Women’s Studies and Globalization


Women in the developing world play a major role in globalization. According to Women’s Edge, an organization that advocates international economic policies that support women in the developing world, “When we talk about the global economy, women really are a major part of it. They are the majority of the workers in factories and the majority of farmers around the world. They grow 50 percent of the food that we all eat. As international trade impacts those areas of manufacturing, production, farming, it significantly impacts women.” (Jackson, 2002). Because women in developing nations play such a significant role in global trade, one controversy in the debate over the impact of globalization on developing nations is whether globalization has a positive or a negative effect on the women who live and work in these countries.


In Latin America, as a response to the weakening economic position of women, political collectivities of women have organized around the demand for greater provision of public services such as running water, electricity, transportation, daycare, and health services (all sorely lacking in squatter settlements in which poor women live). The women have also protested against the rising price of food. Often these women defend their right to a decent living based on their status as “mothers,” “housewives,” or both. These types of social collectivities have been criticized by feminists who favor “equality” and “no special treatment” over supporting women in their traditional roles. (Kessler, 2003) Conversely, women activists engaged in informal social movements sometimes separate themselves, by way of identification, from woman activists who are more concerned with mainstream political participation and representation (“equality” and “no special treatment”). (Jackson, 2002) Since the period of advanced economic globalization, Latin American women have mobilized along with men in labor unions; yet, unions, it has been argued, continue to be regarded as a male sphere where women only serve as supplementary workers.

Other scholars believe there are positive effects to globalization such as women’s political representation (informal governmental institutions), the liberalization of traditional gender roles, and increased education. As a result of these positive effects, they argue, the political presence of women has increased dramatically at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For example, in January 2007 in Chile’s presidential elections Michelle Bachelet was elected the first female president of Chile. Other Latin American women have made inroads into state power. The Brazilian constitution of 1988 formed The Council on the Condition of Women (subsequently named The National Council on Women’s Rights), which implemented a family planning program; extended maternity leave; facilitated the establishment of a special police force to end sexual abuse and domestic violence; ended the prohibition of abortion, and successfully promoted a women’s agenda. (Akhter, 2003).

The democratization and the rise of civil society often attributed to globalization further increased Latin American opposition groups. In 1988, Chilean women fought against President Augusto Pinochet’s (1915–2006) military authoritarian rule and demanded the recognition of human rights. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina played a decisive role in the defeat of the dictatorship there. Based on their status as mothers, sisters, daughters, The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo protested the disappearance of their sons, brothers, and husbands.

The UN’s Human Development Program has recognized the need for a broad understanding of gender that includes not only the role of politics but economics and cultural interpretations of women’s and men’s roles in the lives of women throughout the world. Consequently, in 1995 they created the Gender Empowerment Measure, which deals with gender equality/inequality based on decision-making authority, and political and economic contribution. (Akhter, 2003).

Women started entering into jobs that were previously considered men’s domain, not only in manufacturing and agriculture but also in banks and offices. Professions and careers also opened up in academia, medicine, law, and engineering. As women demonstrated their abilities to do skilled and highly mechanized work, they cast doubt on the dominant assumptions about women’s physical abilities and social roles. New work opportunities instilled in women a sense of confidence and individualism so that domestic work was no more the ultimate goal in their lives. For a significant number of women, paid work outside the home came to represent economic and social mobility, and they were ready to balance work and home without giving up one or the other.

Economic restructuring and globalization since the 1980s have made women’s positions at home and in the labor market more gendered and unequal. As pointed out by Kofman (2003) women’s unpaid work at home has increased, as they need to compensate for care that was previously provided by the state. At work, because of the limited options in the formal sectors that consist of regulated, organized economies and protected workers, more and more women are forced to take up jobs in the informal sectors, where jobs are unregulated, part-time, low paid, with no benefits or social protection and highly contingent. Women’s share of informal sector employment thus remains high in many countries, through their involvement in self-employment, subcontracting production, family enterprises, and home-based labor. While these jobs contribute not only to families’ survival but to national income as well, they often go unrecognized or are considered peripheral and a mere extension of household work. For instance, women carpet weavers in Turkey or home-based garment sewers in Bangladesh who sew sweatshirts at home for multinationals are hardly recognized as “workers,” although their work provides important bases for national economic development.

