Basic Adversities Faced by Women in the World of Work


  • 15 May, 2010
  • Sona Mitra

The global platform for action on gender equality and women’s empowerment was fixed in Beijing 15 years ago and international organizations like the ILO, women activists and researchers, policymakers, etc all over the world have advocated for gender equality in the world of work for even longer. Although women constitute almost 41 per cent of the global labour force, yet the productive potential of women workers still remains grossly undermined. This has been manifested in the nature of jobs in which women are engaged all across the world, especially in the developing world.

Currently the global labourforce participation rate of women stands at 52 percent which is obviously an increase since the Beijing Platform, yet the number of unemployed women across the globe counts to 81 million1. Even less than half of the world’s women are economically active. The recently released ILO report entitled "Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges" reports that despite signs of progress in gender equality over the past 15 years, there is still a significant gap between women and men in terms of job opportunities and quality of employment. The report cites that the gender gap in labourforce participation rates has narrowed from 32 percent to 26 percent between 1980 and 2008. At the same time, the share of women in wage and salaried work grew from 42.8 percent in 1999 to 47.3 percent in 2009, and the share of vulnerable employment (read employment other than regular and salaried wage employment) for women decreased from 55.9 percent in 1998 to 51.2 percent in 2008.

The ILO data also show that the rate of female labourforce participation registered increases in almost all but two regions namely the Central and South-Eastern Europe (non-EU), and the CIS countries and East Asia, with the largest gain seen in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, the rate of increase has slowed in the recent years in almost all regions compared to the gains in the numbers of economically active women in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite the fact that employment to population rates for women across the world has also increased yet concerns still remain about the kind of jobs that women are engaged in. The Geneva-based U.N. agency that tracks labour rights violations worldwide released a report suggesting that it remains a distant possibility for a vast majority of women to find decent job in both the public and private sector, even when they are fully qualified. Even the ILO report states that after more than four decades of the Beijing Congress on World’s Women, gender biases remain deeply embedded in the society and therefore in the labour market. While more and more women are entering the workforce, they do not enjoy the same gains as the men in the world of work. Researchers, women’s organistaions, activists all across the globe have evidently pointed out several dimensions of the gender discriminations faced by women in all the worlds; developed, developing or transition economies- and asked for broader gender sensitive approaches while framing labour market policies. Yet the general picture still remains one of continuing gender disparity around the world in terms of both opportunities and quality of employment.

At the outset, it is extremely important to identify the main gender imbalances that have been predominant a few decades ago and still operate against women within the world of work. The first major hurdle faced by women is the entry barrier in the labour markets. For most women across the world, seeking and obtaining productive and remunerative employment is a bigger challenge when compared to the men. This gets corroborated by the fact that nearly half (48.4 percent) of the female population above the age of 15 remain economically inactive, compared to 22.3 percent for men. In some regions, there are still less than four economically active women per 10 active men2.

One can identify two major reasons behind such trends. Firstly, it is the age-old, dominant value system of the society that systematically underestimates women’s contribution to the economy. Secondly, history shows us that women have ingeniously been stereotyped as a caretaker of the economy, slowly and gradually pushing her into the ‘unpaid care economy’, which for a long time, kept women preoccupied in the reproductive economy, without acknowledging the great contributions that she made to the productive economy. In a simpler tone, there exists an unpaid care economy in which women spend most of their productive abilities and maximum time by looking after children, sick and elderly, performing the daily household chores like cooking and cleaning, yet in principle, such activities are excluded from the gross national product. It is defined in the UN System of National Accounts as lying outside the production boundary. But such is vital for maintaining and reproducing the labour force, raising the human capital and consequently keeping the social fabric in good order.

Both the reasons cited is a manifestation of the ‘male breadwinner bias’ model which has its roots in a feudal patriarchal value system. This kind of bias occurs when public sector withdraws support for unpaid care work on the assumption that such care is performed by women who are dependents of a male breadwinner in a family. The counterpart to this is the assumption, by private and public sector employers, that typical workers will have little or no responsibility for providing unpaid care. This kind of bias is conducive to low labour market participation of women workers, specifically of married women.

