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Women Swell Ranks of Working Poor, says ILO


Press release | 30 July 1996


GENEVA (ILO News) Women work longer hours and are paid on average 25 percent less than men, but have made significant gains in entering formerly male-dominated jobs in the global labour force, says a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"The bottom line is that while more and more women are working, the great majority of them are simply swelling the ranks of the working poor," says Ms. Lin Lim, author of the ILO report. "Women's economic activities remain highly concentrated in low-wage, low-productivity and precarious forms of employment."

Women make up nearly 70 percent of the world's poor and 65 percent of the world's illiterate.

The ILO report, More & Better Jobs for Women An Action Guide, finds that more than 45 percent of all the world's women (aged 15 to 64) are now economically active. In industrialized countries, more than half of all women work, compared to roughly 37 percent of Western European women and 30 percent of US women just two decades ago.

  • The main findings of the report include:
  • The majority of women earn on average about three-fourths of the male wage for thesame work, outside the agricultural sector, in both developed and developing countries; the gap is not decreasing;
  • Women's unemployment rates run from 50 to 100 percent greater than for men in many industrialized countries;
  • Women hold less than 6 percent of senior management jobs in the world;
  • In the 28 countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) the largest members of which are the United States, Canada, Japan and Western Europe the number of women in the labour force grew by more than twice the rate for men between 1980 and 1990;
  • In 1980-90, women made up 7 million out of 8 million new labour force entrants in Western Europe;
  • In East and South-East Asia, women provide up to 80 percent of workers in export processing zones;
  • In developed countries, women work at least two hours per week more than men, and often five to ten hours more per week;
  • In developing countries, women spend 31-42 hours per week in unpaid work (in the home), while men spend between 5 and 15 hours in unpaid work.

Michel Hansenne, Director-General of ILO, describes the growing contribution of women to the global workforce in this way: "Their relatively cheap labour has represented the cornerstone of export-oriented industrialization and international competitiveness for many developing countries."

The report points out that women have made some real gains, especially in industrialized economies.

  • These gains include:
  • A strong trend upward in the representation of women in managerial and administrative jobs, and in professional and technical jobs, especially in developed countries, Latin America and the Caribbean;
  • Some women have breached the glass ceiling to occupy top level posts;
  • Women are forming their own businesses at a greater rate than men in the United States;
  • Pay equity laws between men and women have been adopted by many countries in both the developed and developing regions;
  • Improvements in working conditions including child-care services and family-friendly workplaces and in social protection for some female workers have helped them reconcile work and family responsibilities;
  • More women are joining trade unions and unions are increasingly sensitive to gender issues;
  • Collective bargaining has helped promote gender equality in many countries.

Nonetheless, Hansenne says, "Equality of opportunity and treatment for women in employment has yet to be achieved anywhere in the world."

Unemployment also a greater problem for women

The global economic recession of the early 1990s led to disproportionately high levels of female unemployment in most countries and regions of the world. In about two-thirds of industrial countries, unemployment rates for women are from 50 to 100 percent higher than for men. In Eastern Europe, unemployment rates are also higher for women, except for Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia.

Available data on open unemployment also show considerably higher female jobless rates than male rates in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and several Asian countries.

Women will participate in the labour force in about the same percentage rates as men in many industrialized countries by the year 2000. In developing countries, women make up just 31 percent of the labour force, much less than in industrialized countries, but their participation is rising.

In Eastern Europe female participation has been traditionally high, more than 50 percent, and has remained so despite the economic transition underway. In South-East Asia, the percentage of working women climbed to 54 percent from 49 percent, and in the Caribbean to 49 percent from 38 percent. In South Asia, 44 percent of women work, compared to only 25 percent two decades ago.

Even in regions where female participation in the workforce is comparatively low, the percentage increases are great: in Latin America it went from 22 to 34 percent and in Northern Africa from 8 to 21 percent. In regional terms, only the Gulf States continue to resist the trend toward increased female employment, however the number of female migrant workers to these countries is increasing steadily.

The survey also finds that much of the growth in the women's labour force in industrialized nations has come in part-time employment. Women make up between 65 percent and 90 percent of all part-timers in OECD countries.

Outside of the OECD, women tend to be relegated to the informal sector (low-wage jobs in unregulated activities), rather than to part-time work. For example, in Africa, more than a third of women in non-agricultural activities work in the informal sector, with the rates going as high as 72 percent in Zambia and 65 percent in the Gambia. Elsewhere, the percentage of women active in the informal sector totals more than 80 percent in Lima, Peru, 65 percent in Indonesia and 41 percent in the Republic of Korea.

Discrimination starts early

Discrimination in education constitutes one of the main causes of female poverty and underemployment. Women account for more than two-thirds of the nearly 1 billion adult illiterates. In Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, and Togo in Africa, and Afghanistan and Nepal in Asia, more than 90 percent of women aged 25 and up have never been to school. Of the approximately 100 million children in the world without any access to primary education, 60 percent are girls.

