Women and Globalization

Candace C Archer. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


In the last decades of the 20th century, individuals became interested in the concept of globalization. Globalization can be defined in many ways but is most commonly thought of as the increasing interactions between countries and individuals such that humankind is more politically, economically, and socially connected. The phenomenon is often attributed to an increase in technological advances that have enabled people to be drawn closer together. Specifically, new communication technologies like the Internet and improved transportation technologies have brought information, ideas, people, and products to faraway places. In an era of globalization, distances between people have decreased and the amount and speed of interactions have increased. These changes have subsequently affected many portions of human existence, including global markets for goods and labor, political ideologies, immigration, and security.

How have these changes affected women? The answer to that question is complicated. Individuals are largely still affected by their local surroundings and the economic and political realities of daily existence, but women’s lives in the era of globalization are certainly affected as political, economic, and social interactions increase and deepen. In addition, the effects of globalization are often tied to other dynamics within societies and to the larger relationships that exist between the states of the world. For example, one must consider the relationship between the global rich and the global poor or the new international dynamics of production that link countries to supply chains to understand how globalization may affect women. Globalization is not happening consistently around the world, nor does it affect all women the same way. Globalization has both benefited and harmed women and has already proven to be a complex global force with varied consequences.

This essay will address three prominent trends in globalization that are having the greatest effect on women and their role in global society. First, it will consider how the increase in global economic linkages has both positively and negatively affected women, especially through changes in the labor market and the role of the welfare state. Second, it will look into the global women’s movement to show how there has been an increase in information regarding the status of women globally and how this has changed the agenda of intergovernmental organizations and increased the importance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Finally, it will consider how globalization has facilitated the movement of people, and has led to increased immigration for women as domestic servants, and how globalization has contributed to the global problem of human trafficking.

Women in the Globalized Economy

One of the main dynamics of globalization has been that it has caused economic changes within the global economy. Transportation technologies have not only brought people together, but they have also cut down on transaction costs such that multinational corporations (MNCs) can locate production facilities anywhere in the world and sell their products far from where they are produced. This has led companies to invest abroad widely and to open factories in places that will give them the best economic advantage. In response, governments are playing a more active role in trying to woo MNCs to locate production in their country by offering them a hospitable environment for their operations. The economic logic of globalization is widely accepted as one of free market capitalism. Both countries and individuals compete in the market for economic benefits. Furthermore, this economic system has been greatly assisted by international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which carry on and promote a free market ideology as the answer to the efficient use of resources and as a tool to combat poverty.

Whether globalization helps or harms women is a matter for great debate. Feminist scholars often point to the inadequacies of the market for improving the status of women, while economists often sing the praises of globalization and argue that women are largely benefiting. There is some agreement that globalization is not an even or equal process. Not all countries or all people are affected by globalization in the same way. Some may prosper and others may be left behind, unable to benefit from new economic opportunities. Inequality surely predates globalization, but globalization creates its own winners and losers. Those who sit at the top of social and economic hierarchies, both countries and individuals, are more likely to see gains from globalization. Those who are already in the lower economic and political strata of domestic and global society are likely to see fewer benefits and perhaps be hurt by globalization (Scholte 2000). Because of gender inequalities, women have traditionally earned lower salaries and have had more limited economic opportunities in society. Thus, one should expect that any opportunities a globalized economy might present for women are likely to be fewer than for men. Moreover, because globalization is not a monolithic process the benefits may vary from country to country and from woman to woman.

The emphasis on global capitalist production is an international force that has had significant effects on labor markets and the welfare state. Economic globalization has most affected women’s lives in relation to these two criteria. In labor markets, globalization has created jobs outside the home for women and has led to the “feminization of the workforce,” but the quality of the jobs created is questionable. At the same time, the global free market agenda has become synonymous with reducing government’s involvement in the economic system. As a result, many countries provide fewer social services, and the notion of the welfare state has been transformed. This has affected women who have relied on government services and places a larger burden on women within their households to provide child care or care for the elderly.

The changes globalization has caused in labor markets have created jobs outside the home for women. Many economists suggest that this is a positive phenomenon that has led to increased freedom and economic and political power for women (Bhagwati 2004, 73-91). In the past few decades, women have been brought more significantly into the paid workforce. This trend is evident in the United States, Europe, and many less developed countries. Today, women make up more than half of the paid workforce globally. Even in more traditional societies the number of women in the workforce has been steadily increasing. The increase of women in jobs outside the household has certainly led to some positive outcomes, particularly in rich countries where women have more access to capital, hold more powerful positions at work, and enjoy the benefits of participating in the market. Evidence even suggests that across countries (both rich and poor) wage gaps between women and men are narrowing, even though they still exist (Benería 2003, 124). Unfortunately, problems persist even in rich states where women still earn less than men, have less access to higher-quality jobs and management opportunities than men, and continue to face the burdens of a “dual workday” where women work outside the home and are also responsible for most of the unpaid work within the household.

