Gender imbalances in Zambia’s labour market: Why it matters

by Tamara Billima-Mulenga

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Africa Human Development Report 2016 estimates that gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average US$95 billion a year which is the equivalent of six percent of the regions Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Africa is not achieving its full growth potential because women are not fully utilized.

Women are engaged in low productive and low paying jobs, lack access to economic assets and to means of production. This is a concern as it jeopardizes Africa’s efforts for inclusive human development and economic growth, reports UNDP. The UNDP asserts that if gender gaps can be closed in labour markets, education, health and other areas, then poverty and hunger eradication can be accelerated.

Like the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa Zambia is facing significant losses in productivity and economic growth due to gender inequality especially in the labour market. The reason is that Zambian women are mainly engaged in unpaid, low productivity and income jobs. The 2014 Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that 52 percent of economically active females are mainly employed as contributing family workers (CFWs) compared to 17 percent of males. CFWs are unpaid workers assisting in the family business or farm. They are mainly wives (71 percent) or daughters (17 percent) supporting family businesses without a wage mainly in the agricultural sector. They are also young people under the age of 35 and concentrated around age group 20-24 years. For the females in employment, only 12 percent are paid employees. Among males on the other hand, a notable proportion (71 percent) are in paid employment. These jobs tend to be better paying, formal and offer sick leave and pension/gratuity.

While fewer women than men are unemployed, women’s jobs are less desirable compared to those of men. The CFWs which involves most of the women for instance have a higher poverty rate than any other type of employment. Women find themselves in these low quality jobs partly because of low education attainment and skills among them. Females are outnumbered by men in terms of educational qualifications as they account for only 26 percent of the employed population with University degrees compared to males at 74 percent. There are fewer females with secondary education (45 percent) and tertiary level but more women with nursery and primary education. Fewer women are getting higher education due to high dropout rates from secondary schools attributable to lack of education support, early pregnancies, early marriages and fewer secondary schools especially in rural areas. A ZIPAR Study estimates that an additional year spent in school leads to a 15 percent increase in earnings and that females have a higher return to education than males, but because fewer females than males get an extra year of school, women consequently earn less than men in Zambia.

Gender inequality especially in the labour market can be addressed by improving women’s capabilities and opportunities and for Zambia this means transforming the employment status of women from unpaid work to productive and paid employment. Firstly this transformation requires increasing access to education and skills for women especially at higher levels such as secondary education and tertiary where women are fewer. It will also require more support for girl-child education especially at secondary and tertiary level and also increasing the number of secondary schools in rural areas could help reduce the dropout rates from primary to secondary schools.

Secondly, for the 2.8 million females in the informal sector accounting for 91 percent of the employed females, access to micro-finance coupled with the provision of business development services can help improve their incomes from the current K1, 519 per month. As for the women categorized as CFWs; there is need to move them from this category to either the formal or informal sector. The 1.6 million women CFWs can potentially gain in income of about K8.4 billion per month if moved to the formal sector. However, given the low education levels among women, a realistic possibility would be to transform the CFWs to self-employment instead which would result in income gains of K2.4 billion per month ceteris paribus. This has the potential to increase effective demand and hence contribute to economic growth.

The economic cost therefore of the gender gap in the labour market is the loss in productivity, income and high poverty levels for women, especially those employed as CFWs who are unpaid and the self-employed in the informal sector. For Zambia, bridging the gap between males and females will require improvement in the education of females and also moving women from unpaid work into paid and decent jobs. This has the potential to contribute positively to economic growth and poverty reduction, after all females constitute the larger proportion of the population in Zambia.


The author is a researcher at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, corner of John Mbita and Nationalist roads, CSO Annex building, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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