Economic freedom and resulting competitive markets empower women in at least two interrelated ways.
First, market-led innovation has improved the lives of women even more so than for men. For example, women have reaped greater benefits from health advances financed by the prosperity created by free enterprise: female life expectancy has risen faster than men’s and today women outlive men almost everywhere. Women are also less likely to die in childbirth.
Labor-saving household devices have also freed women from the burden of housework. Thanks to time-saving kitchen appliances, in the United States cooking has gone from consuming the same hours as a full-time job, to taking up only around an hour a day. And thanks to laundry machines, in rich countries washing has gone from taking up a full day each week to less than two hours a week on average. This freeing of women’s time is ongoing as appliances spread throughout the world. Market competition and the profit motive incentivized the invention of labor-saving household devices and continue to motivate their ongoing marketing to new customers in developing countries. Countries that liberalize their economies often see rapid economic progress, including more households able to afford modern conveniences. China’s economy has grown dramatically since it adopted policies of greater economic freedom in 1978. In 1981, less than 10 percent of urban Chinese households had a washing machine. By 2011, over 97 percent did. As women spend less time on household chores, more choose to engage in paid labor.
Second, labor market participation offers women economic independence and heightened societal bargaining power. Factory work, despite its poor reputation, empowered women in the 19th century United States by helping them achieve economic independence and social change. It also softened attitudes about women engaging in paid labor. Today, the same process is repeating in the developing countries.
Consider China and Bangladesh. In China, factory work gave rural women a chance to escape the dire poverty and restrictive gender roles of their home villages and has dramatically slashed the suicide rate among young rural-born Chinese women, once among the highest in the world. Social mobility is high and most economic migrants never return permanently to the countryside: they settle in their adopted cities or eventually move to towns near their home villages and set up stores, restaurants or small businesses like hairdressing salons or tailoring shops. Many become white-collar workers. Very few go back to farming. Similarly, in Bangladesh factory work let women renegotiate restrictive cultural norms. The country’s women-dominated garment industry transformed the norm of purdah, or seclusion, that traditionally prevented women from working beyond the home, walking outside unaccompanied by a male guardian, or even speaking in the presence of unrelated men. Today, in Dhaka and other industrial cities, women walk outside and interact with unrelated men. Research by social economist Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics found that “the decision to take up factory work was largely initiated by the women themselves, often in the face of considerable resistance from other family members.” Tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse garner a lot of press, but the garment industry’s wider-reaching effects on the material wellbeing and social equality of women in Bangladesh receive less attention. The same applies to other industrializing countries.
By freeing women’s time from household drudgery and offering women the economic bargaining power that comes with new employment opportunities, markets heighten women’s material standard of living and foster cultural change. Women’s empowerment in many developing countries is in its early phases, but the right policies can set women everywhere on a path toward the same prosperity and freedom enjoyed by women in today’s wealthy countries.