In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and the Economy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Volumes
  • Women’s Status and Economic Growth
  • Empowerment
  • Social Norms
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Intrahousehold Efficiency
  • Differential Health and Schooling Investments in Girls
  • Differential Health and Well-being Outcomes for Adult Women
  • Time Use Studies and Labor Allocation
  • Women’s Experiences as Entrepreneurs and Economic Actors
  • Women in the Urban Workforce
  • Access to Finance
  • Transactional Sex
  • Political Engagement and Economic Policy

African Studies Women and the Economy
Michael Kevane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0237


Gender is an important but variable social institution that prescribes and proscribes thinking, speaking, and action for people in their social roles as men and women (and also as other non-binary gender identities). Gender overlaps with the institutions of the economy, in the sense that gender mediates the distribution of capabilities, opportunities, and outcomes. In most societies of the world, gender limits or hampers the capabilities and opportunities of women, and adversely affects women’s outcomes relative to men. Scholarship on African societies has a long tradition of close attention to how gender and the economy overlap, and the differential consequences of that overlap for women relative to men. This attention started with early anthropological work during the colonial era, and accelerated in the 1970s as gender issues became a central concern of development policy and discourses. In recent decades, analysis of larger-scale survey data and administrative data has permitted better characterization of the varied importance of gender in African economies, and how other social institutions mediate the impact of gender on economic outcomes. Moreover, the ability of researchers and organizations to conduct randomized controlled trials has enabled researchers to establish more clearly how gender mediates individual and aggregate responses to changing incentives and expanded opportunities.

General Overviews

Trained and untrained anthropologists, ranging from European academics to government officials to colonial functionaries originating from the regions in which they served, wrote about the status of women in precolonial and colonial economies. But the timing of academic study of “women and the economy” properly speaking is often dated to Boserup 1970. Boserup’s work was widely read and widely cited, and remains an important touchstone for academic work into the present. Coquery-Vidrovitch 1994 is a wide-ranging overview that should inform any student interested in the subject. Kevane 2014 is a comprehensive interpretation and commentary on economics-oriented research, privileging quantitative and theoretical work but with ample references to ethnographic work.

  • Boserup, Ester. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970.

    Seminal and widely cited, this volume offers an analytical introduction to how women fare as agriculture intensifies, industrialization takes off, and societies become increasingly urbanized. Draws extensively on African examples, although scope is global. Boserup was clear that women may be the “losers” of many development processes, as their responsibilities to provide reproductive services hardly change even as work obligations intensify.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. Les Africaines: Histoire Des Femmes d’Afrique Noire Du XIXe Au XXe Siècles. Paris: Desjonquères Editions, 1994.

    An integrated historical overview of women in African societies, emphasizing the variety of economic and political roles, and how structural change, especially urbanization, has impacted patterns of women’s economic activities.

  • Kevane, Michael. Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781685850722

    Synthesizes several areas of scholarship on gender in African economies: how gender matters for aggregate growth; how social structures affect women’s access to land access, labor, credit, and insurance; how marriage institutions and households affect investments in children and livelihood outcomes; and how social movements have been altering the broad social norms that underpin gendered market institutions.

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