Economic Opportunity Overview

Last Updated Mar 1, 2024

This guide is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of economic opportunity for women and girls and outlines opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes. See the entire seriesBy Kelly Macías, Ph.D.

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Economic Opportunity Overview

Economic opportunity is essential to achieving gender equality. According to The Economist, “women are the world’s most underutilized resource.” Women make up almost half of the world’s working age population.

By developing women's economic potential and increasing their representation in the labor market, we can add up to $12 trillion to global economic growth by 2025.

Women’s economic empowerment can also lead to the eradication of poverty and better health outcomes for women, children, and families. Because of the wage gap between women and men, countries lose a staggering $160 trillion in wealth.

Why Donors Should Care About Economic Opportunity for Women and Girls

There are several issues that impact economic stability and prosperity for women. Access to family planning and contraception, safe and legal abortions, and reproductive health care and education would serve to keep women healthy, empower them economically, and allow them to decide if and when to have children. For women with children, paid parental leave, and access to affordable quality early childhood education means that they can stay in the workforce instead of being forced to choose between earning wages and staying at home to care for their children. Since 2000, the share of women in the U.S. workforce ages 24-54 has declined because wages for jobs requiring a high school degree or less have stagnated, childcare subsidies for low-income parents are increasingly difficult to obtain while the cost of childcare has increased, and job losses in industries dominated by women such as restaurant, retail, and healthcare have risen -- particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. By investing in women’s economic development, donors can impact issues that influence women’s economic opportunity like health, education, gender-based violence, and poverty. There are strong, positive links between economic empowerment for women and health outcomes, including greater nutrition and decreased maternal and child mortality rates.

Girls who finish school are more likely to turn into women who earn a living wage, who are better able to provide for their families, are less likely to experience violence and have the power to make decisions.

However, it is not enough to simply help women get jobs. Donors can play a role in funding organizations and movements on the ground which expand women’s access to technology, increase women’s political agency, and support women entrepreneurs in accessing capital and providing them with technical assistance.

Who Is Affected?

More than 75% of transgender adults have experienced some form of workplace discrimination. One in four has lost at least one job due to bias. Transgender people in the U.S. are more likely to live in extreme poverty (making less than $10,000 a year) and the outcomes are worse for transgender people of color.

Transgender People in Poverty

Since the pandemic, as many as two million women in the U.S., particularly mothers of young children, have considered leaving the workforce or stepping back from their careers due to increased caregiving and housework responsibilities.

Indigenous women are paid approximately 60 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

In early 2019, women comprised half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S. and outnumbered men in earning degrees. Yet, they still earn less. On average, a man with a bachelor’s degree earns $26,000 more per year than a woman with the same credentials.

Across all gender and racial/ethnic groups, Black women earned the majority of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in 2015-2016.

Associate's and Bachelor Degrees By Race/Ethnicity and Sex

Associate's and Bachelor Degrees By Race:Ethnicity and Sex

This comes at a cost. Earning these degrees means that Black women have approximately 22% more student loan debt than white women while earning less money. Black women make approximately 63 cents for every dollar that a white, non-Hispanic man makes.

Women and LGBTQ individuals carry more student loan debt than anyone else. Fifty-eight percent of all student loan debt belongs to women, totaling almost $929 billion. Even after 12 years of repayment, Black women owe, on average, 13% more than they borrowed. Student loan borrowers who identify as LGBTQ owe an average of $16,000 more than those who do not.

Women's Student Loan Debt By Race/Ethnicity

Women's Student Loan Debt By Race:Ethnicity

Worldwide, 132 million girls are out of school and it is estimated that another 20 million could be out of school after the pandemic passes. Millions of educated girls who turn into working women could add up to $12 trillion to global economic growth.

Of the estimated 42 million sex workers worldwide, 75% are women. Poverty, gender inequality, lack of education, job and economic opportunities are some, but not all, of the reasons why people go into sex work. Decriminalizing sex work would allow sex workers to have better access to services and economic opportunities and help protect communities that are disproportionately impacted by criminalization.

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Lack of Equal Pay

The Equal Pay Act has been law in the United States since 1963, but wage inequality between men and women continues to this day. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that there aren’t nearly enough women in politics to advocate for policies that benefit women and girls. The United States ranks 75th out of 193 countries in terms of women’s representation in government. Women make up only 24% of the U.S. Senate and 27% of the U.S. House of Representatives. The numbers for women of color are even lower, with women of color making up only 36% of the women serving in Congress. Fewer women at the local, state, and federal levels of government means women’s economic development is often not seen as a priority.

40% of Women are in one of eight occupations

In each of those occupations, women are generally paid less than men. Women also make up 58% of the workforce in low-paying jobs (which pay less than $11 an hour or $22,880 annually) and only 35% of workforce in high-paying jobs (which pay more than $48 an hour or $100,000 annually).

But whether they work in high or low-paying jobs, women continue to earn less than men and their work is devalued across the board. The average earnings for transgender women workers falls by nearly one-third after transition and women in female-dominated professions are lower paid. Unfortunately, educational attainment doesn’t do much to close the gap. Most women with advanced degrees earn less than what the average white man with a bachelor’s degree earns.

