Vocational and business training to improve women’s labour market outcomes in low- and middle-income countries: a systematic review

Publication Details

Chinen, M, De Hoop, T, Balarin, M, Alcázar, L, Sennett, J, and Mezarina, J, 2018. Vocational and business training to improve women’s labour market outcomes in low- and middle-income countries: a systematic review. 3ie Systematic Review 40. London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie).

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Marjorie Chinen, Thomas de Hoop, María Balarin, Lorena Alcázar, Josh Sennett, Julian Mezarina
Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, All Low and Middle Income Countries
Education, Social Protection
Vocational/ Technical Education & Training, Social Assistance
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review


Chinen and colleagues examine the impacts of both vocational and business training programmes on women’s labour market outcomes.

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

Vocational training, on average, leads to minor improvements in the economic outcomes for women in low- and middle-income countries. Business training also has a positive effect when combined with cash transfers or life skills training. The studies suggest that programmes with a gender focus have a larger impact on women.

Evidence Base

For the main analysis, the review includes 35 quantitative impact evaluations, covering 30 separate interventions and 15 additional qualitative or mixed-method studies for looking at barriers and facilitators. Of the quantitative studies, 19 evaluate vocational training programmes, 12 look at business training programmes, and 4 examine interventions with elements from both. The authors also fully characterise the interventions using an additional 93 supporting documents.

The studies come from a wide variety of low- and middle-income countries, including Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Nepal, India, Jordan and Turkey.

Implications for policy and practice

A meta-analysis of vocational training programmes suggests that, on average, they increase the likelihood of any employment by 11% (95% CI = 3%, 18%) and formal employment by 8% (95% CI = 0%, 18%). The average effect on earnings is 5.54% (95% CI = 2.50%, 8.96%). They seem to have a significantly higher effect in Africa and Asia than other regions. The effectiveness of the programmes for women seemed to improve when there was a gender focus, but internships and life skills training seem to have no effect.

On average, business training combined with either cash transfers or life training skills increase the likelihood of self-employment by 73% (95% CI = 28%, 109%) and sales/profits by 6.83% (95% CI = 0.15%, 9.95%). There is tentative evidence to suggest that a gender focus improves outcomes for women, particularly in terms of profits. These also increase when mentoring and technical assistance components are included.

The main barriers to programme effectiveness are structural conditions (such as cost of transportation, time constraints, and labour market barriers) and gender norms (such as occupational segregation, and the cost of childcare). The sustainability of programme effects is unclear and may benefit from follow-up training.

Implications for further research

There is a need for more rigorous randomised controlled trials and higher-quality quasi-experimental studies. Most of the existing studies fail to deal with selection bias adequately and therefore may be overestimating the impact of the programmes. Trials with multiple arms and mixed-method research would improve understanding of the causal pathways and the impact of the varying programme components. Finally, more research is needed on the sustainability of outcomes.


Whilst women’s participation in the labour market has greatly increased globally, evidence indicates that the types of jobs available to them are still limited. Due to institutional, societal and structural barriers, women receive fewer opportunities for learning and advancement than their male counterparts do. This generates a gender gap in skills development, which disproportionately leaves women in low-skill, and therefore low-paying, jobs and reinforces gender inequalities. One approach to increasing the skill level of adult women and men is through vocational and business training programmes. Vocational training programmes focus on preparing participants for jobs within a specific sector, whilst business training programmes develop business management and entrepreneurial skills.

Research objectives

The primary objective of this review is to synthesise the evidence on the effects of vocational and business training programmes that aim to improve women’s labour market outcomes. The secondary objective is to improve our understanding of the barriers to and facilitators of vocational and business training effectiveness for women, and how these barriers and facilitators operate.


The authors included studies on the impacts of vocational or business training programmes that targeted women who were 18 years or older in low- or middle-income countries. They excluded studies on programmes that exclusively targeted men and ones that trained women in very low-skill occupations. They included quantitative studies with experimental designs using random assignment, as well as quasi-experimental designs with non-random assignment (including regression discontinuity designs, natural experiments, and studies where participants self-select into the programme). They further included qualitative and mixed-methods studies that contained evidence on the barriers and facilitators of programme effectiveness. All of the included studies published after 1990 in either English or Spanish. The authors searched electronic databases, grey literature, relevant journals, and institutional websites in July – September 2015 and July – September 2016.

Two authors independently screened studies for inclusion and extracted the relevant data. They assessed all the studies for risk of bias and overall quality. The impacts, and barriers and facilitators, were synthesised by meta-analysis and narrative synthesis respectively.

Quality assessment

The authors use appropriate methods when searching for studies, screening them, extracting the data, and analysing effect sizes. They are also careful to highlight any limitations in their data or conclusions. However, the review is limited because of a language bias, as only studies published in English or Spanish were included.

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