When ID works for women: What’s the role of identification in helping women get access to work?

Savita Bailur and Hélène Smertnik

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

We look forward to your thoughts and feedback on new research we’re starting at Caribou Digital on women, work and ID!


Today, around the world, women’s achievements are being celebrated and recognized, marked by International Women’s Day. As we celebrate the economic progress women have made, we wanted to introduce some new research we are working on at Caribou Digital that looks at an important topic and its contribution to the gender parity discussion: women, work and identification. More specifically, to what extent does identification help women get stable, secure work in emerging economies?

Much of the linear thinking around “women and ID” is that identification will enable women to access services such as health and education, to secure fair employment, to open a bank account, to protect them and enable them to participate politically and socially. In short, that identification will both empower and protect women. But what evidence do we have on the benefits of identification for accessing work? What role does ID play in getting and keeping a job, and protecting income? Through this project supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we will be tackling these questions. We’ll also explore what we mean by “identification” and what types of identification the women we interview value.

What is the research saying and what is it missing?

Here’s what is emerging from all the intersecting research on women, work and identification: female workforce participation has been steadily rising since 1990 according to the World Bank. At the same time, opportunities to either find work or conduct work (online or offline) are multiplying in a global, digital age. This can be something as simple as women using mobile phones as a tool to find work or to maintain contact with customers and suppliers. In our Digital Lives in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda work, we found many of the women we spoke to set up small business on WhatsApp and Facebook to sell goods. In other research on female entrepreneurs who sell personal care and makeup in Khartoum, home-based work is appealing to the women as it preserves the status quo. They don’t need to leave the house but can still earn an income. We question elsewhere how this means “empowerment” but it does provide women an income and some level of independence.

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

People’s experiences of identification has been a focus of our work at Caribou Digital which has revealed a number of insights, like the thirteen themes we explore here. We have a number of pieces published for various clients looking at private sector identity providers, experiences of identification (including Aadhaar) in India, and refugee experiences of identification in Jordan, Lebanon and Uganda. We’ve also done an internal study on identification experiences of vulnerable groups in a West African country for the World Bank.

However, we’ve found a gap in knowledge on how the identification journey looks for job-seeking women. What is the role of identification for them? In our India research, for example, we found many women suddenly needed bank accounts after demonetization to be paid digitally by employers, but lacked supporting documents (e.g. anything with a proof of address). In Lahiri’s Maid in India, employers and employment agencies can be enablers to identification but can also block it. In our own research, we found that sometimes women's in-laws or employment agencies kept IDs for collateral, so women were limited in what they could do or where they could go. The assumption is that with identification, women will be able to find more secure work, protected by a contract. Mastercard Foundation terms such work as formal, with a steady wage, and dignified and fulfilling.

Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

We’ll be doing this research in parallel with two other streams (World Bank and GSMA respectively) in the Commonwealth gender-focussed ID programme. GSMA’s research is here, surfacing initial findings of a common cultural narrative that women need ID less in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Nigeria, and the impact of this on next generations. This is the start of women-focussed ID research GSMA will be undertaking over the next year.

We’ll be working on this between now and September 2019, publishing a series of blogs that dive into findings from our research in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We’d love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback. Please ping @SavitaBailur on Twitter if you’d like to know more or have something to add to this important conversation! Otherwise, stay tuned.