The gender gap in global labour markets

15 April 2013
ITC News
Investing in women’s skills and education is the best way to close the gender gap and give women a better chance in the jobs market.

While the gender gap in global labour markets showed some convergence in the early 2000s, it increased again after the economic crisis erupted in 2007. More effective policies are needed to reduce gender gaps as this can improve economic growth and standards of living, and in developing countries can be a major contribution to poverty reduction. 

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) December 2012 report, Global Employment Trends for Women, examines the conditions of women’s engagement in the labour market by estimating and analysing five key gaps, or gender differentials, between women and men in unemployment, employment, labour force participation, vulnerability, and sectoral and occupational segregation.

Key findings

The crisis widened gender gaps in unemployment in several regions. Women had higher unemployment rates than men in Africa, South and South-East Asia, and Latin America. But in East Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and more recently in advanced economies as well, there were negative gender gaps in unemployment rates, with men experiencing higher rates than women.

Gender differences in employment opportunities remained pervasive. Between 2002 and 2007, the global gender gap in the employment-to-population ratio inched down, but remained high at 24.6 percentage points. The pre-crisis reduction of this gap was based on historically higher employment growth rates for women of 1.8%, although from a low base, compared to men at 1.6%. However, the period of the crisis saw a reversal with historically higher employment growth rates for women falling lower than those for men by 0.1 percentage points.

The gender gap in the labour force participation rate decreased globally in the 1990s by 1.8 percentage points, with men’s rates falling faster than women’s in all regions. Between 2002 and 2012 this gap remained constant with both men’s and women’s participation falling equally. Significant reversal in South and East Asia and Central and Eastern Europe accounted for the global halt in convergence.

Vulnerable employment, comprising family and own-account workers, was more widespread for women than men. In 2012, there was a global gender gap of 2.3 percentage points, with a larger share of women in vulnerable employment at 50.4% of employed women.

Sectoral segregation increased over time, with women moving out of agriculture in developing economies and out of industry in developed economies and into services. In 2012, at the global level, one-third of women were employed in agriculture, nearly half in services and one-sixth in industry. As regards occupational segregation, a sample of advanced and developing countries found men overrepresented in crafts, trades, plant and machine operations, and managerial and legislative occupations. In contrast, women were over-represented in mid-skill occupations, such as clerks, service workers, and shop and sales workers.

A review of crisis policy responses based on an ILO/World Bank Policy Inventory database shows that 39 out of the 55 low- and middle-income countries and 17 out of 22 high-income countries sampled have adopted new measures to address large gender gaps in employment and participation. Provisions range across legislative revision of discrimination, equality and sexual harassment, taxation systems, electoral parity and parity in employment.

Six policy guidelines to reduce gender gaps

The ILO report discusses the need to expand social protection measures to reduce women’s vulnerability, invest in women’s skills and education and create policies to promote access to employment across the spectrum of sectors and occupations. The report focuses on six policy guidelines:

  • Reducing the burden of housework through better infrastructure
  • Tackling the burden of unpaid care work through the provision of care services
  • Balancing the gender division of paid and unpaid work
  • Ensuring equality in the decision-making process on household work division by changing the costs and benefits of gender specialization, for example by providing subsidies for non-active spouses and childcare leave benefits
  • Compensating for unequal employment opportunities based on gender
  • Using public campaigns to challenge gender stereotypes and effectively implementing legislation against discrimination.

Women continue to suffer from the fallout of the global economic crisis, and the ILO’s projections indicate that women’s employment opportunities are likely to remain limited, with female unemployment rates remaining high until 2017 or beyond. Given the persistent challenges women face in labour markets, enacting effective policy measures is essential to addressing gender-based inequality in the labour market and to enhancing productive employment opportunities for women and men around the world.