Gender, Trade

Women are less engaged in trade: Why, and what to do about it

10 minute read

By Jane Korinek (, Annabelle Mourougane ( and Elisabeth van Lieshout  (, Trade and Agriculture Directorate & Statistics and Data Directorate (OECD)

Exporting by entrepreneurs and gender export gaps

Note: The y-axis displays the share of firms in a given group that indicate they engage in either ‘just exporting’ or ‘both importing and exporting’. Based on a sample of 10,000 SMEs (i.e. firms with fewer than 250 employees) from 34 OECD countries.
Source: Based on the OECD-World Bank-Meta Future of Business Survey from March 2022.

Figure 2: Export behaviour of exporting firms

Source: OECD-World Bank-Meta Future of Business Survey of SMEs with a presence on Facebook in March 2022.

One striking gender difference in the pattern of foreign sales is that women-led firms tend to export more directly to consumers and less to other businesses. According to the Future of Business Survey, 79% of the men-led firms engaged in exporting report selling to foreign companies, while only 51% of women-led firms do so. Business-to-business sales are often made up of larger orders and therefore offer more opportunity to increase exports along the intensive margin (i.e. increasing the average size of orders). A Kitagawa-Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition of this difference shows it is 18% due to the industries in which these firms operate, 16% due to size differences, and 2% due to the more recent creation of women-led businesses in the survey. Most of the remaining gap – over half of the difference – is not explained by the features of women- and men-led firms.

Women-led firms are at least as engaged online as men-led firms. A larger share of women-led firms’ sales occurs online compared with men-led firms, even when controlling for other firm characteristics. Larger shares of online sales for exporters also underline the importance of digital sales for international trade: firms engaged in international markets are much more likely to use digital platforms compared with those that do not export. Sixty-four percent of women-led firms that export use digital platforms to buy and sell goods and services compared with 37% of women-led firms that do not export. Given the importance of online sales and engagement for international trade, one way to facilitate trade is by ensuring easy and affordable Internet access, including in more remote or rural areas.

  • Applying a gender lens to trade agreements
  • Ensuring market access for goods and services produced and consumed by women and their businesses
  • Implementing trade-facilitating measures
  • Ensuring inclusive access to the Internet and digital spaces
  • Ensuring trade promotion services reach women exporters and cater to their needs
  • Providing adequate finance, including trade finance, and promoting financial literacy
  • Ensuring professional and business networks are inclusive of women
  • Closing data gaps


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  1. These differences, as well as all other findings stemming from the Facebook survey analyses mentioned throughout this article, are statistically significant at the conventional 95% level. Moreover, all differences persist and remain significant when controlling for a firm’s country, sector, size, and age.
  2. Entrepreneurs generally own and lead businesses in sectors where they have worked as employees. More than two-thirds of women in upper-middle- and high-income countries were employed in service sectors in 2017, up from 45% in 1991. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, the proportion of women in service sectors jumped from 25% to 38% over the same period (World Bank/WTO 2020
  3. The less traded sectors of health, education, and public administration represent 12% of the survey sample. Women represent 59% of the business leaders in these sectors according to the survey, compared to 35% in service sectors in general and 31% in the survey sample as a whole.
  4. Kitagawa-Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition is a statistical approach often used to analyse gender pay gaps. It was used here to disentangle the extent to which the gap in exporting can be attributed to differences in firm characteristics. When looking at two groups with a different mean on a variable (in this case, share of exporters), this technique disentangles the share of this difference that can be attributed to specific features and the share that remains unexplained.