Such bias was prevalent in the pre WWI era in Europe that broke down as women entered the labourforce during the war period and the period of Great Depression in order to sustain their families as the male members of most families either went to war or were rendered jobless due to the crisis. But as soon as the economic situation began showing signs of improvement, women workers were replaced by men workers and this kind of bias became common in the 1950s, when many European welfare states were built around ‘the worker and his wife and children’. However, by the end of the 20th century, it had been considerably eroded, with rising female labour market participation and a decline in the ability of households to enjoy the living standard they expect on the basis of just one wage. But such biases are still evident in parts of developing regions across the world like South Asia, North Africa, and Middle East etc, where labourforce participation has been historically low for women. It also persists in many European countries even now and is reinforced by the two other biases that were not present in the 1950s, but which gathered strength in the 1980s and 1990s as women began entering the global labourforce. Male breadwinner bias penalises women for their unpaid investment in creation of human and social capital by denying them social entitlements on an equal basis with men, making it harder for those women workers who do want to work.

Lastly, there remains the question of wage and non-wage discrimination that is once again prevalent all across the world. The ILO study has reiterated the fact that women workers receive less pay and fewer non-wage benefits than the male workers in similar positions. Such discriminations also can be explained by the male breadwinner model.

The labour market segregation of many women workers as ‘secondary earners’ within a familial setup, is a
consequence of the male breadwinner bias. When there exists a male breadwinner bias in policy approaches, women’s access to social insurance, pensions, welfare benefits and public services, etc tends to be available as dependants of their husbands. Such wage discriminations are profound in developing regions of the world in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, SE Asia and East Asia and are also observed in certain specific sectors within the economy3.

Given this caveat and the above set of challenges to be met in order to make a progress in achieving gender equality in the world of work it is therefore important to frame broader macroeconomic and labour market policies attuned to a broader paradigm of gender equality, policies that ensure faster progress towards equality in occupations and employment opportunities. Already, the current economic crisis has had its gender impact that has been strongly researched and most outcomes have shown that men and women workers have been affected differently. An important ILO report, “Asia in the Global Economic Crisis: Impacts and Responses from a Gender Perspective” drives down the fact that while the casual and contract labourers, temporary workers, rural migrant and seasonal workers, and employees in subcontracted and smallscale enterprises have suffered the heaviest blows during the first wave of job cuts, it is the gender segregation of the labour market which makes up a ‘buffer workforce’ of women rather than men. This implies that there are greater chances of the women than men to fall outside the labourforce or shift to informal sector employment as ‘added worker effect’ to supply additional income to the household. It has already been experienced from the South-East Asian crisis of 1997 that women ended up loosing more jobs than men4.

Furthermore given the ‘male breadwinner bias’, it takes a lot more time for women to re-enter the workforce in a post crisis period, where they women prefer staying at home performing the care activities for sometime till the impact of recession wears out. Such trends are already being observed in the EU and the USA, as the ILO report mentions, and therefore the real gender impact of the crisis is yet to be felt.

In the interim, therefore, a major step to end gender discrimination in the world of work would be by granting men and women alike, the possibility and freedom to make choices about their labour market entry. Giving women a chance to contribute to the economic welfare of themselves and their families through labour force engagement has proven to bring gains in nearly all areas of development, including poverty reduction, the spread of reproductive rights and associated declines in fertility and the redistribution of responsibilities and rights within the household.

This holds true for the women workers across the world, irrespective of their regions, albeit to varying degrees across the developed and the developing regions. Obviously such a step would only be a first in building a society based on the concept of gender justice. There, of course, remains a long and difficult journey ahead to ensure gender equality in labour markets in terms of providing gainful and decent employment to women, and thereafter proceed to gaining equal status for women in every other sphere of the society by breaking the patriarchal shackles predominant in the social fabric till today.