Women’s Work, Entrepreneurship, and Skilling (WWES) Initiative

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In this image:A garments worker in Bangladesh. © Sheikh Rajibul Islam / Alamy Stock Photo
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In response to the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls, IPA launched the Women’s Work, Entrepreneurship, and Skilling (WWES) Initiative as part of RECOVR (Research for Effective COVID-19 Responses). The WWES Initiative combines data collection efforts, research projects, and policy work, focusing on two key themes: (1) women's work, entrepreneurship and time use; and (2) youth skilling and school-to-work transitions. Read more below about the projects funded by the WWES initiative to date as well as our evidence syntheses developed in response to policymaker needs.

The global efforts to contain and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic could intensify structural gender inequalities and eliminate any gains made in recent years. Lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus and social distancing measures have already had an oversized impact on women’s work due to pressures from domestic responsibilities and the types of jobs and sectors in which women primarily work.1 For example, women and girls are more likely to be left out of support from government, financial, and social sectors as they mostly work in the informal sector.2 As governments mobilize funds to ease liquidity constraints for businesses affected by COVID-19,3 intra-household dynamics may dictate how women-led businesses invest any funds they receive.4 As educational institutions move training programs online, gaps in access to technology could create gaps in access to skilling programs, affecting the ability of young women to work and succeed in a post-COVID-19 society.5

The enormity and multifaceted nature of these risks triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for gender-focused data and research to develop actionable national and global gender-informed responses. Therefore, in Kenya and Bangladesh, IPA is working with policymakers to:

  • Improve and deepen the existing data and evidence on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls
  • Provide evidence-based insights and policy recommendations to address gender inequalities in the context of COVID-19 policy response during the immediate crisis and extended recovery period

In the months ahead, IPA and our partners will provide decision-makers in Bangladesh and Kenya with targeted, real-time data, analysis, summaries of existing evidence, and new evidence developed in the context of the COVID-19 response and recovery periods. As part of this initiative, we opened a Request for Proposals to support piloting, data collection, analysis, dissemination, and policy engagement activities. The RFP is now closed; thank you to all who submitted applications.

We would like to acknowledge the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the WWES Initiative.

Projects Funded by the WWES Initiative

Addressing the “Baby-Profit Gap”: Testing Interventions to Boost Profits for Female-owned businesses in the Wake of COVID-19

Researchers: Solène Delecourt (UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business), Anne Fitzpatrick (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Layna Lowe, (UC Berkeley, Center for Effective Global Action), Anya Marchenko, (UC Berkeley, Center for Effective Global Action)

In low- and middle-income countries, firms owned by women typically have lower profits than those owned by men. COVID-19 has exacerbated this profit gap as women-owned firms tend to be concentrated in sectors where demand has dropped the most, such as services, hospitality, and retail trade. Childcare is an additional constraint for women-led businesses. In one setting, up to 37 percent of female owners bring small children to work, compared to zero men (Delecourt and Fitzpatrick 2021). These childcare duties are correlated with a ‘baby-profit gap,’ as businesses, where children are present, earn 48 percent lower profits than other women-owned businesses without a child present. This study aims to understand how increased childcare burdens due to COVID-19 school closures have exacerbated existing gender profit disparities in Kenya.

Balancing Work and Childcare: Evidence from COVID-19 Related School Closures in Kenya

Researchers: Edward Miguel (UC Berkeley), Pierre Biscay (UC Berkeley—PhD Candidate), Dennis Egger (UC Berkeley—PhD Candidate)

Additional childcare burdens due to COVID-19 school closures may exacerbate gender inequality in labor outcomes if women and young girls have to abandon work or skilling opportunities to provide childcare. This project explores changes in childcare responsibilities (both increases and decreases) as a possible channel through which the COVID-19 crisis has affected women’s labor in Kenya. It further considers the impacts on their labor participation, sector of work, and productivity compared to male workers. The researchers consider impacts on the productivity of female-led enterprises, as prior research suggests that childcare responsibilities may account for 50 percent of the profit gap between male-and female-led enterprises (Delecourt & Fitzpatrick 2019).

Can Leadership and Entrepreneurship Skills Programs (Educate!, SEED) Boost Resilience and Coping Strategies among Uganda’s Women in Response to COVID-19?

Researchers: Laura Chioda (World Bank), Paul Gertler (UC Berkeley, Center for Effective Global Action)

In 2019, Uganda imposed Africa’s strictest lockdown measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, closing businesses and schools, and banning sales of non-food items at open markets, public gatherings, and the use of vehicles for non-essential purposes. This work builds on two previously implemented RCTs of the Educate! Experience and Skills for Effective Entrepreneurship Development (SEED) program and will shed light on the impacts of COVID-19 on young people in Uganda.

