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Vocational and business training to improve women’s labour market outcomes in low- and middle-income countries
- Authors: Marjorie Chinen, Thomas de Hoop, Lorena Alcázar, María Balarin, Josh Sennett
- Published date: 2017-12-21
- Coordinating group(s): International Development
- Type of document: Title, Protocol, Review, Plain language summary
- Volume: 13
- PLS Title: Vocational and business training benefit women on the labour market, but the effects of most programmes are small
- PLS Logo:
- PLS Description: Women around the world often perform jobs with minimal skill requirements, and encounter few opportunities for learning and advancement. Governments and development agencies try to improve women’s skills through vocational and business training programmes. This review summarises evidence on the impacts of such programmes, and on the barriers to and facilitators of vocational and business training effectiveness.
- Title: Vocational and business training to improve women’s labour market outcomes in low- and middle-income countries
About this systematic review
This Campbell systematic review examines the impact of vocational and business training targeted at women in low- and middle-income countries. The review summarises evidence from thirty-five quantitative studies with an experimental or quasi-experimental design. The review summarises the impact of 30 interventions, containing data from over 80,000 women. The qualitative narrative meta-synthesis includes findings from 50 studies.
What are the main results?
Vocational training has small positive effects: employment and formal employment increased by 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively, and income by 6 percent. There is some variability in the findings.
Effects are larger in programmes with a gender focus. Effects on earnings, but not employment, are larger in programmes that include life skills training or an internship. Employment effects are larger in Africa and Asia. Effects are stronger six months after the start of the programme than twelve months after the start of the programme.
Vocational training programmes were commonly outsourced without establishing adequate quality control procedures or monitoring mechanisms that may undermine effectiveness.
Business training combined with cash transfers or life skills training increases the likelihood of self-employment by 73 percent, and sales or profits by 7 percent. Business training with cash transfers did not have different effects from business training without cash transfers.
Effects on sales are larger in sub-Saharan Africa (15 percent). This larger effect may be caused by the stronger gender focus of those programmes. The positive effects on sales and profits appear driven by the inclusion of mentoring and technical assistance components that enhance business knowledge and practices.
Structural barriers, such as distance and cost of transportation, time constraints for participation, and economic and labour market barriers, limit programme effectiveness. Gender norms such as occupational segregation and the unequal division of domestic and care responsibilities, as well as the cost and availability of childcare facilities also discourage women’s participation in vocational and business training.
Although women’s labour market participation has improved markedly, evidence suggests that once in the labour market, women around the world still face limited opportunities. For instance, they tend to perform jobs that have minimal skill requirements, and they encounter few opportunities for learning and advancement due to institutional, societal, and structural barriers. These barriers generate a gender gap in skills development, which in turn contributes to the reproduction of gender inequalities and further limits low- and middle-income countries’ development potential. One way that governments and development agencies have tried to improve the supply of skills is through vocational and business training programmes. This systematic review focuses on the impacts of such programmes on women’s labour market outcomes. The review also synthesizes evidence on the barriers to and facilitators of vocational and business training effectiveness.
The primary objective of this review is to synthesize 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.
We searched electronic databases, grey literature, relevant journals, and institutional websites, and we performed keyword hand searches and requested recommendations from key stakeholders. The search was conducted from July to September 2015, and from July to September 2016.
We included studies published in English or Spanish and conducted after 1990 that examined the impact of vocational and business training programmes that aim to increase women’s participation in higher skilled occupations on labour market outcomes. We included evaluations of programmes that targeted women who were 18 years or older in low- and middle-income countries, as defined by the World Bank. To be included in the review, studies had to measure the impact of vocational and business training programmes that aimed to increase the skill levels of the disadvantaged, unemployed, or underemployed; fostered entrepreneurship to expand employment; and increased women’s income prospects.
We excluded vocational and business training programmes targeted exclusively at men, as well as studies that focused on interventions that trained women to work in very low-skill occupations. We included quantitative studies with experimental designs using random assignment to the intervention and quasi-experimental designs with non-random assignment (such as regression discontinuity designs, “natural experiments,” and studies in which participants self-select into the programme). In addition, we included qualitative and mixed-methods studies focused on the interventions included in the review that explored the evidence surrounding barriers to and facilitators of vocational and business training effectiveness.
