Over 100 Years Later, International Women’s Day Is Still About Labor

March 03, 2017

What is the value of women’s work? Organizers of the January 21 Women’s March on Washington are hoping that this year’s International Women’s Day can answer that question. The organizers have announced a strike on March 8 called “A Day Without a Woman,” which coincides with International Women’s Day. Inspired by the February 16 “Day Without Immigrants,” the strike will highlight “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system—while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.” Women are encouraged to take the day off paid and unpaid work to demonstrate the impact women have on the global economy.

The first International Women’s Day in 1909 was in honor of female garment workers who protested against poor working conditions. This year's strike will bring the day back to its roots. And 108 years later, unequal labor conditions remain a crucial gender issue. Worldwide, women’s average earnings are almost half those of men, with average global earned income at USD 10,778 for women and USD 19,873 for men. Women’s paid work is also disproportionately overrepresented in the informal sector where wages are lower and benefits and protections are lacking. (This isn’t just a developing country problem: in the United States about 25 percent of total employment is considered non-standard work and around 70 percent of this work is done by women.) Women continue to face higher risk of unemployment than men at the global level. And they are also more likely to work fewer hours for pay, often against their choice, due to domestic responsibilities: including domestic labor (including fetching water, cooking, cleaning, and caring for dependents), women have far longer working days than men.

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It's clear that women contribute significantly to the global economy—and yet their work often goes unrecognized. The women’s labor strikes in 1909 made traditionally feminine labor visible. A strike in 2017 should demonstrate that today women’s work affects all sectors. That is why increasing women’s participation and equality in the labor force has such clear gains for development. When women earn a competitive income, they spend 90 percent of it on health, food, and education, meaning that increasing women’s income can contribute to breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. The McKinsey Global Institute suggests that $12 trillion would be added to the global GDP if gender gaps in work and society were narrowed.

And we have a few suggestions for countries and companies that want to reap those gains:

  1. Use Trade Agreements to Help Level the Playing Field 
    Women should have access to good jobs. One way to encourage that would be to use trade agreements to hold countries accountable for their labor standards. Agreements could stipulate the repeal of discriminatory laws including those that ban or disadvantage women in particular sectors prior to ratifying agreements. This could be bolstered by empowering local watchdog groups to monitor compliance.
  2. Expand Women’s Role in Developing Technology
    Women account for just 15 percent of all inventors behind nine million global patent applications. Countries and the private sector can level the playing field by incentivizing women’s innovation, prioritizing sectors with severe gender imbalances. Incentives can take many forms including scholarships, mentorship programs, research grants, and financing for women-led firms with high business potential.
  3. Support Women to Move to Where the Good Jobs Are
    Destination countries could acknowledge the capacity and drive of women migrants from gender-unequal countries that have managed to overcome barriers to build skills and experience by providing them a preference in employment-based visa decisions. 
  4. Create a Global Gender Equality Partnership
    A Global Gender Equality Partnership could generate voluntary, specific, and monitorable commitments to policy change from member governments. This would ensure a sustained platform for accountability around issues of gender equality more broadly. For example, the partnership could track commitments to remove restrictions on women’s labor force participation. 

While International Women’s Day has become a platform to celebrate our achievements in gender equity and highlight crucial issues ranging from political participation to health, this year let’s remember the day’s original purpose—and what countries and the private sector can do to advance women’s wages, working conditions, and voices in society. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.