Sharna with her mother at her tailoring business in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Marisol Grandon / U.K. Department for International Development / CC BY

The gender inequality observed in developed and developing country workplaces has its roots early in the lives of women. Crucially, many adolescent girls and young women are failing to make a successful transition from school to work. As a result, organizations — whether corporations, government agencies, or social sector institutions — are not able to build a gender-balanced pipeline of leaders at scale.

The school-to-work transition: A key determinant of long-term economic empowerment

The data shows that young women are not making the transition from school to work as quickly and successfully as their male peers — and this can have significant consequences for the trajectory of their economic empowerment, and the opportunities they will have to assume positions of leadership. For example, in a 31-country average cited in an International Labour Organization report, nearly 70 percent of young women who left the labor market remained inactive. Missing out on work opportunities early in life appears to make it much less likely that women will engage in the labor force longer term.

The problem extends beyond participation in the workforce to disparities in the types of work young women can access. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, where the gender gaps in educational attainment and youth employment are relatively similar (albeit with variation across countries), young women are more likely to work in informal or vulnerable employment. Roughly three-quarters of women are in informal non-agricultural employment, compared to roughly 60 percent of men.

The good news is that concerted global efforts to close the gender gaps in primary and secondary education are bearing fruit. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, only 17 of the 144 countries studied reported a gender gap in educational attainment wider than 10 percent. However, in many places around the world, this progress in education is not translating into gender equality in the world of work, often diverted by unpaid care labor and facing constraints on their mobility and the work opportunities available to them. For instance, in India, g­irls have surpassed boys in secondary school completion rates, yet they trail by 30 points in adolescent employment — and this gap has remained constant for the past three decades. A report by the International Labour Organization found that more than three-quarters of youth ages 15-29 worldwide who are not working or in school are female. This impacts women’s long-term prospects of generating income, controlling assets, and closing gender gaps in the workforce and society as a whole. 

So if parity in education is not translating into parity in the world of work, what can be done to improve this? Our examination of the at-scale programs and policies reveals a significant focus on “supply-side” interventions that provide young women with education, vocational and life skills training. While quality workforce readiness and human capital acquisition programs are of course necessary, we believe they alone are insufficient. “Demand-side” interventions are also needed to ensure decent formal and informal work opportunities are available for young women to pursue, so they do not find themselves all skilled up with nowhere to go.

Leaders in global development, policymakers and corporations can use the following initiatives as a guide to accelerate progress for young women in making the school-to-work transition successfully, helping to drive toward gender parity in the world of work.

Case study: Women’s underrepresentation in the public and private sectors in Africa

McKinsey’s research on gender diversity in the public and private sectors in Africa found that women are still underrepresented at every level of the hierarchy — non-management, middle, and senior management — and they fall in number the higher they climb, with only 5 percent of women making it to the very top. While Africa has more women in parliament and cabinet positions than the global average, due in large part to targets these institutions have set, women’s representation still needs to double to achieve gender parity across the continent.

And representation, of course, does not necessarily translate into equal influence — approximately half of women cabinet ministers hold social welfare portfolios with arguably limited political influence, which are less likely to open doors to top leadership roles.

1. Involve employers in vocational skills training programs.

Companies can shape curricula to ensure that relevant on-the-job skills are taught and provide a direct pipeline into job opportunities for program graduates. For example, the Generation program of the McKinsey Social Initiative focuses on addressing youth unemployment and works with employers to craft the training curriculum and provide placement opportunities for program graduates.

Similarly, the IL&FS Skills Development Corporation, a training organization, has secured over 1,000 employers as partners to ensure the applicability of the curriculum and to help secure placements. Vocational training programs in Peru and Colombia that are similarly linked with employment opportunities have a strong track record of success for young women.

2. Increase young women’s awareness of work opportunities in male-dominated fields.

An experiment in India had recruiters for business-process outsourcing companies visit rural areas to provide information about employment opportunities in this male-dominated sector. Women in villages targeted with recruitment efforts were more likely to enroll in vocational training and find employment outside the home, and delay marriage and childbearing.

3. Integrate young women into supply chains.

WEConnect International, for example, links large corporations with women-owned businesses and certifies them. The Savannah Fruits Company engages women in its procurement operations by creating direct commercial links between village-level groups or individual women producers of commodities, and has engaged over 8,000 women in Ghana in butter and nut production. These efforts to integrate women into supply chains can be further tailored to reach young women, many of whom will need to pursue self-employment in areas with few formal job opportunities.

4. Strengthen support for self-employed women and women entrepreneurs.

This entails helping women identify product and service offerings with growth potential, connecting them with market information (e.g. pricing and suppliers) and supporting their access to capital and financing. For example, Walmart has undertaken efforts to train women farmers on agricultural and post-harvest practices; programs that are part of this effort are expected to impact over 150,000 women across sub-Saharan Africa. New mobile apps provide farmers — including digitally connected women farmers — with information on crop prices.

5. Work with public and private employers to address their gender gaps.

Gender disaggregation of employers’ workforce data will help identify and understand the drivers of gender imbalances in the “intake” of new workers, retention and advancement. For example, Tata Consultancy Services, a technology services company in India, sought to address gender imbalances in its workforce by focusing on the hiring and retention of young women in technological roles. TCS set up targeted recruiting programs for women at male-dominated engineering colleges; introduced extended maternity leave, flexible work hours, onsite child care, and reorientation courses for women returning from maternity leave; TCS also offers a mentoring program to help women employees reach managerial roles. As a result, TCS has seen 10-fold growth in the past 10 years in terms of the percentage of women in senior manager roles.

As in so many realms of women’s empowerment, strong public-private partnerships, backed by rigorous data collection to better understand obstacles and monitor progress, will drive the success of initiatives to ensure that educational attainment translates into economic success for young women. Of course, these demand-side efforts will need to be paired with interventions that address other obstacles young women face in the school-to-work transition, such as the burdens of unpaid care work, and social norms that limit young women’s mobility in public spaces.

Gainful, decent economic activity expands women’s opportunities to assert themselves as leaders by increasing their agency, giving them access to assets they can leverage, and expanding their social networks. Indeed, economic empowerment not only lifts up women and their families, but it also enables more women to emerge as leaders in government, corporations and civil society organizations. It starts with navigating the school-to-work transition, and can lead to so much more.

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About the authors

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Tracy Nowski

Tracy Nowski is a leader in McKinsey's Social Sector Practice, where her work with foundations, multilaterals, NGOs and nonprofits focuses on women's economic empowerment and women's health.


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Mekala Krishnan

Mekala Krishnan is an expert at the McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey's economics and business research arm, where she co-leads research on global gender equality. Her other areas of expertise include global macro-economic, business and demographic trends, including their impact on economic growth.


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Kweilin Ellingrud

With more than a decade of experience at McKinsey, Kweilin Ellingrud serves clients across both strategy and operations transformations. Kweilin also leads McKinsey’s Closing the Global Gender Gap initiative to help improve the lives of women around the world.


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