Women’s Economic Empowerment

Our goal
To increase women’s economic opportunities by supporting efforts to help them generate and control their own incomes.
Achelisiba Mercy (25) sells tomatoes along the Bolgatanga to Burkina Faso road.
A woman worker sells tomatoes along the Bolgatanga to Burkina Faso road in Ghana. ©Gates Archive/Nana Kofi Acquah

At a glance

  • While important progress has been made in recent years toward greater gender equality, women still face significant obstacles to participating in the economy on equal terms with men.
  • Low-income women face disproportionate barriers—including lack of access to capital, digital tools, markets, and child care—that limit their ability to pursue a livelihood. This is exacerbated by skills gaps and social norms that inhibit women’s full participation in economic life.
  • Even as we explore ways to expand women’s opportunities, it is equally important to focus on building women’s resilience. If women are constantly worried about falling back into poverty, it can be difficult for them to seize opportunities.
  • Investing in women is good for families, communities, and economies and pays dividends in terms of inclusive economic growth and human capital.

The latest updates on women’s economic empowerment

Our strategy

We work to increase women’s economic opportunities and decision-making power. An extensive body of research shows that when women earn an income and control their earnings, their children are more likely to attend school, their families are healthier, their self-worth improves; and their household incomes grow—along with the global economy.

The Women’s Economic Empowerment team focuses on increasing women’s power and influence by removing barriers to work, enabling decent work, and supporting women’s enterprises in order to help women and girls thrive in the economy.

We look for ways to reach large numbers of low-income women. We see women’s empowerment collectives, data-informed public policy, digital connectivity, and private-sector value chains as avenues for advancing women’s economic inclusion. We also design inclusive solutions that meet the needs of women where they are. For example, economic opportunities may look very different for older rural women than for younger urban women.

Our strategy focuses on generating opportunities for at least 80 million low-income women in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that increase their incomes by more than 30% by 2030. Our strategy aims to:

  • Increase female labor force participation by attracting women into the workforce in places where female labor force participation is low
  • Increase women’s average income by helping them advance into higher-return occupations if they are already doing paid work
  • Help retain women within the workforce in circumstances where they might normally drop out, such as after marriage or the birth of a child

Areas of focus

To improve women’s livelihoods and decision-making power, we look for breakthrough opportunities and test innovations in five key areas:  

Most women in emerging markets are self-employed by necessity. Access to capital is crucial to their ability to sustain and grow enterprises. We’re working to improve their access to capital and financial services, including cash and asset transfers, credit, savings, and assets for growth and resilience.

This provides accurate information about women’s lives and experiences, is critical to designing and delivering products and services that work for women, whether they are provided by the government or the private sector.

Sex-disaggregated data makes women’s needs as well as gaps between men and women visible. We’re focusing on better decision-making and service delivery through sex-disaggregated data in both the public and private sectors.

Digital inclusion is linked to improvements in women’s economic opportunities and outcomes. This includes access to and use of financial services and access to income-generating opportunities. We’re exploring how smart phones and other digital tools can help women obtain better services and improve their livelihoods.

Out of necessity, women in low- and middle-income countries are highly concentrated in the informal economy, with little to no social and labor protections. And when women work, they are often poorly paid. We’re connecting women with more lucrative sources of income and helping them compete in new, higher-profit markets.

Worldwide, 350 million children of primary-school age and younger—40% of that age group—lack access to child care, which leaves women with the burden of unpaid care and constrains their ability to take on paid work. We’re testing innovative approaches to reducing the child care burden on women through public, private, and community-based child care programs—while also identifying work opportunities for women in the care economy.

To complement our efforts in all five areas, we work to build women’s job skills and address harmful social norms that prevent them from taking advantage of new opportunities. Without these enabling efforts, all of the work we’ve outlined will fall short.

While much of our work aims to advance global change, we focus our efforts most intensively in India and Kenya and are exploring solutions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda. Solutions should take into account country-level and regional differences in infrastructure, economic incentives, and cultural context.

Through our global research partnerships and support for in-country research institutes in Kenya and India, we are helping to build an evidence base on effective approaches to women’s empowerment, which can inform policy design.

In India, knowledge and evidence generated about the positive effects of the federated structure of women’s self-help groups have spurred the formation of similar structures within the government’s poverty-alleviation project, the National Rural Livelihood Mission. We are experimenting with replicating this approach in Nigeria and Uganda, and in India we aim to expand and deepen our efforts, including through private-sector value chains and digital platforms.

In Kenya, data from the first-ever time use survey and synthesis of evidence on effective approaches to child care are leading to the design of a national care policy. Future work in Kenya will build on this progress and serve as a learning lab to test private-sector care models and the use of digital infrastructure to improve women’s incomes.

Centering women in COVID-19 recovery

COVID-19 is gender blind but not gender neutral. Before the pandemic, poverty levels among women fell continuously for 20 years. Those levels are now rising rapidly. The virus exposed how fragile and superficial the economic gains for women have been in many countries. We’re working to understand how and why women are more vulnerable to the economic shocks of this pandemic.

To respond to the global COVID-19 recession, which has affected women’s livelihoods most drastically, recovery plans must put women and girls at the center. We are working with civil society organizations, academia, national governments, and international financing institutions to ensure that economic recovery efforts prioritize gender equality rather than reinforcing old inequalities. Countries that get this right will recover faster and be more resilient to future crises. If they do not, their recovery will be built on top of the same social cracks and economic fault lines as before. Equality cannot wait until this crisis has passed.

Evidence review and policy summary series

To advance understanding of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the economy and identify evidence-based solutions, our foundation has collaborated with grantees and partners to produce a series of evidence reviews that highlight key issues in the economic crisis facing women and girls.

These documents synthesize evidence, provide analysis, highlight exemplars, and offer policy recommendations to create a more gender-responsive recovery. They are useful resources for civil society organizations, gender equality advocates, and policy actors.

Check back for more documents in the series. Upcoming topics will include small and medium-size enterprises and women’s groups in India.

Why focus on women’s economic empowerment?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the difference in expected lifetime earnings between women and men amounted to US$172.3 trillion globally, according to the World Bank. Labor force participation by women ages 25 to 54 was 63%, compared to 94% for men of the same age.

The routine underutilization of women’s skills has been a lost opportunity not only for women but also their families and entire economies. One outcome of the pandemic is that it has shone a harsh light on these fundamental inequities—and created an opportunity to shift the dynamic on women’s empowerment.

We know that:

  • Historically, economic development leads to gains in gender equality and GDP per capita.
  • Increasing women’s participation in the economy leads to gains at home, at work, and in society at large.
  • When women have economic power, their families benefit too.
  • The capacity of both women and men to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from economic growth is essential to transforming the lives of poor and marginalized women and girls.

The evidence supporting the benefits of women’s economic empowerment is strong: When money flows into the hands of women—and when those women have the power to save and spend that money—the lives of people all over the planet are better. In fact, if the more than 3 billion women and girls worldwide could participate in, contribute to, and benefit from economic growth, we could begin to address some of the most persistent root causes of poverty—and build stronger safety nets for when economic uncertainty hits. 

When we remove the barriers that women and girls face and provide opportunities for them to fulfill their aspirations, we unleash a powerful and urgently needed engine of progress—women’s talent, energy, and creativity—to help build economies and solve problems.

Strategy leadership