The rise of sweatshops and home-based industrial labor in developing as well as industrialized countries have further disadvantaged women’s role in the labor market, as they force women into particular niches, with low pay, low skills, and poor working conditions. Often this involves doing repetitive, highly reutilized, and regulated jobs on assembly lines; some believe that women are well suited to these jobs because of their supposed inherent docility and dexterity and ability to do monotonous and labor-intensive jobs. Many labor-intensive, light manufacturing industries such as the garment, footwear, and electronics industries employ women rather than men because they make higher profits with a female workforce.

Some analysts claim that globalization has a positive impact on women in the developing world. They argue that in developing nations, where historically women have been repressed, economic globalization may have liberating effects. Pete Geddes, program director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, asserts, “Globalization has rapidly improved the social and economic status of women in the developing world. The justification is straightforward: In a competitive, globalized world, the position of women becomes ever more important. Cultures that leave out women from full contribution (e.g. Saudi Arabia) fall ever additional behind.” (Kofman, 2003) Indeed, when women are prohibited from working or joining certain professions, nations lose the benefits of their labor and are less able to compete with countries that take advantage of women’s contributions. In addition, some women’s rights advocates see the globalization of information, particularly via the Internet, as an ally in the fight for women’s rights worldwide. (Youngs, 2002) Activist Jessica Neuwirth contends action alert campaigns to protect women from being stoned, flogged, and mutilated have been exponentially amplified through the use of e-mail, as having interventions demanding justice for women who have been raped, beaten, or killed with impunity. (Sawer, 2002) Online movements protesting the organized destruction of women in the course of gender apartheid in Afghanistan and the negative role played by UN peacekeeping missions in encourage prostitution and trafficking have raised the consciousness of these issues and produce public anxiety to stop human-rights breaches against women.

Some commentators claim, however, that globalization has in the main harmed women in the developing world. Because women in developing nations comprise the largest percentage of workers in the factories of global firms, in many ways these women drive globalization. Poor working conditions are an oft-cited example of the negative impact of globalization on women in developing nations. Laws that ensure a fair wage and safe workplace conditions increase the cost of doing business at the expense of profits. Profits are thus greater for companies operating in developing nations that have no such laws, and this advantage is attractive to foreign investors. Large export factories, often managed by global corporations, pay low wages for long hours worked in unsafe conditions. “Women make up much of the low paid workforce in these areas where policies and labors protection laws are relaxed or not imposed in order to draw foreign investors,” maintains Women and the Economy, a women’s rights organization. Women’s nimble fingers,” they add, “are in high demand as vegetable packers in Mexico, garment workers in China, and cotton harvesters in Egypt. (Naples, 2002) These are all trades revealed by low wages, and poor working environment including long hours, not having proper safety standards and an obstacle to workers organizing.


The impact of globalization can be felt through the process of the racialization of women’s work as well: the Caribbean or Filipino women as domestic workers, Chinese or South Asian women as garment workers. Indeed, studies indicate that a large number of women of color are clustered in low-income sectors in countries such as Canada or Britain. These women, especially immigrant women in developed countries, are low paid, receive no reimbursement, and are left with little in the way of social security, labor standards, or other state guarantees. Thus women of color are systemically expelled from the better paid, secure, and more attractive jobs in the labor markets. Despite a major increase in women’s labor-force participation, the intersectional ties of gender, class, and race continue to stereotype the women’s labor force and affect the employment trajectories of women in the capitalist world economy.

The effect of globalization on the status of women is a central theme in the study of contemporary women worldwide. Globalization is defined as the movement toward global capitalism and culture. Scholars have explored the negative and positive effects of globalization on women cross-culturally. Critics of globalization point to policies that buttress the industrialized monetized sector of the economy, thereby favoring work performed by men at the expense of informal modes of work performed by women, particularly in the developing countries. According to this perspective, public subsidies that support social programs for women and children are diminished as nations struggle to pay off high-interest loans to industrialized nations.


Akhter, F. (2003) Women and globalization: Roundtable for women and life on earth event for world food day. Berlin: Weiber Wirtschaft Center.

Jackson, Andrew. (2002) Is Work Working for Workers of Colour? Ottawa: Canadian Labour Congress.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. (2003) Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kofman, E. and Youngs, G. (2003) Globalization: Theory and Practice. London: Continuum.

Naples, N. A. and Desai, M. (2002) Women’s Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics, London: Routledge.

Sawer, Marion. (2002). The Representation of Women in Australia: Meaning and Make Believe. In Women, Politics and Change, ed. Karen Ross. New York: Oxford University Press.

Youngs, G. (2002) ‘Closing the Gaps: Women, Communications and Technology’, Development, 45(4): 23-8.

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