Advanced Degrees and Earnings

The gap between what women are paid compared to men amounts to a loss of an estimated $10,086 per year or a total of $403,440 over a 40-year career.

Inequitable Childcare and Early Childhood Education Systems

In many countries around the world, women do most of the domestic and childcare work — both paid and unpaid. In fact, women spend an average of three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and caring work than men. That unpaid caring work is estimated to be worth 16 billion hours every day, representing almost a tenth of the world’s economic output if it were paid at a fair wage.  If those women were to earn wages for their unpaid work, it could move millions of women and their families out of poverty. But even when women are paid for childcare work, they still struggle to make a living wage.

In the U.S., 92.4% of childcare workers are female and 97.3% of the Pre-K and kindergarten workforce are women. Poverty rates among early childcare workers are 7.7 times higher than K-8 teachers, with the average early childhood worker earning $11.65 an hour. Black women, Latinas, and immigrant women early childhood educators make even less, earning between $1.40-$3.77 less an hour than white women.

Early childhood education has been proven to yield lifelong benefits. Research shows that children who attend Head Start programs are more likely to graduate high school and pursue and complete a professional license or certificate, associate’s, and/or bachelor’s degree. Additionally, early education interventions are tied to improvements in long-term health outcomes because these programs often include meals, social services, immunizations, and health screenings. Access to quality early childhood education is particularly significant for children of color, who are more likely to experience poverty which can dramatically impact their success as adults.

Women are not the only ones unable to thrive because of the burden of low or unpaid childcare work. The more than 130 million girls worldwide who are unable to access basic levels of education often drop out of school because they are married as children and become pregnant as teenagers. More than 41,000 girls under the age of 18 marry every day and girls who do so are less likely to earn a living wage than those who finish secondary school.

Stigma and Criminalization of Sex Workers

Sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. They do this to take care of themselves and their families. Sex workers often face dangerous working conditions, and their work puts them at greater risk for sexual and reproductive health concerns, such as sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. Because of stigma and discrimination, many sex workers are unable to access health services. According to a recent study, nearly one-quarter of young sex workers say that they have been denied services because of their occupation. Sex workers also face gender-based violence, police violence, and fines which impact their ability to make a living. Transgender women are more likely to be arrested on sex work charges, even when they aren’t doing sex work and people of color are disproportionately arrested for sex-work related offenses compared to white people.

Sex Work Arrests (2015)

Sex Work Arrests (2015)

Criminalizing sex work increases the disproportionate risk of violence faced by sex workers while contributing to negative sexual and mental health outcomes. It also prevents sex workers from creating healthy and safe working environments.

Despite concerns about sex trafficking, sex work and trafficking do not necessarily go together. In New Zealand, five years after prostitution was legalized, there was no evidence of sex trafficking. In fact, sex workers have said that by legalizing prostitution, they are now able to report abuse and law enforcement is better positioned to arrest those who commit crimes against sex workers.

Sex work is illegal in many countries, yet sex workers contribute to the economy, even when they don’t get to reap the rewards. The International Labor Organization estimates that the sex industry in Thailand generated $6.4 billion in 2015, representing 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. In the U.S. cities of Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, DC, it is estimated that underground commercial sex economies ranged between $39.9 million and $290 million in 2007.

Sexism, Harassment and Discrimination

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 42% of working women say that they have experienced gender discrimination at work in contrast to only 22% of men. The most reported form of discrimination has to do with income, with one in four women stating that they have earned less than a man doing the same job. But there are many forms of discrimination that women experience in the workplace. For working mothers, taking time off can have a negative impact on their careers and long-term earning potential. A 2016 survey of workers showed that mothers tend to take more time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Twenty-five percent of women said that taking time off for parental leave had a negative impact at work. Mothers with children under the age of 18 are more likely than fathers to say they need to reduce their work hours or turn down a promotion because of the need to juggle family and work responsibilities. In fact, one in five mothers say they have been passed over for assignments or promotions at work and 27% say they have been treated as if they weren’t committed to their work.

Workplace harassment is also an issue for women and transgender people.

Reporting harassment comes at a great cost, with employees risking retaliation, termination, or advancement opportunities.

One study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace harassment experienced retaliation as a result of speaking up.

While formal complaints of harassment have declined over the last twenty years, there appears to be a distinct racial gap. Black women are 3.8 times more likely to report sexual harassment than white women. Researchers conclude this is because harassers intentionally target women they perceive as having less power, citing “The shift from sexual harassment of white women to African-American women indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces."

Get Involved

  • YWCA supports women’s empowerment and economic advancement, with a particular focus on the way race impacts women’s economic opportunities.
  • Path Forward empowers people to restart their careers after time spent focused on caregiving.
  • Miami Workers Center Inc. is a women-led organization building power and self-determination with Black and Brown women workers, tenants, and families in Miami.
  • Women with a Vision is a women-led grassroots community organization working to improve the health and lives of marginalized women in New Orleans through sex work decriminalization advocacy, HIV prevention and education, reproductive justice, and harm prevention.
  • Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC) seeks to shift the narrative of surviving to thriving. TWOCC is striving to build economic empowerment and global networks that elevate those in the community who have had their voices stolen, usurped, commodified, silenced and exploited by cis gaze, colonization, anti-Blackness, imperialism and transphobia.
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