VoxEU Column Development Labour Markets Gender

Female time use and structural transformation in Africa

The entry of women into the labour force is central to the ongoing structural transformation of African economies. This column uses detailed time-use data to document the scale and nature of female participation in both unpaid work in the home and paid work in the market. While female labour force participation is high, most hours continue to be worked in the home, on tasks such as cooking and cleaning, rather than in the market. This suggests an important role for policy to address both technological and cultural barriers to paid market work for women.

Over the last century, the entry of women into paid market work has been a major feature in high-income economies (Yellen 2020). Women have shifted their time from unpaid work at home and on family farms into compensated market work. This reallocation of time from home to market is central to the process of economic development. It tends to occur when the structural transformation of the economy shifts workers out of agriculture, first into manufacturing, and eventually into services (Goldin 1995, Herrendorf et al. 2014, Ngai et al. 2020). As home production services are marketised and women take up service sector jobs outside of the household, this entry of women into the labour market contributes to significant economic prosperity. Aggregate growth accelerates as individuals sort between home and market sectors based on their comparative advantage (Yellen 2020, Hsieh et al. 2019).

While this process of structural transformation is well advanced in high-income economies, many African countries are still in its early stages. Data limitations for the continent have contributed to a large knowledge gap regarding structural transformation, African women’s time use and time allocation. However, with suitable data – specifically, time use data – economists can deepen their understanding of the process of structural transformation by tracking how women in African countries engage in home and market work, and how their work choices change as the economies change over time.

In a new paper (Dinkelman and Ngai 2022), we use new micro evidence from time use surveys conducted in several African countries, combined with other macro data, to document structural transformation in female employment on the continent. We highlight new facts about women’s work in the home and market and compare current and historical time use of African and American housewives. In making these comparisons, we highlight potential barriers that stand in the way of women’s full participation in the market and discuss policies that could make ease the reallocation of women’s time from home to market. 

Structural transformation in women’s work in Africa since 1970

Our first observation is that structural transformation is occurring in Africa. Figure 1 uses aggregate data on 11 African countries from 1970 to 2010. It shows that over the last four decades, as African countries have grown richer, female employment has shifted out of agriculture and (largely) into services.  The development of a service sector in many economies has created female-intensive jobs and allowed for the marketisation of some home services (e.g. restaurants and food stalls), both crucial ingredients in removing barriers to, and providing opportunities for, women working outside of the home (Ngai and Petrongolo 2017). 

Figure 1 Female employment shares by sector and level of development in sub-Saharan Africa





Source: Annual data on female employment shares by sector for 11 African countries from the Africa Sector Database collated by the Groningen Growth and Development Centre. Real GDP per capita (2011 international dollars) from Penn World Tables v9.1. 

Market work is common among African women, but market hours are low

Figure 1 shows the sectoral composition of the female labour force, but what share of women participate in market work, and how much time do these women spend in market versus home work? Figure 2 addresses these questions and highlights two new facts about women’s work in Africa. 

First, in Figure 2a, we see that female labour force participation (measured in 2017) is generally high in most African countries. Except for several North African countries (the yellow circles in Figure 2a) and some island economies, at least 50% of all women are working in the market. However, Figure 2b shows simultaneously low participation on the intensive margin in market work. This figure plots the average weekly hours of market work (in red) and home hours (in blue) across all women for the set of countries for which time use data is available. In these countries, market work is less than a part-time job for women, while home hours range from 30 to over 45 hours per week. For the average African woman in this sample, home production is very time-intensive. 

Figure 2 Extensive versus intensive margin labour market activity for African women

(a) Female labour force participation


(b) Female market and home hours


Notes: In 2a, circle sizes represent population, orange circles denote North African countries and red circles denote sub-Saharan African countries. In 2b, average market and home hours are reported for women aged 15 and older.
Source: Female labour force participation in 2a is from the International Labour Organization. Average weekly market and home hours for women are from Bridgman et al. (2018) who use time use data to compute average hours for all women. Real GDP per capita (2011 international dollars) is from Penn World Tables v9.1.