Data collection and analysis
We systematically coded information from the studies included in the review and critically appraised them. We conducted statistical meta-analysis and sensitivity analysis using the data extracted from quantitative experimental and quasi-experimental studies. We also used narrative meta-synthesis techniques to synthesize the findings from studies including findings on barriers to and facilitators of intervention effectiveness. In addition, we produced a detailed programme characterization gathered through a number of supporting documents that we used to characterize and classify the included interventions. Finally, we triangulated the findings from the quantitative meta-analysis with the findings from the narrative meta-synthesis.
To address the primary research question we included a total of 35 quantitative studies describing the impact of 30 interventions. To answer the secondary research questions, the qualitative narrative meta-synthesis included findings on barriers to and facilitators of intervention effectiveness from 50 studies (the 35 included impact evaluations studies, and 15 studies linked to selected interventions which used qualitative or mixed-methods techniques). We used an adapted set of criteria to assess the risk of selection-bias, performance bias, outcome and analysis reporting bias, and other biases in experimental and quasi-experimental studies (Hombrados & Waddington, 2012). Of the 35 studies included in the review, 14 were rated as having a low risk of selection bias, 23 were rated as having a low risk of performance bias, 24 were rated as having a low risk of outcome and analysis reporting bias, and all were rated as having a low risk of other biases. In addition, a quality appraisal of the included qualitative studies was carried out using an adaptation of the nine-item Qualitative Research Checklist, which was developed by the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP). Of the 26 identified studies, 3 had only minor limitations, 20 had medium limitations, and 3 had major limitations.
In addition to these studies, we used 93 supporting documents providing factual programme information to prepare detailed characterizations of the included interventions. These documents included project documents, programme or institutional websites, and programme information found in qualitative and quantitative papers included in the review.
We found that vocational training, on average, had positive but small effects on the employment, formal employment, earnings, and income of women in low- and middle-income countries. The results suggested that, on average, vocational training increased the likelihood of employment and formal employment by 11% (95% CI=1.03, 1.18; evidence from eight programmes) and 8% (95% CI=1.00, 1.18; evidence from five programmes), respectively. These results are based on a synthesis of study results with a total sample size of 82,359 women (18,753 programme participants and 63,606 women in the control or comparison group) for employment outcomes and 17,411 women (9,098 programme participants and 8,313 women in the control or comparison group) for formal employment outcomes.
We found that the average effect of vocational training on earnings was 5.54% (95% CI =2.50%, 8.96%; evidence from 8 programmes) or 0.11 standardized mean differences (95% CI = 0.05, 0.18; evidence from 8 programmes). These results are based on a total sample size of 85,981 women (20,517 programme participants and 65,464 women in the control or comparison group). We also found evidence of heterogeneity in effect sizes across different dimensions. For example, we found that the effects of vocational training on employment were statistically significantly higher in Africa and Asia than in low- and middle-income countries in other regions. In addition, we found evidence that the impact of vocational training on employment and earnings was larger for programmes that included a gender focus, compared to programmes that did not.
We also examined whether life skills training or internships had an indirect effect on labour market outcomes by increasing participants’ employability. We did not find evidence that vocational training programmes that did and did not include life skills training or internships had different effects on employment. However, we did find some evidence that the effects of vocational training on earnings may increase with the inclusion of life skills training or an internship, as well as some evidence that vocational training programmes that were evaluated 6 months after the programme had stronger effects, compared to programmes that were evaluated at a later stage. Although these results point to potential heterogeneities in the impact estimates, we need to be careful when interpreting the results because each of the patterns in the effect sizes may be related to confounding factors, such as other programme or contextual characteristics. Nonetheless, the short time vocational training programs have for program implementation may explain the lower impact of vocational training programmes that were evaluated after 12 months or more. It is possible that vocational training programmes need to provide follow-up training to participants in order to achieve longer term effects. We also found that vocational training programmes were commonly outsourced without establishing adequate quality control procedures or monitoring mechanisms. This is likely to increase the heterogeneity of the content and quality of the training and may contribute to the relatively small effects of vocational training programmes on women’s employment and income.
