January 28, 2017

In the Race to Industrialize, Do Women Come in Last?


By Madiha A. Shekhani

'. . . within occupationally segregated "ghettos" the demand for cheap labor and the demand for female labor became synonymous.' (Pearce, 1978, p.28)

Industrialization, the mantra of the post-war era, was injected into the global lexicon as the savior of the South. Cloaked under a stellar package of all rounded benefits, the second half of the 20th century witnessed a race to industrialize. Within this framework the strategy of export-led industrialization (ELI) has been hailed for bringing rapid and unparalleled surges of economic growth and development; however, its appeal begins to dwindle once it is deconstructed through the lens of gender.

Several strands of thought have emerged within the gender and development repertoire. The link between ELI and gender is quite complex, and scholars have worked ambitiously to disentangle this web and highlight the complex stratifications within this debate (see Elson 1999; Elson & Pearson 1981; Seguino 1997; Standing 1989). Feminist schools of thought have contributed to arguments which suggest that the policies of ELI and its foundational structures not only create new avenues for gender inequalities to flourish, but also reinforce and solidify existing ones. In particular, the integration of women in this model through underpaid, undervalued, and insecure modes of employment has had intense repercussions, and is one of the leading causes of inequalities within ELI regimes.

The unfair incorporation of women within ELI rests upon the structure of the framework: one of the priorities of the export-led growth policy package is to minimize production costs. In pursuit of this priority, the global industry aimed to shift labour to a more flexible and cheap realm, which was subsequently discovered in the Global South (Standing 1989). The comparative advantage or rather the commodity, which the developing world thus became famous for, was cheap labour (Kaur 2003, p.40). Cheap labour gradually became synonymous with female labour. The rising presence of women in inexpensive, labour intensive and insecure employment roles has been identified as one of the main characteristics of the ELI approach (Seguino 2000; Elson and Pearson 2011): ‘No country has successfully industrialized or pursued this development strategy without relying on a huge expansion of female labor’ (Standing 1989, p.1080).

The approach presents itself as gender neutral since levels of productivity are key criterions in the market, as opposed to gender. However, this narrative ignores the intricacies and dynamics of the market, and the much disregarded household, both of which are deeply ‘gendered institutions’. Therefore, mere ‘participation does not empower women’ (Elson 1999, p. 611). The increasing presence of women in the work force under ELI regimes has been largely noticed across literature, and has been misconstrued by many as an indicator of the gender positive nature of ELI (Berik 2000; Elson and Pearson 1981; Razavi and Pearson 2003). Many have failed to look beneath this contagious narrative and examine the multiple realities underneath hollow statistics.

The increase in female workers is a result of deeply rooted institutional and structural inequalities which ELI capitalizes on and entrenches. The heightened demand is a product of structures which conceive the labour of women as inferior. Even though the numbers of female employment have increased largely with the advent of ELI, their position within the labour market has not improved, as promised. They remain more vulnerable to external shocks to the economy and unemployment than men (Otobe 2016). A work force of women synonymous to cheap labor exists precisely because the labour market is discriminatory and only makes space for women in roles that conform to traditional norms of value of female labour. Demand for women in ELI inspired markets is mostly in labour intensive, low skilled manufacturing jobs because gender constructs dictate that those are the only jobs that ‘nimble’ and ‘docile’ women are capable of (Razavi and Pearson 2003, p.2; Elson and Pearson 1981). The ELI model restricts the availability of opportunities for women: in order to maintain a stream of hassle free, disposable employees, the upward movement of women in to better jobs is confined (Pearce 1978). Since ELI benefits from the subsequent unfair ‘segregation of the work force’ and ‘feminization of labour’, it further perpetuates and reinforces the norms that underlie those processes.

The gender neutrality narrative of ELI doesn’t hold true in practice for it does not address the conditions that seem to have grown substantially with its presence, including the gender wage gap, deteriorating work conditions, insecurity of female employment status and an unequal distribution of benefits, both economic and social (Elson 1999; Seguino 2000; Park 1995). Each of these issues is linked to the gendered imbalance within the market and the household, leading to the lack of control women have upon their choices, resources, incomes, time, and effort. Additionally, what the ELI approach fails to address is that structural and especially societal norms do not provide all women with equal access to the market. Usually, the women working as cheap labour belong to certain marginalized classes, or ethnicities. The repeated exploitation of these women across such cleavages not only perpetuates inequality across genders but also within.

It has been established that the gender wage gap, either organically present or artificially induced has stimulated growth within the export-led systems (Seguino 2000). This can be construed as one of the leading motivations behind systematic efforts by governments to put in place discriminatory hiring rules and to reinforce stereotypes (Berik 2000). With a lack of labour market regulations, which are seen as extra ‘costs and rigidities’, women suffer under awful working conditions and must endure longer work hours in the formal and informal, reproductive economy (Standing 1989, p.1078; Elson 1999). Due to restricted choices women are often confined within jobs that entail hazardous working conditions (Majumder and Begum 2000). Harrowing accounts of factories in Bangladesh describe ‘overcrowded, congested and poorly ventilated’ buildings, where fire accidents have resulted in loss of lives of which 90% have been female (Majumder & Begum 2000, p.15). Such glaring examples depict the inequalities that the ELI system supports whereby one gender is more valued for their nimble fingers than their lives.