Even in the developed countries of the global North, global production trends have changed the nature of jobs available to women. In an attempt to be globally competitive, companies have outsourced many manufacturing jobs to less developed countries in the global South. As a result, the makeup of jobs within developed countries has changed to focus more on nonunionized, less permanent, lower-paid service-sector jobs as opposed to higher-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs. This switch has allowed women to move into the labor force and take jobs outside the home. The downside is that the available jobs for women are of lower quality than the ones that previously existed. Restructuring labor to take advantage of globalization may bring more women into the paid workforce, but few are finding the high-quality jobs with benefits that can lead to economic security (Mutari and Figart 1997).

In less developed countries, women enjoy other benefits and face other challenges in the labor market. The movement of manufacturing jobs into less developed countries to take advantage of low labor costs has benefited women in these countries by allowing them into the workforce and giving them access to an income and autonomy (Benería 2003, 126). Women have done particularly well at getting light manufacturing jobs in less developed countries, especially in textile and garment manufacturing (Chen et al. 2005). Again, these jobs do not tend to be high-quality jobs and often include poor or sweatshop working conditions, lack of job security, potential for abuse and sexual harassment, little room for training or advancement, and low pay. In fact, the use of women in the labor force for many of these factories has helped MNCs keep wages low because women are considered either as temporary employees working until they get married or as employees seeking to supplement family income, but not as the sole household provider. Therefore, the use of female labor in manufacturing has allowed companies to consider these jobs “feminine” instead of family-sustaining jobs men would fill (Mutari and Figart 1997).

It is particularly common in less developed countries to see women in the labor force in export processing zones (EPZs). Because globalization promotes capitalist production, this translates into countries pursuing export-oriented production, an economic strategy where states produce goods for consumption in the global marketplace. EPZs are areas in less developed countries designed to produce products for export and attract multinational investment by promoting favorable conditions for corporations. They are often exempt from various types of labor, tax, and other laws that corporations operating outside the zone would have to follow. They commonly promote flexible labor systems where entry and exit from the workforce is fluid. Thus, jobs are not meant to be permanent and are free from such labor restrictions as collective bargaining or minimum wage standards that states might insist on for other, more permanent jobs. Since their establishment, factories in EPZs tend to employ mostly women in their workforces. The belief that female workers are more docile, can be manipulated, and are less likely to unionize are often cited for this trend in female employment. Many EPZs tend to focus on light manufacturing products, such as sewing garments, and these jobs become categorized as “women’s work.” But although these factories provide jobs for women, they are often fraught with other problems, and working conditions have been documented as being quite brutal. Besides long hours, dangerous working conditions, few benefits, and less-than-living wages, accounts of physical abuse and sexual harassment are also common in EPZs (Kamer and Hoffman 1999).

The second economic trend of globalization that has had a great effect on women is the general decline of the welfare state internationally. Beginning with the Thatcher and Reagan administrations’ policies in the 1980s, there has been a trend toward reducing government involvement in the economy and these neoliberal economic policies have become the dominant economic policies that define globalization. This situation exists in both developed and developing countries. In the developed countries with more established welfare states, women lose access to public services when the state reduces their availability. Because women are more likely than men to use these programs, the burden of adjustment rests heavily on them. Another interesting trend in developed countries is that the public sector has traditionally been a significant employer of women. As government services are cut back, this also affects women’s employment and their access to the high-quality public-sector jobs where they have traditionally found good employment (Peterson 2003, 73).

In the less developed world the economic trends are felt more directly through the use of economic stabilization and structural adjustment programs (SAPs). International financial institutions, particularly the IMF and World Bank, have been responsible for spreading economic globalization through these policies, which tie economic assistance to the adoption of neoliberal changes within domestic economies. Such reforms remove economic control from governmental agents and rely more heavily on market competition. Opening domestic markets to free trade and investment are encouraged, rewarded, or required by international financial institutions. Although these policies were meant to create and reinforce favorable economic conditions for MNCs to bring investment and thus economic growth into less developed states, they have had significant and negative effects on women. Much research has been done to show that neoliberal adjustments in developing economies are generally borne more heavily by women (Benería 2003, 49-52).

