In the last two decades or so, a flurry of initiatives in Nigeria have been geared towards supporting women’s transition into work and self-employment, yet, women find it harder to get jobs and access economic opportunities. While this is a global reality, this situation and its implication is much more peculiar in low income settings like Northern Nigeria where women’s transition into work is largely shaped by culture.
Although more women are finding opportunities in the labour market than before, women in Northern Nigeria are mostly self-employed or finding work in family businesses or in informal conditions within their homes. According to K4D, some women work several jobs with long hours but cannot earn enough to escape poverty.
Consequently, there has been increasing conversations around organizing work for women in ways that are decent and fulfilling while also allowing for flexibility. This conversation has gained more traction in the developed world especially following the pandemic. However, while the pandemic has been mostly related to job losses for women in the developed world, there is an increasing trend of women in Northern Nigeria using digital platforms to find remote work and promote their businesses.
Therefore, could remote work and online platforms unlock a pathway for women to play a more dominant role in the labour market? Could this trend also provide a pathway to provide decent and fulfilling for women? According to the ILO, women’s participation rate in the global labour force is about 49% with men having 75%. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics in its Q4’ 2020 report suggests that 59.4% of women are unemployed or underemployed compared to men (53.6%). What this means is that 3 in 5 women in Nigeria are either unemployed or underemployed.
The implication of this is that women have become the face of informal and vulnerable employment today. Beyond the realms of development thinking, and its unfolding, this condition not only has real meaning for women’s livelihoods, but also has implications on the efficiency and productivity of the labour market. Given the disruptions that have become a corollary of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are concerns about the possibility of realising the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore, as we herald the start of a new decade it might be useful to think differently about how work is organized for women. As this is critical to realising the 2030 agenda - creating an enabling environment where women can develop relevant skills and transition into dignified and fulfilling work.
Essentially, the pandemic has shifted how we understand work especially as businesses are shifting to remote work. While this may be associated with certain issues, it perhaps also presents a low hanging opportunity to allow women transition into work especially in contexts that restrict women’s mobility. In parts of Northern Nigeria, women who are confined to their homes may find remote work useful as initial findings from Jobberman’s research suggests that women in Kano for instance favour more flexible work arrangements for family reasons.
Therefore, it might be helpful if employers adapt their work cultures in ways that allow women to leverage remote work in ways that encourage the freedom to have open conversations regarding work boundaries. Emerging ideas indicate that remote work presents a real opportunity to close the gender gap especially in the digital sector where work can mostly be done virtually.
Nevertheless, the increasing demand for digital skills presents a real setback as the world of work is increasingly being shaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Important questions need to be answered around access to digital tools and how women are socialized to develop digital skills and soft skills. Northern Nigeria is reported to have a 30% lower literacy level compared to the South.
This fact as well as the rural-urban divide and low opportunities for girls and women have contributed to the digital skills gap that currently exists within the region. Low investment into human capital and the lack of improvement to women’s education is stunting economic growth, as a demographic which makes up half the country's labour force is increasingly marginalized. Digital skills hold the potential to create employment that offers remote or flexible working opportunities, which can potentially overcome the gender barriers that traditionally prevent access to employment for women.
Northern Nigeria has a lot to benefit from the digital economy especially with the increase in digital enabled jobs emerging within the creative sector and its translation within e-commerce. There is a growing tendency for women in the North finding work within these spaces but these will require investments in skills development (through the inclusion of soft skills and digital skills into the curriculum presents an opportunity to solve the skills gap and reduce the backlog of an analog reality); improving infrastructure to support small businesses as well as encouraging gender - responsive policy focused on leveraging women's interests while addressing women-specific needs so that they can take advantage of low hanging opportunities that have low barriers to entry, entrepreneurship and work flexibility - especially remote work.