COVID-19 and the Lives of Female Workers in the Readymade Garment Sector

Researchers: Christopher Woodruff (Oxford University), Atonu Rabbani (University of Dhaka), Hannah Uckat (World Bank)

This study aims to understand the impact of the crisis on workers’ employment, income, food security, and well-being in the short run, to assess whether women are differentially affected by coping strategies, e.g. through disproportionate restrictions on their bargaining power or decreases in their consumption. In the medium term, the study hopes to analyze how workers cope with the greater uncertainty in the garment sector and the effects of the uncertain recovery of the sector on workers. For women in particular, the study aims to understand the effects of the crisis on continued participation in the industry and career aspirations, and whether the decrease in garment sector employment leads women to break into other, formerly male-dominated, industries. Ultimately, this research will support the development of policy recommendations about support measures required for different workers, especially vulnerable groups of workers, during times of crisis.

COVID-19, Gender, and Youth Employment in Kenya

Researchers: Francisco Campos (The World Bank), Maria Hernandez-de-Benito (The World Bank), Julian C. Jamison (University of Exeter), Abla Safir (The World Bank), Bilal Zia (The World Bank)

The Government of Kenya, in partnership with the World Bank, is implementing a multi-year project, the Kenya Youth Employment and Opportunities Project (KYEOP), to increase employment and earning opportunities for youth aged 18-29 years. The project involves several evaluations including the study of the combined and isolated impacts of providing small business grants, business development services (BDS) of different forms (in classroom, via one-on-one counseling visits, and with digital means), and behavioral interventions. In particular, two of the interventions in the original design are gender intentional in design: lightly moderated peer groups via WhatsApp, as women are less likely to have existing business mentors or formal associations, and future self-exercise as women are less likely to know successful older business role models. The study was launched in the middle of 2019 and baseline data for study participants across both components was collected in January and February 2020 before COVID-19 related lockdowns were put in place.

Engaging Women in Mobile Money Markets in Bangladesh

Researchers: Xavier Gine (World Bank), Jessica Goldberg (University of Maryland), Carlotta Nani (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies), Anusuya Sivaram (University of Maryland), Lore Vandewalle (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies)

Women are underrepresented as both providers and users of mobile money services: they account for a small fraction of agents, and in Bangladesh, only 10 percent of women, compared to 32 percent of men, had mobile money accounts as of 2017 (Global Findex). The underrepresentation of women is an issue particularly in the context of COVID-19, where a vast majority of transfer payments have been made digitally. In this project, researchers are working with IPA to evaluate an intervention that aims to increase the supply and demand for mobile financial services, especially among women. The research team will work with BKash to identify businesses willing and able to hire mobile money agents and randomly provide a 6-month subsidy to hire either a male or female employee. The study will measure the effects of employing women as mobile money agents on the economic outcomes of the small businesses, attitudes towards women's labor force participation, and whether the availability of female mobile money agents increases the use of mobile money by female customers. These results will be particularly relevant in the context of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and bringing women back to the labor force in a situation of low vaccination rates, continued reliance on social distancing, and existing biases in hiring women employees. The project was developed in collaboration with BKash, IFC, World Bank, and the Central Bank of Bangladesh and these results would be relevant to them as they consider ways to expand the participation of women in mobile money markets as both consumers and agents.

Gender and Adolescence: The Impact of COVID-19 on Economic Aspirations and Outcomes of Bangladeshi Adolescents

Researchers: Sarah Baird (George Washington University), Silvia Guglielmi (GAGE), Khadija Mitu (University of Chittagong), Sabina F. Rashid (BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health), Tauseef Salauddin (University of Manchester), Jennifer Seager (George Washington University), Maheen Sultan (BRAC Institute of Governance and Development)

IPA, George Washington University, and Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) researchers have been implementing a study with Bangladeshi adolescents since 2017 to understand both transitions to adulthood and what works to improve their transitions to adulthood. COVID-19 may affect their education, skills acquisition, and job prospects by limiting access to education, disrupting household income, increasing stress and exposure to violence, and shifting household and care work onto them. Researchers administered a phone survey to 4,485 adolescents in May 2020, when Bangladesh was under a country-wide lockdown. Researchers initiated a second round of surveys with the same group between February 2021 and April 2021, successfully surveying 3,779 adolescents, when the economy opened up but schools were still closed. These surveys took place in three distinct settings: among adolescents living in three low-income areas in and around Dhaka, among adolescents who were attending grades 7 and 8 in Chittagong and Sylhet divisions prior to the pandemic, and among Bangladeshi and Rohingya adolescents living near and inside refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district.