Effectively these policies have limited the state’s role in regulating the market and have caused it to reduce its activity in tempering the market for those who are most disadvantaged. For example, many governments have had to dismantle their price subsidies for food or fuel so as not to distort the market prices for these commodities. This raises the cost for staple products and makes it more difficult for household economies to survive. Because women are more likely to be poor and use government services and additionally have more responsibility for maintaining the household, these changes create special difficulties for women. To account for losses created by government cutbacks, women have increasingly sought employment outside the home while simultaneously continuing their work within the home. Some women are able to find employment in the formal sector, as discussed previously, but many turn to informal employment to meet the needs that the economic policies create.

The term “informal work” is used to describe many kinds of work, including “off the books” work, unpaid or volunteer work, barter arrangements, and criminal activity. Forms of work that are not regulated by the state and income that is not reported to the state are considered informal work (Peterson 2003, 84-91). The number of women participating in informal work has increased as globalization has grown and the state has relinquished more control to the market. Although the specific connections between this kind of work and globalization are not fully understood at this time, the need for women to find more ways to support their households has certainly created a need for them to find other options for family income.

Some economists argue that the economic changes that have come with globalization have created mostly positive outcomes for women (Bhagwati 2004), but others, particularly feminist scholars, are not convinced that globalization has led to progress (Peterson 2003). The issue once again is reduced to the fact that women in different countries and with different relationships to the economic system will experience the trends of economic globalization unevenly. Some will find economic success, but others will find greater poverty and social dislocation.

Women’s Influence Through Activism and Organization

The economic changes that have resulted from globalization have also caused a political response. This response can be seen in the growing protests and rallies since 1999 and the most notable “Battle in Seattle” at which thousands protested the WTO’s Seattle ministerial meetings and the global economic agenda that privileged neoliberal economics. These political protests are not only in response to economic globalization but are also caused by the processes of globalization. Technological advances in communication, which have led such innovations as Web sites, e-mail, and blogs, have also created a space for those with similar viewpoints to be connected, regardless of their distance from each other. The Battle in Seattle has been followed by countless protests against many global organizations that promote the economic values of globalization. In part, those movements have been fueled by the global news media and facilitated by electronic communications to mobilize people.

These trends are another dimension of globalization. Technology has created a space for information to be conveyed with greater frequency and to a larger audience, thereby lowering the barriers to entry for creating an organization or trying to advance a cause. There now exists the potential that one person with one computer can organize others around a cause and mobilize them from around the world. These realities have affected civil society and grassroots mobilization. In global politics there has been an exponential growth in NGOs and social movements over the past two decades. These movements and organizations have been at the forefront of mobilizing individuals around many different issues, including the environment, human rights, and humanitarian assistance.

This trend has also affected women globally in three interrelated ways. First, globalization has increased the information readily available about women’s issues. Thus, transnational advocacy networks of activists promoting women’s rights and the inclusion of women’s issues on global agendas have grown. Second, spurred on by global activism, there has been more of an attempt to deal with women’s issues in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the United Nations (UN), which has recently seen an increase in treaties and programs concentrated on gender issues. Third, globalization has created the space for more NGOs that focus on women’s issues to emerge and work for women in varied ways. Globalization has brought new attention and importance to nonstate actors in the international system and this has had a positive effect on the creation of international norms that consider women’s issues.

Transnational advocacy networks have become an issue of study in international relations and women’s rights. They are defined as networks of activists based on a commitment to a specific set of values, and they are largely designed around the exchange of information (Keck and Sikkink 1998). The global women’s movement is a prime example of a transnational advocacy network, and these networks are becoming more important for affecting policy every year. Even before globalization entered the lexicon, the processes of globalization were already helping the global women’s movement take shape. In 1985, the Third Women’s Conference, held in Nairobi, Kenya, was a defining moment for the global feminist activism. Although the women’s movement had existed in several developed countries since the 1960s, it took some of the changes that globalization would bring about in the welfare state and the decline of the cold war for the movement to go beyond its domestic policy roots (Moghadam 2005, 7-9). Celebrating the end of the UN’s “Decade for Women,” the Nairobi conference brought together IGOs and NGOs to share information about the global condition of women and resulted in bridges being built to connect many different organizations and people. The conference led to declarations that laid the bedrock for creating global norms regarding the treatment of women, and it helped bring attention to the scholarly study of “women in development.” But the resulting creation of a transnational network of individuals and organizations that shared information and advocated for women’s rights was perhaps the biggest gain from the conference.

