LEARNING PAPER: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Women in Liberia 


Recent research conducted by Mercy Corps Prospects program illustrates a range of barriers to employment faced by women and girls in Liberia. These span factors associated with personal agency, social interaction and cultural or structural issues and shed light on the need for policies and programs to act upon differences in employment challenges faced by young men and women.

‘I cannot’

At the level of personal agency, a recent survey of 147 vulnerable youth aged between 16 and 24 in urban and semi-urban settings in Liberia found that girls consistently reported lower self-confidence and self-esteem than did their male counterparts. While 63 percent of girls agreed that they did not have the skills needed to get a good job, just half of males thought the same. A higher proportion of girls also reported having ‘feelings that they were not good at anything’ and of having ‘no idea of how to get more money’. While it is true that, in many societies, gender expectations tend to result in males underreporting emotional weaknesses, these findings suggest that lack of self-confidence may be more of a hindrance to the economic success of female than male youth.  Added to lack of self-confidence, employment options for young women appear to be undermined by a lack of self-awareness that responsibility to secure a good job lies with themselves. It should be noted however that this is also an issue for males, albeit to a lesser extent, under a third of all respondents agreeing that they themselves possessed the single greatest responsibility for ensuring that they secured a good job.

Research suggests that this lack of ownership of employment challenges combines with lack of self-confidence to result in a dearth of job-seeking behaviour in females: two-thirds of female survey respondents (22 percentage points more than males) reported that they had not taken steps in the past six months to improve their employment situation, such as apply for jobs advertised via newspapers or radio or to approach employers.

 ‘I am too busy to work’

Evidence suggests that issues of females’ lack of personal agency are compounded by cultural or situational factors which include particular gender norms. Firstly, and of particular importance for youth programming, young women in Liberia are from a young age responsible for a range of family and motherhood-related responsibilities that male youth are not exposed to. The Mercy Corps survey of 16-24 year olds youth found that two-thirds of females were in a relationship or married, and half had children, compared with just over one-third and one in five male youth respectively. This can only be expected to affect employment options and from adolescence, therefore, girls face challenges of combining work, family and personal life. Moreover, the necessity of performing a balancing act between working and private life is not only a challenge for youth or lower paid workers but exists for women across the employment spectrum: a Mercy Corps study of women in waged (e.g. formal) work in Liberia found that three-quarters had children, of which a third were single mothers. Furthermore, the study suggested that responsibility for household duties fall heavily on women, with just 4 percent reporting that their husbands shared responsibility for household tasks.

‘He is better educated than me’

Female youths’ roles as mothers and homemakers is overlaid by their relative low education levels. According to the Liberia Labour Force Survey, 2010, just over hald (60 percent) of Liberian women aged 15-34 were literate in 2010, compared with four out of five (81 percent) of men. Mercy Corps’ own study of vulnerable youth corroborates this data, finding that males were 12 percentage points more likely than women to have been educated beyond elementary level. Disparate education levels between sexes therefore serves to massively disadvantage female as far as quality employment and social mobility is concerned.

‘My man provides’

Cultural realities in Liberia mould women into economic dependents early on in their adulthood. Of the youth surveyed, more than half (56 percent) of females stated that at least some of their income was from their partner, compared with 10 percent of male youth who stated the same. Furthermore, more than two thirds (69 percent) of both male and female survey respondents reported the belief that men should exercise control over household finances.

‘I am socially isolated’

A further set of issues which the research highlighted concerns the interrelation between females’ psychological factors and their social interactions with their surroundings. On a range of questions relating to social cohesion, female youth reported experiencing greater isolation than males: while a majority of males felt that the majority of their community could be trusted, this was reported by just 35 percent of females (15 percentage points lower).

‘I am not part of the club’

It appears there may be a – potentially multi-directional – causal relationship – between female youths’ perception of distance between themselves and their communities on one hand, and females’ success within Liberia’s dominant personal contact-centred job recruitment system on the other.

On this point, previous research conducted by Mercy Corps found that male youth were 11 percentage points more likely than their female counterparts to have secured their most recent job through a contact. Similarly, a separate Mercy Corps study of 56 women in waged work in Liberia found that a larger proportion of women had obtained their current position through applying for a job than had through a personal recommendation.

Altogether, these findings suggest the ubiquitous informal recommendation-based job-hiring system may be something of a ‘men’s club’ in which women are disadvantaged. If this is the case, it raises the question of whether women fare relatively better in more formalised or meritocratic systems. Although not yet conclusive, evidence suggests that more formalised job-seeking practices are more important to female youth compared with their male counterparts: Mercy Corps research has found that a variety of channels including radio, newspaper and the internet have been more important in job-searching for young women than men. Furthermore, indicative findings from Mercy Corps’ Prospects youth employment program suggest that female youth are more likely to be hired for long-term employment following the completion of their apprenticeship. This suggests that female youth perform relatively strongly compared with males in situations where they are required to demonstrate work readiness and employment capability.

 Issues for policy and practice

Although the above findings are indicative rather than conclusive, and warrant further research, they raise issues pertinent for policy and practice.

  • Take a psychosocial approach to female employment programs. Programs and initiatives promoting youth work readiness or employment need to take in to account the often profoundly different psychological, cultural and social issues that affect male and female youth. In particular, research suggests that female youth are typically less proactive than males in terms of job-seeking. This can be approached through addressing cultural factors (such as the positioning of women as dependents, homemakers and mothers rather than breadwinners), social factors (such as inferior education levels) and female youths’ lack of self-confidence. The former may include engaging employers, for example through making the ‘business case’ for employing females. The latter may require particular mentoring initiatives for female youth who are already participating in programs, and specific outreach strategies for those who are not yet. Overall, these initiatives can be seen as elements of a gender equity approach which recognises that the multifaceted barriers to employment faced by women and girls means that programs are often required to go beyond the principle of equality of opportunity, by taking steps to ensure that opportunities are actually realised equally by male and female youth.
  • Work to enhance open recruitment, closing the ‘boys club’ of informal recruitment through contacts. Findings suggest that women fare relatively worse than men in the informal job-seeking system. This suggests that the development of meritocratic recruitment systems (e.g. based on formal applications) as well as initiatives which allow youth to prove their capacities, such as on-the-job-training/apprenticeship programmes, may be important element of holistic approaches to narrowing the gender employment gap.

Download the PDF version here: Prospects Learning Paper No. 1 – Barriers Facing Female Youth


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