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ILO: Women still less likely to be active in the labour market than men in most of the world


ILO: Women still less likely to be active in the labour market than men in most of the world

ILO: Women still less likely to be active in the labour market than men in most of the world
Photo credit: Business Call to Action

Despite notable progress over the past 20 years, updated ILO figures show persistent inequalities between women and men on access to the labour market, unemployment and conditions at work.

Women are less likely to participate in the labour market than men and are more likely to be unemployed in most parts of the world, says a new study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) released on the eve of International Women’s Day (marked on 8 March).

According to the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for Women 2018 – Global snapshot, the global women’s labour force participation rate – at 48.5 per cent in 2018 – is still 26.5 percentage points below the rate of their male counterparts. In addition, the global unemployment rate of women for 2018 – at 6 per cent – is approximately 0.8 percentage points higher than the rate for men. Altogether, this means that for every ten men in a job, only 6 women are in employment.

“Despite the progress achieved and the commitments made to further improvement, women’s prospects in the world of work are still a long way from being equal to men’s,” said Deborah Greenfield, ILO Deputy Director-General for Policy.

“Whether it is about access to employment, wage inequality or other forms of discrimination, we need to do more to reverse this persistent, unacceptable trend by putting in place policies tailored to women, also taking into account the unequal demands that they face in household and care responsibilities,” she added.

However, the snapshot signals significant disparities, depending on the wealth of countries.

For instance, differences in unemployment rates between women and men in developed countries are relatively small. Women even register lower unemployment rates than men in Eastern Europe and North America.

Conversely, in regions such as the Arab States and Northern Africa, female unemployment rates are still twice as large as men’s, with prevailing social norms continuing to obstruct women’s participation in paid employment.

Another example of these differences is that the gap in employment participation rates between men and women is narrowing in developing and developed countries while it continues to widen in emerging countries. However, this may be a reflection of the fact that a growing number of young women in these countries have joined formal education, which delays their entry to the labour market.

Too often in informal work and not enough in management

The snapshot also shows that women face significant gaps in the quality of the employment they are in. For instance, compared to men, women are still more than twice as likely to be contributing family workers. This means that they contribute to a market-oriented family business, but are often subject to vulnerable conditions of employment without written contracts, respect for labour legislation and collective agreements.

And while in emerging countries the female share of contributing family workers has declined over the past decade, in developing countries it remains high, at 42 per cent of female employment in 2018, compared to 20 per cent of male employment, with no signs of an improvement by 2021. As a result, women are still over-represented in informal employment in developing countries.

These findings also confirm previous ILO research that warned against significant gender gaps in wages and social protection.

Looking at women running businesses, the authors note that globally, four times as many men are working as employers than women in 2018. Such gender gaps are also reflected in management positions, where women continue to face labour market barriers when it comes to accessing management positions.

“Persistent challenges and obstacles for women will reduce the possibility for societies to develop pathways for economic growth with social development. Closing gender gaps in the world of work thus should remain a top priority if we want to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030,” concluded Damian Grimshaw, Director of the ILO Research Department.

World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for Women 2018 – Global snapshot

Informality remains pervasive among women in emerging and developing countries

There is a very strong likelihood, especially in emerging and developing economies, that own-account and contributing family workers are defined as members of the informal economy. This connection arises because own-account workers are typically not registered as legal entities, while contributing family workers do not have written employment contracts and therefore typically fall outside the scope of labour legislation, social security regulations and relevant collective agreements. However, these workers are not the only category of employment to be exposed to systematic labour market risks. The broad category of informal employment includes other groups, such as workers in the informal sector and workers in formal sector enterprises who hold informal jobs.

Women are over-represented in informal employment in developing countries, in part because there is a higher proportion of women who work as contributing family workers – a category which accounts for around one-third of the overall informal employment in developing countries. According to the ILO, the share of women in informal employment in developing countries was 4.6 percentage points higher than that of men, when including agricultural workers, and 7.8 percentage points higher when excluding them, in the latest year with available data (ILO, 2018b).

This gender gap is much higher in some sub-Saharan African countries, where the gap stands at over 20 percentage points (ibid.). In close to one-third of sub-Saharan countries with available data, the share of women in non-agricultural employment who are in informal employment is over 90 per cent, while for men the share hovers at around 82 per cent.

In contrast, men in emerging countries face a higher incidence of informal employment (at 70 per cent) than women (at 65 per cent), with a slightly larger gap when considering non-agricultural sectors only. This mainly reflects the trends observed in emerging countries in Asia and the Pacific, where the share of women in non-agricultural informal employment is typically lower than that of men, with some notable exceptions in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Viet Nam. However, informality rates for women employed in non-agricultural sectors in the emerging countries of Asia and the Pacific remain high, standing on average at 58 per cent compared to 65 per cent among men (ibid.).

Significant additional efforts are required to close gender gaps in the labour market

In the past decade, governments, together with employers and workers as well as their representative collective organizations, have implemented a number of measures to address the challenges that women face in the world of work. Especially notable is progress on family support provision, formalization of key areas of female-dominated informal work (such as domestic work) and efforts to address vertical sex segregation, especially in areas where reform has the potential to reduce sex discrimination. However, as this global snapshot highlights, current efforts by the major labour market actors to reduce the gender gap in labour market participation, while meaningful, are not sufficient.

The difference in access to decent work opportunities between men and women is a major obstacle in global efforts to achieve a more equitable and inclusive labour market, and is expected to remain so in the coming years, unless additional efforts are made to address the persistent gender gaps outlined above. As shown in previous reports (see, for example, ILO, 2017a), the overwhelmingly unequal demands that women face with regard to household and care responsibilities continue to manifest themselves as labour market inequalities in terms of the types of jobs which women can both access and in which they can enjoy sustained employment.

Indeed, the global challenges of informality and working poverty are also rooted (often organizationally and culturally) in patterns of sectoral and occupational sex segregation, which systemically constrain the opportunities open to women to gain access to better jobs. This suggests that tackling the labour market challenges confronting women will require not only efforts by governments, employers and trade unions to bridge the gap in the labour market, but also initiatives to dismantle the unequal demands that women face.

Reducing gender gaps in the labour market therefore requires comprehensive measures, tailored specifically to women (in recognition of their widely varying circumstances), which will ultimately contribute to the welfare of society. In developing and emerging countries, there remains the unresolved challenge of fostering the transition from informal to formal jobs, particularly among rural women in the agricultural sector. Promoting economic diversification, within both agricultural and non-agricultural activities, will contribute to achieving a higher degree of formalization, while reducing the incidence of working poverty through income diversification. Continuing to foster female enrolment in formal education, vocational training and entrepreneurship programmes is crucial in supporting the transition of women into decent jobs.

At the same time, there is considerable scope to improve the reach and effectiveness of public policies for family support by expanding the coverage of child-related services and promoting a more even redistribution of family responsibilities across members of the household (and possibly local communities). More generally, it is imperative for all countries and all constituent interest groups (especially governments, employers and trade unions) to work towards achieving the Agenda for Sustainable Development through measures that ensure quality jobs for women, reduce gender stereotypes and discrimination in both education and the workplace, and recognize, reduce and redistribute the disproportionate burden of care and household responsibilities that women currently bear.


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