Time-intensive home production in African households resembles historical home production in the US

A woman’s market work in a growing economy is intrinsically tied to her work in the home, and a key question is whether the two are substitutes or complements. To understand home production in Africa in greater detail, we examined micro time use data from South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and Sierra Leone. Figure 3 compares patterns of time allocation among these African housewives with historical patterns for US housewives. 

Surprisingly, Figure 3a shows that average weekly hours spent in home production in Ghana, Morocco, and South Africa are very similar to the average spent on housework among American housewives today: about 45 hours per week. Despite this, a much larger share of African women characterise themselves as housewives, compared with American women. 

However, African and American housewives differ substantially in the allocation of their home production across activities. Figure 3b shows that African women spend the lion’s share of their home hours cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry. This was true historically of American housewives; but modern time use data from the US shows that women spend very little time doing these activities. Overall, patterns of time use in home production in Africa look more like historical patterns of time use among American housewives from the 1920s and 1960s. In our paper, we discuss how some of these similarities may be related to the fact that access to electricity, water, and modern appliances in African households – items that reduce the time cost of cooking, cleaning, and laundry – is lower than it was even in the 1960s in the US. 

Figure 3 Cross-country home production among housewives

(a) Total weekly hours 


(b) Distribution of hours across activities


The value of more time use data for Africa

Removing barriers to women’s full economic participation is important for both equity and efficiency. When individuals cannot fully participate in the market economy according to their comparative advantage, workers are misallocated, and the whole economy loses out (Hsieh et al. 2019). 

In Africa, it seems that there is still substantial room for change on both the extensive and intensive margins of women’s market work. In our paper, we highlight the role that a lack of access to household utilities and infrastructure may play in driving up the time-intensity of home production and keeping women’s market hours low. We also discuss recent empirical evidence on a range of policy tools that could help to reduce both technological and cultural barriers to women’s market work. 

Simon Kuznets (1966, p. 157) noted that “[a] high rate of modern economic growth is attainable only if the required marked shifts in industrial structure are not too impeded by resistance – of labour and of capital, of people and their resources in the old and accustomed grooves”. Understanding the factors that keep African women’s time in the “old and accustomed grooves” of home production or unpaid family work is an exciting new area for research. This would benefit from greater application of time use surveys on the continent, especially as African economies continue to undergo structural transformation.

Authors’ note: The paper on which this column is based was partly supported by the Structural Transformation and Economic Growth Program at CEPR and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. 


Bridgman, B, G Duernecker and B Herrendorf (2018), “Structural Transformation, Marketization, and Household Production around the World”, Journal of Development Economics 133: 102–26.

Dinkelman, T and L R Ngai (2022), “Time Use and Gender in Africa in Times of Structural Transformation”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 36(1): 1-26.

Goldin, C (1995), “The U-Shaped Female Labor Force Function in Economic Development and Economic History” in T P Schultz (ed.), Investment in Women’s Human Capital, University of Chicago Press.

Herrendorf, B, R Rogerson, and A Valentinyi (2014), “Growth and Structural Transformation” in P Aghion and S N Durlauf (eds), Handbook of Economic Growth, Elsevier.

Hsieh, C, E Hurst, C I Jones and P J Klenow (2019), “The Allocation of Talent and U.S. Economic Growth”, Econometrica 87(5): 1439–74.

Kuznets, S (1966), Modern Economic Growth, Rate, Structure and Spread, Yale University Press.

Ngai, L R, C Olivetti and B Petrongolo (2020), “Structural Transformation and the U-shaped Female Employment”, Working Paper.

Ngai, L R, and B Petrongolo (2017), “Gender Gaps and the Rise of the Service Economy”, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 9(4): 1–44.

Yellen, J (2020) “The history of women’s work and wages and how it has created success for us all”, Brookings Institution, May.


1 The small increase in manufacturing employment occurs in Mauritius, where a robust garment sector has generated female-intensive jobs.

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