By the 1990s, the transnational feminist network advocating for women’s rights was well established. In general, transnational advocacy networks work to “promote norm implementation, by pressuring target actors to adopt new policies, and by monitoring compliance with international standards” (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 3). The transnational advocacy network around women’s issues has accomplished many of these tasks. It has defined what constitutes global women’s issues and articulated the norms surrounding the treatment of women. Many NGOs dedicated to these issues are monitoring compliance to the internationally accepted norms. As a result, today there is more global awareness about women’s issues, there has been more lobbying for women’s issues on global and domestic agendas, and there is a clear agenda and clear norms regarding women’s issues globally.

Linking individuals with shared values has probably had the largest effect on the UN. Within the UN are programs devoted to women’s issues, such as the United Nation’s Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), and the Commission on the Status of Women. Besides these organizations, the women’s movement has been very effective in influencing many other UN branches and programs. The concerns of women have been addressed in policies that have emerged from the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Sustainable Development, environmental programs, population programs, the Millennium Summit, and many other UN-sponsored programs and policies. For example, in 1993, the lobbying of various women’s groups globally influenced the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights. The declaration included a statement declaring that women’s rights and human rights were “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.”

Over the past decade, reacting to the growing voice of women’s rights activists, the UN has sponsored two conferences dealing with the status of women. The Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 was followed up by the Beijing +5 conference in 2000. These conferences brought together thousands of individuals and organizations from around the world to consider women’s issues and progress on addressing the problems and concerns of women globally. In addition to conferences, the UN has initiated dozens of new treaties and additional protocols to existing treaties that address women’s issues directly or have sections that apply to women. Two noteworthy treaties ratified were the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (2000), which strengthens existing international laws regarding trafficking.

In addition to treaties, the UN’s 2000 Millennium Summit developed eight Millennium Development Goals to address some of the most serious problems the international community currently faces. These goals clearly represent an agenda that takes seriously the position of women in the international system. The eight goals are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. The goals of improving maternal health and promoting gender equality directly focus on significant problems that women continue to deal with, but many of the other goals either indirectly affect women’s issues or attempt to address issues that generally affect women more significantly than men. For example, women have higher HIV infection rates than men, are more likely to suffer from extreme poverty than men, and are less likely to have a primary education than men. Clearly, the UN has developed policies to respond to women’s issues in a much more significant way and has taken up several agendas that are favorable to women globally. The transnational women’s rights movement seems to be one of the driving forces for the agenda the UN pursued in the 1990s (Friedman 2003).

Finally, from a political perspective globalization has led to positive conditions for the creation of many general NGOs and many NGOs that are focused on women’s issues. Part of the reason that NGOs are more widely accepted and are flourishing in the international system is because the UN has brought these organizations into discussions of international issues. By allowing NGOs a voice in the debate the UN has not only legitimized their existence but has also empowered them in the process of policy making, agenda setting, norm construction, and policy implementation. In addition, many countries allow NGOs to participate in various portions of the policy process.

The strength of NGOs that address women’s issues continues to grow. At the 1995 Beijing Conference there was an NGO forum that ran simultaneous to the meeting. This forum brought together more than 30,000 participants, and about 3,000 organizations were accredited and allowed to attend the conference (Friedman 2003). The UN also uses NGOs to augment its ability to monitor and collect data from many countries on their adherence to various treaties. For example, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires statistical reporting from within member countries, often uses NGOs to collect data or provide inside information on countries they are operating within. Regional and domestic NGOs are also having more of an effect on regional IGOs and state policies by getting access to policy makers and helping to create the agenda. Although the trend of NGOs gaining more international importance is very common in the globalized world, it is also a relationship that comes with criticism as governments argue that NGOs are operating to strip them of sovereignty. Nonetheless, the growing importance of NGOs globally, specifically regarding women’s issues, is certainly a dynamic that is changing the ability for individuals to affect global policy. For that reason, it is one that has generally affected women.

The growth of civil society, political activism, and grassroots political mobilization has been attributed to the changing nature of politics due to globalization. Globalization allows the political space for many actors besides the nation-state to affect global issues and agendas. This trend has affected women by allowing them a more significant voice in the debates and giving women’s issues a stronger presence on policy agendas.