In addition, our results revealed that business training combined with cash transfers or life skills training had positive and statistically significant effects on the likelihood of self-employment. The results suggested that, on average, business training combined with cash transfers or life skills training increased the likelihood of self-employment by 73% (95% CI=1.28, 2.09; evidence from three programmes). These results are based on a total sample size of 7,373 women (3,815 programme participants and 3,558 women in the control or comparison group). Again, however, we need to be careful when interpreting this result because it is unclear whether these effects were caused by business training or other programme components, such as cash transfers or life skills training.
We also found evidence that business training had a positive and statistically significant effect on sales or profits. On average, business training increased women’s sales or profits by 0.10 standardized mean differences (95% CI = 0.00, 0.20; evidence from four programmes) or 6.83% (95% CI =0.15%, 9.95%; evidence from four programmes). These results are based on a total sample size of 14,729 women (6,123 programme participants and 8,606 women in the control or comparison group). The effect size did not appear to increase significantly when business training was complemented with either cash transfers or microfinance. However, we found evidence for some heterogeneities in the effect sizes. For example, we found evidence for larger positive effects on sales or profits in sub-Saharan Africa than in other continents. In sub-Saharan Africa, business training increased sales or profits by 0.31 standardized mean differences (95% CI = -0.02, 0.64; evidence from three programmes) or 15.47% (95% CI =-0.90%, 30.61%; evidence from three programmes), on average, compared to an average effect size of just 0.05 standardized mean differences (95% CI = 0.00, 0.10; evidence from six programmes) or 2.55% (95% CI =0.20%, 4.89%; evidence from six programmes) in other low- and middle-income countries.
The large effect sizes in sub-Saharan Africa were almost entirely driven by two studies, however. The larger impact of business training in sub-Saharan Africa may be related to a stronger gender focus in the programmes that produced the largest effects on sales or profits. The programme with the strongest gender focus also had the largest effect of business training on profits. The positive effects on sales and profits appear to be driven by the inclusion of mentoring and technical assistance components which contribute to enhanced business knowledge and practices. We find positive effects on both of these outcome measures in our quantitative narrative synthesis.
In addition, our quantitative narrative synthesis indicated that a strong gender focus increased the impact of business training on the likelihood of self-employment in South Asia. However, we again need to be careful when interpreting these differences in effect sizes. As with vocational training, these differences may be associated with confounding factors, such as other programme or contextual characteristics.
We found mixed evidence for the sustainability of positive effects of business training programmes based on impact trajectories of individual studies. Specifically, the findings suggested that the impacts of business training on profits decreases with time in some contexts. However, in other contexts impacts on profits become slightly more positive over time.
Unlike vocational training programmes, the content of business interventions tended to be homogenous. Each of the business training programmes also appeared to suffer from design problems related to their short durations, which ranged from one afternoon to 3 months. These short durations may well have had a negative effect on the quality of business trainings. We also found that business interventions tended to have less gender focus than vocational programmes, identifying only two business training programmes with a strong gender focus.
The narrative meta-synthesis suggests that structural conditions and gender norms were the main barriers to programme effectiveness. Structural barriers typically included the distance and cost of transportation, time constraints for participation, and economic and labour market barriers. In terms of gender norms, occupational segregation and the unequal division of domestic and care responsibilities, as well as the cost and availability of childcare facilities, also discouraged women’s participation in vocational and business training.
Our review highlights several important implications for practice and policy. The quantitative evidence suggests that vocational training had positive but small effects on employment, formal employment, and earnings. In addition, we found that business training combined with other programme components had positive effects on self-employment, as well as small but positive effects on sales or profits. However, these relatively small effects may be insufficient to justify scaling up vocational or business training programmes. We did find some evidence of a positive relationship between the effects of vocational training programmes and the inclusion of a stronger gender focus, life skills training, or an internship in addition to the vocational training. These results suggest that including a gender focus, life skills training, or internships could strengthen vocational training programmes. However, it is important to test these mechanisms further through rigorous mixed-methods studies with multiple treatment arms. The current evidence from meta-regressions is not sufficient to make strong claims about the potential relationship between gender focus or life skills training and the effectiveness of vocational training because it is possible that confounding factors drove these results.