Evidence on soft skills and women’s labor market outcomes

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Two women are pictured surrounded by colorful fabric scraps. One women is sitting at the desk working with a grey sewing machine, while the other woman is sitting behind her cross legged on the floor folding a scrape of brown fabric.
Photo: Paula Bronstein | Images of Empowerment

Worldwide, nearly 7 percent of employed people live below the extreme poverty line (US$1.90 purchasing power parity per day). In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), about 147 million people were underemployed based on the number of hours they worked in 2019. Skills and vocational training programs are often posited as a solution to these labor market challenges. 

Yet, when people face different labor market barriers on the basis of their gender, strategies to increase or improve employment can have variable effects. For example, where measured, job search assistance programs can have varying effects for women and men. Similarly, evidence on training for soft skills, such as teamwork and conflict resolution, shows some important gender-based variation in training impacts.

Employers and jobseekers often see soft skills as important to success at work. For example, in Latin America, surveyed firms reported that they specifically look for strong soft skills, in addition to traditional technical skills, when screening applicants. 

More evidence could make soft skills training programs more gender equity enhancing. Policymakers should use the existing evidence, which shows different effects on the basis of gender, to think critically about who their programs will serve. Funders can play an important role in improving these programs by supporting evidence generation that enhances our understanding of how soft skills training can help promote gender equity in the labor market.

Soft skills training programs have shown positive, but different, results for women and men

A number of randomized evaluations show that vocational and business training programs that included soft skills elements can have positive effects on key labor market outcomes, including employment, earnings, and job quality. 

For example, an evaluation of a soft skills training program in Uganda, which focused on encouraging personal initiative and an entrepreneurial mindset for current business owners and university students, found that the program resulted in greater business success for participants. 

In Colombia, researchers found that a hard skills focused training program resulted in higher employment in the short-term than soft skills focused training. However, in the long-term soft skills focused training helped workers stay employed and maintain their wages. This evidence indicates that soft skills training may lead to growth opportunities within or across jobs. 

While rigorous evaluations of soft skills trainings have shown positive labor market outcomes, they seem to have particularly strong effects for women in the workforce. 

For example, in the Dominican Republic, a modified version of a government-run skills training program, called Programa Juventud y Empleo, taught life skills and job-readiness tips to improve formal sector employment outcomes. An evaluation of the program found that women experienced increased employment rates and wages in the short term. While these effects on employment and wages dissipated over time, women’s increase in life skills and optimism about the future persisted three years later. Men’s employment rates and wages either stayed the same or decreased in the short term, but these negative effects were not sustained in the long-term.

In India, a soft skills training specifically targeting women garment workers, the Personal Advancement and Career Advancement program, offered skills trainings on financial literacy, problem-solving, and efficient task execution. At the end of the program, the participants’ soft skills and productivity improved, including their ability to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues and supervisors. The factories, which paid for the program, saw a high net rate of financial return (73 percentage points), demonstrating that this was a cost-effective solution. 

More research should examine the underlying reasons for these different effects on the basis of gender. A better understanding of the gender dynamics of soft skills training programs could help policymakers implement and invest in programs that address the specific challenges women face in the labor market. For example, could different types of soft skills benefit women more than people of other genders?

J-PAL funded research may help us understand gender differences in program outcomes

J-PAL’s Jobs and Opportunity Initiative (JOI) funds rigorous randomized evaluations of innovative solutions to pressing employment challenges. JOI has a particular focus on training and job matching, as well as programs that identify and support high-growth potential entrepreneurs. 

In its first two years, the initiative has funded a handful of research project that focus on soft skills. Working in Morocco, one JOI-funded researcher is hoping to determine whether employers there hold systematically biased beliefs about women’s characteristics, including soft skills. In Malawi, a team of researchers are evaluating the effects of soft skills certification and “speed dating” exercises between job seekers and employers on employment and other key labor market outcomes. Lastly, a JOI-funded research team in Uganda is conducting an eight-year follow-up on an evaluation that compared two mini-MBAs, one that focused on hard skills and one that focused on soft skills. Medium-term results suggest that the soft skills-focused mini-MBA helped participants create higher quality businesses. 

J-PAL-funded randomized evaluations gather data that can speak to different effects on the basis of gender, so results from projects like these could help address the pressing questions about soft skills outlined above.

Additional research can improve soft skills training programs’ ability to enhance gender equity

Soft skills training programs that are designed to enhance gender equity could play an important role in efforts to reduce working poverty and underemployment. Researchers and funders should collaborate to form a better understanding of gender variation in the benefits of soft skills training, which could inform more equity enhancing programs. Policymakers should make use of existing and emerging evidence on soft skills training programs to ensure that they increase gender parity.