One of the most precarious effects of such discriminatory narratives is internalization. After facing sustained periods of marginalization young women have been conditioned to lower their aspirations, and are prepared to work in jobs that deliberately devalue them as mere diligent and disposable commodities (Standing 1989). ELI mechanisms make ‘allies out of the deprived’ and solidify inequality within material and ideational realms (Sen 1987, p.3). Due to internalization there is a lack of protest. Women are preoccupied with attempting to balance the plethora of setbacks they face. Their silence is often construed as satisfaction, and branded as a success for the gender-conscious ELI model. To ensure that these inequalities do not set permanently and lead to consequences such as intensification of existing gendered poverty, one must not misconstrue the absence of overt discontent as ‘evidence of the absence of that inequality’ (Sen 1987, p.3).

The ELI approach rests upon a structure that is inherently disadvantageous to women and their labour efforts. By capitalizing upon this aspect, the model encourages and contributes to the permanence of the underpayment of women’s services in the market, alongside a complete disregard for their services in the unpaid, reproductive economy. Cowering behind the rouse of gender neutrality, ELI approaches must be overtly called out for their inherent male biases (Elson 1991). Unless there is recognition of the existing unequal power dynamic between the genders, these structures cannot be undone.

The policies and ideas emanating from ELI regimes and the resulting inequalities have become a concrete part of our global reality. Eradicating the roots of such inequalities is the ultimate goal; however, it is a long-term process that can be predicted to take a substantial amount of time. Thereby, a potential solution to the conundrum of cyclical gender inequality stimulated by ELI is two-fold. Firstly, what is required is a gendered (not just female) collective, working towards combatting the internalization of the imbalanced gender power equation, and a sustained effort to roll back inequality. This must be accompanied by a practical prescription of restructuring, if not replacing ELI, keeping in mind the gendered critiques of the model.

Exploitation of women is not unique to ELI. It is a bi-product of theories and policy prescriptions that view gender as a one-dimensional phenomenon to be dealt with on the side-lines. Gender inequalities stem from exclusion of gender as a complex entity from the initial processes of formulation of ideas, as in the case of the ELI model. Gender and individual experiences of inequality are extremely variegated. Gender’s intersection with a wide range of factors justifies the need to give it a central position within theory and practice across disciplines. In order to develop, our focus must shift from economic growth as an end, to perceiving equitable human, social, political and economic development as the goal. If we are not cognizant of the structures, biases, inequalities that thrive amidst us, women will continue to place last in the race to industrialize.


Berik, G. (2000). Mature Export-Led Growth and Gender Wage Inequality in Taiwan. Feminist Economics, 6(3), pp.1-26.

Elson, D. and Pearson, R. (1981). 'Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers': An Analysis of Women's Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing. Feminist Review, (7), p.87.

Elson, D. (1991). Male bias in the development process. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.1-28.

Elson, D. (1999). Labor Markets as Gendered Institutions: Equality, Efficiency and Empowerment Issues. World Development, 27(3), pp.611-627.

Elson, D. and Pearson, R. (2011) ‘The subordination of women and the internationalization of factory production’ in N. Visvanathan, L. Duggan, N. Wiegersma and L. Nisonoff, (eds). The Women, Gender and Development Reader. London: Zed Books.

Kaur, A. (2003). Economic Globalisation,Trade Liberalisationand Labour-IntensiveExport Manufactures:An Asian Perspective. In: A. Kaur, ed., WOMEN WORKERS IN INDUSTRIALISING ASIA Costed, Not Valued, 1st ed. pp.37-59

Otobe, N (2016). Export-led development, employment and gender in the era of globalization. International Labour Organization, Employment Policy Department Working paper No. 197. Available at http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_452341.pdf

Park, K. (1995). Women Workers in South Korea: The Impact of Export-Led Industrialization. Asian Survey, 35(8), pp.740-756.

Paul-Majumder, Pratima and Begum, Anwara. 2000. The gender imbalances in the export-oriented garment industry in Bangladesh. Policy research report on gender and development working paper series ; no. 12. Washington, D.C. : The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/645581468767990219/The-gender-imbalances-in-the-export-oriented-garment-industry-in-Bangladesh

Pearce, D. (1978). The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare. The Urban & Social Change Review. pp.28-37.

Razavi S. and Pearson R. (2003). Introduction. Edited by Shahra Razavi, Ruth Pearson and Caroline Danloy . (May 2004). Globalization, Export Orientated Employment and Social Policy. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sen, A. (1987) Gender and Co-operative Conflicts. Available at: https://www.wider.unu.edu/sites/default/files/WP18.pdf

Seguino, S. (1997) ‘Export-led growth and persistence of gender inequality in newly industrialized countries’. In Economic Dimensions of Gender Inequality: A Global Perspective ed. by Janet M. Rives, Mahmood Yousefi. United States: Prager Publishers

Seguino, S. (2000). Accounting for Gender in Asian Economic Growth. Feminist Economics, 6(3), pp.27-58.

Standing, G. (1989). Global feminization through flexible labor. World Development, 17(7), pp.1077-1095.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people

  1. Anni

    You mention the internalisation of inequality by women workers, but hasn’t there also been instances of resistance? Surely the women are not always passively accepting their exploitation?

    08 Feb 2017, 11:49

  2. Madiha Shekhani

    Hi Anni, thank you for the question, it’s actually quite important to highlight what you’ve mentioned.
    There have certainly been many instances of resistance by women of all backgrounds, classes, and etc, and their contributions to the cause must not be overlooked or trivialized. It would definitely be interesting to look at the response of and resistance by women to such instances of inequality and discrimination in development processes. Maybe we should have a piece dedicated to looking in to resistance to development across the world!

    13 Feb 2017, 17:51

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