The Global Movement of People

The final trend of globalization is one that ties together economic and social realities in the globalized world economy. Although the trends of globalization have not led to a borderless world—and states still matter—there is an indication that borders are less relevant than they once were. Economically, global production chains tie together many countries to produce goods, regardless of state boundaries. Politically, people with similar values can connect even though they reside in different states or regions of the world. Socially, people are on the move and are not limited to living in the state where they were born. Immigration is a dominant trend in globalization, and this trend is affecting women globally. People move from state to state for many reasons, but largely they are seeking opportunities to lead a better life. These opportunities might be largely social, as people emigrate to join family members who previously relocated in another country, or they may be economic, as people emigrate to find better economic opportunities. Women migrate from one state to another for a host of reasons, but two issues regarding immigration seem to be more gender specific and have a greater effect on women globally: the trend of women becoming domestic servants in foreign countries and the forced migration of women as part of global trafficking networks. This last section will consider both of these issues.

Even proponents of globalization who largely argue that the globalized system has benefited women are concerned about the movement of women and these aspects of globalization (Bhagwati 2004, 89-91). Women moving from poorer countries to provide domestic service to families who reside in richer countries is a growing global trend. This is a multimillion-dollar transnational industry that provides women from poor countries with needed jobs and usually provides a flow of remittances to support family members back home. But there are often great hardships in this kind of work. Economically, the jobs are poorly paid, the work is hard, the hours are long, and because work takes place in the privacy of a home, there are no state regulations or workplace protections. Socially, women leave their countries (with any laws or protections they may offer), their families, and their social networks to work in faraway places (Parreñas 2001; Peterson 2003).

Women may move to states that have strong legal systems that protect migrant workers, but it is just as likely that they will move to states that have repressive governments or few rights for migrants. Because states from all regions of the world accept migrant domestic servants, a migrating woman may experience a wide range of societies. In some developed countries in North America and Europe, there are legal and social protections and even a chance to gain permanent citizenship. This is very different from the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, which offer no protections for migrant workers and have repressive societies for women and foreigners. There are no international protections for these women that would safeguard them from workplace issues or any other problems they experience abroad. Even in some of the most developed countries, they often do not have access to welfare, health care, or any state services in the country in which they are working. This puts them at the mercy of their employers to meet any non-work-related needs, such as treatment for illnesses. Many face abusive employers and have no legal recourse for reporting or ending abuses. Additionally, these women face social dislocation because they are separated from their country, their family, and often anyone who speaks their language. Although economically these jobs are better paid than domestic jobs and women can help support their families back home, they come with potentially great problems (Peterson 2003, 102-104).

The assumption for women who migrate for domestic work is that they are making a choice to move and have the ability to return home. Trafficking of women however, entails the opposite. Although they may be tricked, sold, or coerced into being trafficked, such women are being smuggled from one country to another. Many women who are trafficked end up working in the sex industry, although some are trafficked to meet manual labor needs. They are brought from their home country to another country and stripped of their travel documents, which makes it difficult for them to escape.

Although the enslavement of women for sexual exploitation has a long history, globalization has expanded the size of the global sex industry. Because trafficking in humans is an industry that operates in the shadows of the legal system, it is difficult to get accurate statistics on how many persons, and women specifically, are trafficked. Estimates range from several hundred thousand to more than 1.75 million persons trafficked in an industry that is believed to be worth billions. In addition, the growth in global tourism due to easier travel has tied the sex industry to the tourism industry, creating more demand and potentially affecting more women globally (Peterson 2003, 105-108).

Globalization is helping to create the conditions for trafficking to grow by tying together people and locations and because populations have experienced economic dislocation as a result of globalization. In regions hit by financial crisis or growing poverty, the option of selling a girl child to pay off debt is something that happens with more frequency than one would imagine. But globalization is also creating an environment where trafficking can be combated. With the growth in transnational advocacy networks, especially NGOs, there has also been a growing awareness of the issue and an attempt to combat it. NGOs work tirelessly to address many issues related to trafficking, including measures to prevent it from happening, protect women from falling victim to traffickers, rehabilitate women who have been trafficked, and prosecute those who are responsible for trafficking (for further information on human trafficking see http://www.humantrafficking.org). Nonetheless, women and girls are far more likely to be subject to trafficking than men or boys, and this poses one of the most significant problems facing women in the era of globalization.


Today’s globalized world is one with many contradictions, and the effect of globalization on women is complicated. Standards of living are increasing and some are experiencing greater wealth and prosperity than ever before. But these benefits do not accrue to everyone. Women are likely to see benefits in a world where people, information, and products move with relative freedom and where there is greater awareness of women’s issues. However, they are also likely to see greater social dislocation, struggle to make a living, and need to move to from home to support their family. The globalized world is one where there are more political, economic and social connections between people, and although this has created more opportunities, it has also created some significant hardships for women.