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Making New Inroads: How Women are Advancing in Nontraditional Careers

Lindsay Bigda |

Economic Empowerment, Employment and Enterprises

Featuring ICRW’s Chryspin Afifu, Erick Yegon, Serah Nduta Njenga, Sharmishtha Nanda and Srishty Anand

Amid the economic fallout caused by COVID-19, it has become increasingly evident that women are both uniquely impacted by the economic crisis and integral to its recovery. Those of us charged with facilitating women’s economic empowerment around the world are grappling now, more than ever, with how to address the underlying factors that prevent women from participating fully in the workforce.

What are these factors, and why are they perpetuated around the world? Why is it that women are over-represented in undervalued sectors—such as domestic work, agriculture and the care economy—while they remain locked out of others? Do unequal gender norms play as large a role as we think? 

New ICRW research from India and Kenya on so-called “nontraditional sectors”those historically dominated by menhelps provide answers to these questions. Drawing from women’s own narratives, these studies allow us to understand better what helps or hinders women in their quests to find meaningful, well-remunerated and decent work.

First, why focus on ‘non-traditional sectors’?

Women are nearly 50 percent of the global population, yet remain constrained in how they can contribute to the economy. Structural issues and norms, such as those discouraging women and girls from STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics), for example, compromise women’s ability to engage their full potential. By contrast, encouraging access to a more comprehensive range of livelihood opportunities helps women gain greater access to decent workwhile also improving entire communities and powering emerging industries.

“In Kenya, for example, nontraditional sectors like manufacturing are where the money is—the industries that are really growing,” said Chryspin Afifu, a lead author on a recent report on women in manufacturing in Kenya. “So it makes sense, both for women to earn meaningful incomes and to contribute to the GDP [gross domestic product], that we call for their entry into these spaces and ensure their growth into leadership positions.”

Photo: Images of Empowerment

What prevents women from entering or advancing in nontraditional sectors?

According to Serah Nduta Njenga, a co-author of ICRW’s women in manufacturing report, one of the most disquieting findings from the recent research was that 93 percent of women-owned businesses in Kenya remain in the informal sector. Informality compounds barriers for women, reducing their access to finance and social protections; limiting their participation in networks; and decreasing their visibility in the marketplace. Yet, researchers from ICRW Africa say that most women in Kenya choose not to formalize their businesses, or establish them in the first place.

“Most women say that formalizing their businesses, which would come with significant benefits to help them expand, requires too many bureaucratic processes,” Njenga said. “Another barrier is the fact that although Kenya has a very vast legal framework with very good laws, many of them are not implemented. If they were, it would really expand the space for women to operate well and even keep manufacturing companies in check.” 

In India, meanwhile, one of the most interesting observationsaccording to Srishty Anand and Sharmistha Nanda, the lead authors of an exploratory study on nontraditional livelihoodswas hearing women who had succeeded in becoming high-earning managers articulate the same challenges as those in entry-level positions. These challenges are rooted in the gender division of labor that dictate viable choices of work available to women. The types of careers women are choosing and their roles within the workforce appear to be most strongly influenced by whatever stereotypes surround themand this holds true across sectors and socio-economic classes.

How are women overcoming the odds?

Since stereotypes are critical barriers, solutions must include revising or transforming traditional gender norms, while fostering opportunities for them to explore their own agency. In both India and Kenya, women are finding ways to push against traditional norms and stereotypes.

“Anecdotally,” said ICRW Asia’s Sharmishtha Nanda, “we observed cases where women with less education are expanding the boundaries of their personal space in a more aggressive manner than people who married into a wealthy family where the pressure to conform to norms is higher. In these cases, the concept of role models or a ‘key influencer’ came up often as an important enabler.”

Meanwhile, in Kenya, researchers from ICRW Africa said that one of the most inspiring things was seeing the different ways that women use their creativity to pilot innovative market solutions. One woman working in the textile industry, for example, found ways to create new types of material to sell in the market; another lost her job as a teacher but went on to begin a new career and establish a successful chemical factory.

In both contexts, women’s successes appear grounded in a confluence of personal and environmental factors: their own internal drive and resilience, supportive social networks and role models, and access to business development and funding. Together, these factors have helped women transcend the barriers posed by social norms, while their growing presence in non-traditional roles is helping to counter broad-brush stereotypes that have held them back.

Toward a new narrative on ‘women’s work’

Though the studies in India and Kenya have different scopes and methodologies, they arrive at a similar layered understanding. The livelihoods study in India identifies three social spaces that are particularly important in shaping women’s livelihood options: household, market and state. Similarly, the ecosystem in which women work in Kenya is articulated across the micro (intrapersonal factors), meso (business-related factors) and macro (policy) levels. 

These models suggest the value of more holistic interpretations of women’s economic empowerment—ones that seek to acknowledge the influence of social norms on the perceived value of different types of work, as well as who is deemed qualified to do that work. They also aim to capture the nuances and full complexity of women’s lives.

“What we really want to contribute to the discourse,” said ICRW Asia’s Nanda, “is an understanding that household, state and market are not three separate domains (drawn from the ICRW framework), but three interlinked domains in a woman’s life.” 

A comparison of the frameworks from the Women in Manufacturing research in Kenya (left) and the Nontraditional Livelihoods study in India (right)


In addition to their national-level applications, report authors from both studies stress that findings and recommendations can be applied to and contextualized for other settings in low- and middle-income countries. This work provides a needed baseline for improving policy frameworks and identifying areas for further research
such as designing new ways to measure the contribution of women to a country’s GDP. And it helps push toward a new portrayal of women’s work that centers women’s lived experiences.

“Growing up, our culture says ‘this is for men and this is for women,’” said Erick Yegon, a research specialist with ICRW Africa. “There have been so many institutionalized belief systems that say where women can go and not go. Being able to recognize that, and to create new narratives about women’s work, will be crucial in moving toward a more equitable future.”

Our Facts. Our Future. is a series from ICRW that highlights our latest learning and features experts’ and partners’ reflections on their work. Our Facts. Our Future. aims to center diverse voices and explore new and more inclusive ways of working together to advance the rights of women, girls and marginalized people worldwide.

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Lindsay Bigda

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