Understanding Digital Credit Usage, Intra-household Bargaining Patterns, and Gender Reporting during COVID-19 in Kenya

Researchers: Edward Miguel (UC Berkeley), Michael Walker (UC Berkeley)

The Kenya Life Panel Survey (KLPS) is a 20-year longitudinal panel with detailed measures of health, educational, social, and labor market outcomes for individuals that attended primary school in Busia, Kenya from 1998-2001. This study builds on the panel survey by conducting phone surveys with respondents and their spouses between June and October 2021 to address three key research questions. First, the study will look at the extent to which digital credit can support women’s work during the pandemic. The second set of research questions will focus on how intra-household substitution patterns look during the pandemic, and if this is the main channel affecting women’s work. Finally, the study will also assess how past (randomized) human capital interventions, including vocational training voucher programs and cash grants, affect female economic activity and digital credit access during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic KLPS data will help researchers assess how the pandemic is affecting female respondents across a variety of sectors using intra-household bargaining and family responsibilities as key channels for impact. Initial results are expected in September 2021.

Youth Employment and Gender: Evaluating the Skills to Succeed (S2S) Program in Bangladesh

Researchers: Nathan Fiala (University of Connecticut), Meir Brooks (Princeton University—PhD Student), Nicole Dulieu (Save the Children), Mobasharul Islam (Save the Children), Eyerusalem Tessema (Save the Children)

This study examines the impact of the S2S program on young people’s labor market outcomes. In stage 1 of the study, researchers first conducted qualitative interviews and group discussions with former participants in January 2020 to identify obstacles preventing women from joining the labor force and the ICT sector specifically. Some of the concerns identified concerns about safety and harassment at work or in transit, restrictions on mobility and agency; and lack of self-confidence and positive role models. This shaped the design of an additional gender-based component in which families of potential female participants interacted with local women who have completed the S2S program to demonstrate the value of such a program for their daughters and exposing potential participants to female role models. Researchers are now conducting a randomized evaluation to determine the impacts of the S2S program in two cohorts, starting in February 2020 and February 2021 respectively. The study is uniquely placed to illuminate specific interventions through which women can enter or re-enter the labor market once the pandemic allows it. Two surveys are planned: one in late 2021 to measure the short-term outcomes and a more comprehensive survey in 2022.

Evidence Syntheses by the WWES Initiative

From School to Employment: Effective Strategies to Support Women and Girls through the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

Authors: Shahana Hirji and Elizabeth Koshy

In this brief, Innovations for Poverty Action has compiled evidence-based insights from multiple meta-analyses and three-dozen randomized evaluations (both IPA and non-IPA studies) on how to support young women’s skill-building and their transition into the labor force in low- and middle-income countries, with a focus on the COVID-19 crisis.

Supporting Women-led Businesses in Low and Middle-Income Countries Through the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

Authors: Elizabeth Koshy and Lucia Sanchez

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) around the world have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women-led businesses have suffered disproportionately from the slowing pace of business activity. A gender-intentional approach to short-term mitigation and long-term recovery could address some of the gender-specific dimensions of COVID-related shocks and protect gains made on gender equality in recent years. In this brief, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has compiled key policy-relevant findings for the short- and long-term recovery from the COVID-19 crisis of women-led businesses in low- and middle-income countries. These insights may help inform the design of programs and policies to support women-led businesses in the context of the current pandemic and beyond.

Supporting Women’s Participation in the Labor Force in the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

Authors: Elizabeth Koshy and Rebecca Smith

In this brief, Innovations for Poverty Action has compiled evidence-based insights from randomized evaluations and quasi-experimental studies from non-crisis periods on how to support women’s return to the labor force and/or increase their participation in the workforce in low- and middle-income countries. We particularly focus on insights that may be applicable in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 “The COVID-19 Response: Getting Gender Equality Right for a Better Future for Women at Work” (International Labour Organization, May 2020), https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---gender/documents/publication/wcms_744685.pdf.

2 OECD, “Women and Informality,” https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/womenandinformality.htm.

3 “Policy Responses to COVID19,” IMF, https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/imf-and-covid19/Policy-Responses-to-COVID-19.

4 Arielle Bernhardt & Erica Field & Rohini Pande & Natalia Rigol, 2017. "Household Matters: Revisiting the Returns to Capital among Female Micro-entrepreneurs," NBER Working Papers 23358, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

5 “Op-Ed: We Cannot Allow COVID-19 to Reinforce the Digital Gender Divide,” UN Women, May 6, 2020, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/5/op-ed-ed-phumzile-covid-19-and-the-digital-gender-divide.