic inequality is the huge subsidy of $10 trillion dollars of free labour that boosts our extractive and exclusive global economy.  This is the pressing issue of unpaid care work, which in every society is done predominantly by women as research by Oxfam and others has shown.[15]

At the top, a small number of predominantly white men can sit back and watch their fortunes rise as their money works for them. Billionaire fortunes have grown on average 11% per year over the last decade.  Meanwhile, at the bottom, hundreds of millions of unrecognised and unvalued hours of care work are done each day by women, for no payment at all.  Many millions more work long hours in appalling conditions cleaning the houses of others, washing their clothes, cooking their food and looking after their children. Often, they are subject to abuse, violence and sexual harassment. And they must return home each night to hours more of unpaid care work.



[3] Get references from ‘Economy for the 99%’/

[4] Economy for 99%

[5] Economy for 99%


[7] Economy for the 99%, update and check.

[8] Oxfam, Reward Work, Not Wealth- Davos report January 2018

[9] Oxfam America (2015), Lives on the line: The human cost of cheap chicken

[10] and Akala (2018)  Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire Two Roads Publishing