Explaining Women's Labor Participation


Although social scientists agree that many variables can influence women's ability to seek employment outside the home, there is no consensus in the academic literature regarding which factor has the greatest impact on the female labor participation rate.

Some researchers believe that economic development has the greatest impact, because they claim that the nature of industrialization leads to a more rational allocation of human capital throughout society.

Other researchers believe that family and kinship systems have the greatest impact because traditional gender norms stifle women's ambitions outside the home. A third group of researchers believes that the structure of income inequality in a society has the greatest impact on the female labor participation rate because sharp class divides prevent women from entering the workforce.

While each of these theories can be employed to explain cross-national variations women's economic activity, one's choice of which explanatory variable to employ will have significant consequences for the conclusion one will reach about how to best to increase women's economic activity in a given context.

Those who subscribe to first group's views will seek to increase economic development first and foremost, claiming that women will benefit the most from general increases in the scientific and technological know-how of the societies in which they live. Adherents to the second view would attempt to change women's position in the family as the precondition to their entry into the workforce. And those who hold the third group's views would champion redistributive policies as being the key to increasing the female labor participation rate.

Therefore, one must choose one's theoretical model with care. In this literature review, I will compare and contrast three exemplars of the frameworks mentioned above in order to discover which one best explains the available data on the Serbian economy.

Klein's Framework

The first framework used to explain cross-national variations in the female labor participation rate is presented in a 1963 paper by Viola Klein entitled “Industrialization and the Changing Role of Women”. In this paper, Klein claims that the factor that most influences women's propensity to enter the workforce and hold high-status occupations is the extent to which their lifestyle has been affected by industrialization.

According to her, while poor women have always had to be economically active in order to survive, in the pre-industrial era middle and upper class women primarily focused on the logistical management of their household. For this population, to not have to work outside the home was seen as a status symbol due to the importance afforded to home-making.

However, as home-making became easier and easier due to the advent of a variety of cheap and practical consumer goods during the Industrial Revolution, for many middle and upper-class women housework was “reduced to such an extent that the modern housewife, unless she has young children, feels under-employed” (Klein 16). This feeling set the stage for the various women's emancipation movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as middle and upper-class women clamored for the opportunity to find fulfilment outside the home.

This increase in the potential supply of labor was matched at the same time by an increase in the demand for labor created by the need to produce, distribute, and market consumer goods. Therefore, in Klein's view, “the desire to recover their lost sense of usefulness is still a motive of considerable weight in leading ever-increasing numbers of women to seek employment outside their homes” (Klein 7-8).

Youssef's Framework

The second framework used to explain cross-national variations in the female labor participation rate is developed in a 1972 paper by Nadia Youssef entitled “Differential Labor Force Participation of Women in Latin American and Middle Eastern Countries: The Influence of Family Characteristics”.

In this paper, Youssef claims that the factor that most influences women's ability to join the labor force and achieve high-status occupations is the role that the family unit plays in the system of social control.

In societies where the family unit is the basis of social control, women are likely to depend on men's economic activity due to traditional gender norms which make men legally and morally responsible for women. However, in societies where traditional gender norms have been eroded and women are not restricted to the home by their social role, they have many opportunities to be economically active throughout their lifetimes. To substantiate this claim, Youssef compares the case of female labor participation in the Middle East with that of Latin America.

She finds that in Latin America, due to the legacy of Spanish colonialist's reprehensible sexual behavior, “male family members have not regained the power to exercise control over their womenfolk with the result that sexual freedom prevails, marital instability is frequent, and illegitimacy rates are very high” (Youssef 144). However, in the Middle East, “kinship institutions provide that there is always a male member (father, brother, cousin, or uncle) who is economically, legally, and morally responsible for the woman, whatever her marital status” (Youssef 145).

This means that female employment is relatively high in Latin America because of the economic need for it whereas in the Middle East there are strict sanctions invoked against women working since the kinship unit is socially required to provide economic support for all women.

Semyonov's Framework

The third framework used to explain cross-national variations in the female labor participation rate is developed in a 1980 paper by Moshe Semyonov entitled “The Social Context of Women's Labor Force Participation: A Comparative Analysis”.

Semyonov states that the factor that most influences women's ability to join the labor force and achieve high-status occupations is whether they live in a society where income inequality is best characterized by the “gap” system or the “glissando” system. Where “gap” system income inequality is present, substantial economic differences exist between discrete social classes while where the “glissando” system income inequality is present, there are fewer economic differences between social classes which are harder to distinguish from one another.

According to Semyonov, elites are much more incentivized to protect their social status by blocking the upward movement of women in a “gap” system than in a “glissando” system because of the relatively larger power imbalance associated with downward social moves in “gap” systems (Semyonov 540). To prove this hypothesis, Semyonov used a statistical analysis to correlate a measure of income inequality with the female labor participation rate in 47 different societies.

His result, an r value of -0.606, shows that there is a larger correlation between the female labor participation rate and income inequality than between the female labor participation rate and industrialization (r = 0.525), the female labor participation rate and the divorce rate (r = 0.530) and the female labor participation rate and fertility (r = -0.569).


While each of these theoretical frameworks explains some of the cross-national variation in the female labor participation rate, none completely accounts for the available data. Therefore, one must make a choice about which framework to employ in one's research knowing that there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

However, Semyonov's approach is more much robust than either Klein's or Youssef's becauseo of his statistical analysis of the interaction of the potential explanatory variables. Neither Klein nor Youssef take into account the possibility that their explanatory variables might be affected by a rival explanatory variable. While the kind of qualitative analysis presented by Klein and Youssef can be valuable in an abstract context, Semyonov's quantitative analysis is more valuable when exploring a specific case.

© Joseph Damiba 2019