Why you can't find many women in formal employment

Friday May 11 2018

Data shows that even as more women increasingly delay marriage and childbirth in favour of education and career, female-headed households report higher levels of poverty.


Every two out of three workers in Kenya is a man, new data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics has revealed, painting a bleak picture of the disenfranchisement of women in the workforce.

The newly published 2018 Economic Survey by KNBS shows that women are grossly underrepresented across all sectors of the economy, making up only 36.5 per cent of the active workforce. This is despite the fact women make up more than half of the population.

In the administrative and support service sector, for instance, there are eight times as many men as women, making it the most unequal industry in the Kenyan economy. This includes jobs such as general management, clerical services, cleaning services and office administration- tasks which do not biologically favour men in any way.


Glaring inequality was also observed in the manufacturing industry, which employs four times as many men as women. It is perhaps due to this gap that the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, which is chaired by a woman, Ms Florah Mutahi, launched a mentorship and networking programme in March aimed at increasing the participation of women in the sector.

Notably, women only outnumbered men in two sectors; human health and social work activities, and as caregivers in households. These are sectors where wages are traditionally low or sometimes non-existent.


The statistics do not surprise Ms Daisy Amdany, the executive director of the Community Advocacy and Awareness Trust, and who for a long time has been in the trenches fighting for women’s rights.

“These statistics may appear shocking but is only in 2010 via the promulgation of the new constitution that women were recognised as bonafide citizens.

“The disempowerment of women is systemic, enabled by our patriarchal society. Women have historically been excluded socially and economically and their low participation in the workforce is a manifestation of that exclusion,” she said.


Before the new constitution, women had no legal recourse in case they were disinherited, which gave them little access to land, that in Kenya remains a key factor of production. In addition, many parents would prefer to educate their sons and marry off their daughters early, creating a dynamic where women had to be reliant on their spruces for support.

“Little access to education meant little access to employment. Their inability to own property due to disinheritance meant that they could not walk into a bank and get capital as they had no security,” she said. Economically sidelining women has only served to engender poverty as female, with women making up the bulk of the population living in poverty in Kenya today.

Economic survey

The data shows that even as more women increasingly delay marriage and childbirth in favour of education and career, female-headed households report higher levels of poverty than those headed by men. According to the Economic Survey households headed by women recorded a poverty rate of 30.2 percent, while those headed by men were at 26 per cent.

Dr Onyuma Samuel, an Economist and a lecturer at Egerton University, points out that keeping women out of the labour force jeopardises the economy and makes development that much harder.


“If the largest proportion of the population is not engaged in productive work, the economy suffers and development, by any indicators, becomes harder to achieve. Countries that have increased the participation of women in their workforce have reported that about 48 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product is now contributed by women,” he said.

Women have been historically sidelined in the economy, many of them relegated to the role of homemaker and carer, and although those attitudes are changing, they still persist today.

Dr Onyuma says affirmative action could be key in getting more women gainfully employed, but there is reluctance to meaningfully implement this in both the private and the public sector.

“The government has willfully ignored the two-thirds gender rule that is provided for in the constitution, resulting in a situation where the most visible government institutions- legislature, judiciary and executive all have fewer women than is required. If the government does not lead the way, how is it supposed to compel private corporations to do it?” he poses.


Several studies show that in the private sector, women are even scarcer at senior positions, making up only 20 per cent of all board positions. Out of the 65 listed companies at the Nairobi Stock Exchange, only five have a female chair of the board. Firms with women chairs include Isabella Ocholla-Wilson of Unga Limited, Anne Mutahi of Standard Chartered, Lucy Waithaka of Eveready East Africa, Catherine Ngahu of Uchumi  and Susan Mboya-Kidero of Liberty Kenya Holdings.

Yet, despite the statistics, there are those who believe the boys have been neglected in favour of girls. Right after the release of the results of last year’s primary and secondary school national examinations where girls emerged top, pundits took to newspapers and television channels to state that empowerment programmes need to shift focus from girls to boys because the “boy child” had been left behind.

More contentiously, Maendeleo ya Wanaume (MAWE), an organisation established as the antithesis of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, has tried to position itself as a champion of men and boys, whose activism is rooted in correcting perceived wrongs committed by society against men and boys.


Mawe’s self-styled firebrand chairman Nderitu Njoka has learned the art of capturing attention with his headline grabbing antics, the most recent of which was a heartfelt plea to the United Nations Security Council to posthumously prosecute biblical characters King Herold and the Egyptian Pharaoh for signing decrees which led to the massacre of boys.

But Ms Amdany has little patience for those that complain that the advancement of women has come at the expense of men.

“Leaving the boy child behind is a misleading campaign not based on facts. It is led by individuals who want to discredit women empowerment movements as there are no statistics that show that the empowerment of women leads to disempowerment of men,” she said.

What Ms Amdany means is that the fight for gender equality is not a zero sum game — the advancement of one gender does not have to come at the cost of the subjugation of the other.