The feminisation debates

Feminisation is a term used in gender studies. Feminisation means that the number of women in a certain area increases: this could be in the area of paid work, of specific professions, or even a social condition. In this article, we will be describing various aspects of feminisation in the labour market.

The debates on feminisation are a crucial framework for discussing the labour market from a gender perspective. The entry point to the feminisation debates begins with the controversial discussion of the term “feminisation of poverty” (Pearce 1978). Diana Pearce used the term to show the growing proportion of women and children among the poor in the United States in the 1970s. The term “feminisation of poverty” focused on gendered poverty rates and the fact that economic inequality between women and men increased between the 1950s and 2000s (McLanahan and Kelly 2006).

The term strongly influenced debates on gender and development, especially during and after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 (Chant 2010). This discussion of women’s economic disadvantages, especially in relation to the development context, was not new. But the phenomenon was discussed as part of the ongoing globalisation and the assumption that women constitute 70 percent of the world’s poor (Chant 2010).

The term “feminisation of poverty” has been widely criticised. Outside the debates on the feminisation of poverty, other areas of concern have been seen in the light of feminisation, such as the labour market, agriculture, and the division of labour. A process of feminisation occurs when women become more involved in traditionally male activities, such as paid labour, agricultural work or securing household livelihoods (Razavi et al. 2012).

As a result of industrialisation and globalisation, women’s integration into the wage labour market increased between 1980 and 2008 (Razavi et al. 2012; Kabeer and Natali 2013; World Bank Group 2009). This increase in the female share of employment has been explained for decades as a ‘feminisation of the labour market’ (Tejani and Milberg 2016; Kabeer and Natali 2013).

However, the global labour market participation of both women and men has declined in recent years (International Labour Organization 2016), and in some countries and some sectors, a trend towards defeminisation has even been recognised (Tejani and Milberg 2016). At the same time, there is evidence of gender segmentation of the labour market and gender inequalities in earnings.

These are phenomena that occur simultaneously with the feminisation of the labour market (Kabeer 2012; Razavi et al. 2012). In the case of agriculture, the term feminisation is used when women are overrepresented in the activity; for example, when men migrate to urban areas and leave women in rural areas (Deere and Doss 2006; Doss 2011).

In addition, women are entering the paid labour market or taking over men’s duties in rural households while remaining primarily responsible for unpaid reproductive labour (Doss 2011). This leads to heavy workloads and time constraints for women (Brauw et al. 2014). Sylvia Chant described this phenomenon as the “feminisation of responsibility and obligations”(Chant 2014).


Brauw, Alan de; Mueller, Valerie; Lee, Hak Lim (2014): The Role of Rural–Urban Migration in the Structural Transformation of Sub-Saharan Africa. In World Development 63, pp. 33–42. DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.10.013.

Chant, Sylvia (2010): Gendered poverty across space and time: introduction and overview. In Sylvia Chant (Ed.): The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty. Concepts, Research, Policies. Glos: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, pp. 1–26.

Chant, Sylvia (2014): Exploring the “feminisation of poverty” in relation to women’s work and home-based enterprise in slums of the Global South. In International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship 6 (3), pp. 296–316. DOI: 10.1108/IJGE-09-2012-0035.

Deere, Carmen Diana; Doss, Cheryl R. (2006): The Gender Asset Gap. What Do We Know And Why Does It Matter. In Feminist Economics 12 (1-2), pp. 1–50.

Doss, Cherly (2011): The role of women in agriculture. ESA Working Paper No. 11-02. Rome.

International Labour Organization (2016): Women at Work. Trends 2016. Geneva.

Kabeer, Naila (2012): Women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth: labour markets and enterprise development. SIG WORKING PAPER 2012/1. School of Oriental and African Studies (2012), 3/28/2012, checked on 6/27/2012.

McLanahan Sara S.and Kelly Erin L. (2006): The Feminization of Poverty. Handbook of the Sociology of Gender. andbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, Boston, MA .

Pearce, Diana (1978). The feminization of poverty: Women, work and welfare. Urban and Social Change Review, 11, 28–36.

Razavi, Shahra; Arza, Camilla; Braunstein, Elissa; Cook, Sarah, Goulding, Kristine (2012): Gendered Impacts of Globalization. Employment and Social Protection. In Gender and Development - Paper No. 16, checked on 6/27/2012.

Related links

Chant, Sylvia (2015): The ‘Feminization of Poverty’: A Reflection 20 Years After Beijing. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Kovaleva, Marina (2021): Feminization of Agriculture and Its Impact on Sustainable Development. Gender Equality. SpringerLink.

MacKenzie, Christensen A. (2021): Feminization of Poverty: Causes and Implications. Gender Equality. SpringerLink.