Why do women earn less?


We cannot talk about gender equality without addressing the stubborn gender pay gap that persists across the globe. In East and Southern Africa women are paid 19% less than men on average, to make up this difference women would need to work 5 hours extra every week. We need to reveal the gap to close the gap, and this is exactly what UN Women’s new report on ‘Why Women Earn Less’ intends to achieve.

Mehjabeen Alarakhia, UN Women Regional Policy Specialist on Women’s Economic Empowerment addressing Regional Knowledge Sharefair participants. Photo: UN Women/MwangiKirubi
Mehjabeen Alarakhia, Women's Economic Empowerment Regional Policy Specialist, UN Women East and Southern Africa Regional Office. Photo: UN Women/James Ochweri

According to the new UN Women report on the Gender Pay Gap in East and Southern Africa, women earn about 81 cents for every US dollar earned by men. Even after accounting for factors like age, education, and job type, women still earn 92 cents less for every US dollar that men earn per hour.

Although the gender pay gap decreases when considering individual and labour-market characteristics, there is still progress needed to achieve equal pay in the region. The pay gap is exacerbated by various underlying causes, including gender stereotypes, discrimination, and limited access to education and employment opportunities for women.

Education plays a crucial role, as women with higher levels of education tend to face a smaller gender pay gap. However, it is concerning that even highly educated women still earn less than their male counterparts. Women with university degrees earn 18% less than men with university degrees, while women with primary school education earn 31% less than men with the same level of education. The occupations and sectors that women engage in also contribute to the gender pay gap, with women often being overrepresented in lower-paying and lower-status jobs. Care sectors such as domestic work, education, and health and social services, are a big source of employment for women in the region (35%). Women’s work in these sectors is undervalued and women are paid 53% lower in domestic work, 25% lower in education and 6.7% lower in health and social work as compared to their male counterparts.

The presence of a "glass ceiling" that limits women's advancement to high-paying managerial positions in the region is concerning with the report showing that women in the top 10% of earners face of larger gender pay gap than the average working woman. Efforts should be made to break this barrier and create equal opportunities for women in leadership roles.

The gender pay gap leads to lifetime income inequality between women and men, and further contributes to higher levels of poverty among women. Closing the gender pay gap and addressing other labour-market inequalities is important for improving women’s socioeconomic position and achieving social justice for more than half of the world’s population and contributes to longer term poverty alleviation and human development. Allowing women to use their skills and talents optimally will also benefit the economy, reducing poverty and inequality, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, and supporting economic growth as outlined in SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. It is also worth noting that the gender pay gap cannot be fully explained by differences in job types and personal characteristics alone, as there is still an unexplained portion of the gap. This highlights the need for further investigation and action to address gender-based discrimination and biases.

In conclusion, achieving gender pay equality and addressing labour-market inequalities requires a multifaceted approach involving various stakeholders across the economy. One important aspect is promoting pay transparency, collected at frequent intervals, to understand the gender pay gap and advocate for policies to address it. Public policy efforts should prioritize enhancing educational opportunities for women and girls, promoting women’s participation in high-paying and traditionally male-dominated occupations and sectors, supporting women’s reintegration into the labour force after career breaks, and providing a robust social protection system. Establishing and enforcing labour policies is necessary to ensure equal compensation and equal opportunities for women. Interventions to break down gendered cultural norms are also crucial in reducing the unexplained part of the gender pay gap. Additionally, policies that recognize, reduce, and redistribute women and girls unpaid care work responsibilities complement other efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. By implementing these measures, countries in the region can unlock the full potential of their workforce, fostering socioeconomic advancement, innovation, and sustainable economic growth.

About the authors:

Mehjabeen Alarakhia is the Women's Economic Empowerment Regional Policy Specialist at UN Women ESARO.

Zahra Sheikh Ahmed is a Programme Analyst on Women's Economic Empowerment at UN Women ESARO.

Tanima Tanima is a Programme Consultant on Women's Economic Empowerment at UN Women ESARO.