Even where education and vocational training are available, many institutions "continue to offer stereotyped 'feminine' skills for girls," such as typing, nursing, sewing, catering and waitressing as opposed to scientific or technical knowledge, the report says. In poorer countries, girls are much more likely than boys to interrupt or halt their schooling in order to tend to domestic tasks, in spite of the obvious benefits of increased education for girls.

"Each additional year of schooling has been shown to raise a woman's earnings by about 15 percent, compared with 11 percent for a man, to reduce fertility rates by 5-10 percent and to avert 43 infant deaths per 1,000 educated girls," says Ms. Lim.

Gender discrimination, the report says, extends from education to the workplace. Among the most glaring forms of discrimination in job markets: "unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal access to credit and other productive resources, unequal pay for equal work, occupational segregation and unequal participation in economic decision making."

A striking example of the concentration of women in low-paying sectors is found in the garment producing industry, where more than two-thirds of the entire global workforce is female and which absorbs almost one-fifth of the female labour force in manufacturing.

Even in better-paid sectors, women work at the lower end of the pay scale. Overall, nearly two-thirds of women employed in manufacturing are categorized as "labourers, operators and production workers; only 5 percent are in professional and technical, and 2 percent in administrative and managerial positions."

In service sectors, where most women work, they continue to be clustered at or near the bottom rungs of the employment ladder and pay scales.

More work for less pay: feminine jobs

Occupational segregation on the basis of gender remains high for all regions of the world, irrespective of development levels. The report cites data for some 500 non-agricultural occupations in the United States, United Kingdom and France showing that approximately 45 percent of the labour force is organized around gender-dominated occupations in which either women or men make up at least 80 percent of the workforce. In Japan, women make up 95 percent of the workforce in such occupations as day-care, hospital attendants and nurses, kindergarten teachers, housekeepers, maids and entertainers.

"Not only do men and women have different occupations," says Ms. Lim, "men commonly do work of higher pay and status; for example, most school administrators and doctors are men, whereas most teachers and nurses are women."

In East and South-East Asia, women provide up to 80 percent of the workforce in export processing zones. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 71 percent of all female workers are concentrated in the service sector, but the number of unrecorded female workers in manufacturing is thought to be high. In Asia and Africa, most women workers (more than 80 percent in sub-Saharan Africa) are found in the agricultural sector where wages are generally among the lowest and more than one-third of women in non-agricultural activities are in the informal sector. In spite of women's preponderance in agriculture, it is estimated that only 5 percent of rural credit from multilateral banks ever reaches them.

Women predominate in informal sector work, usually because it is the only employment they can find and where incomes are often at poverty levels. In the Dominican Republic, for example, 70 percent of women in the informal sector earn incomes below the poverty level.

In all regions of the world, the report notes, females work longer hours for lower wages than their male counterparts, "earning only between 50 to 80 percent of men's wages worldwide." In developed countries, women work at least two hours more weekly than men, though 5 to 10 hours more per week is not unusual. In Australia, Canada and Germany, the hourly work loads of men and women are roughly equal, but in Italy women work 28 percent more than men, in Austria 12 percent more and in France 11 percent. In Japan, the time women spend on unpaid work is nine times greater than that of men.

In Kenya, women devote up to ten times more time to domestic tasks than men. In India, women and girls spend at least 20 hours more per week on domestic work. Family responsibilities, the report notes, nearly always weigh more heavily on women than on men, "even for the relatively small numbers of women whose education and skills qualify them for higher-level jobs."

Improving jobs and working conditions for women

The report, issued as an ILO follow-up to the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) and the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), highlights the need for action: "Increasing employment opportunities for women is not sufficient; there must be action to improve the terms and conditions of such employment." Steps to enhancing the quality of employment for women need to take account of the following issues, all of which are covered by international labour standards:

  • Enforcing the principle of "comparable worth by providing equal pay for work of equal value. This is necessary in order to eliminate male-female wage differences within industries and to reduce the large differences between "female" jobs and "male" jobs in the highly gender segregated world of work.
  • Improving occupational safety and health for women workers, in order to alleviate and eliminate environmental and workplace hazards, especially those affecting pregnant and lactating women, as well as measures to reduce occupational stress from, among other factors, "long hours, monotonous assembly line tasks and sexual harassment."
  • Measures to reduce labour market vulnerability, especially to improve security in informal or atypical forms of work. Women often have to resort to non-standard employment, involving for example part-time or homework, due to the need to combine work and domestic responsibilities. The risk is that such forms of employment are precarious and not covered by legal and social-security systems.
  • Guaranteeing freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively; for women in the formal sector, collective action, particularly through trade unions is crucial and collective bargaining needs to take greater account of feminine issues. For women in non-formal, atypical or rural employment, grassroots mobilization and organization is an important form of empowerment.
  • Appropriate labour market regulation, which would take account of women's need for flexibility, special protective measures in such areas as maternity protection and child care and steps toward eliminating pervasive inequality in opportunities and treatment between men and women workers.

Providing more and better jobs for women will also involve a conducive macro-economic environment, including accurate and realistic data, in order to develop coherent and effective gender-sensitive policies. Policies need to consider the legal framework, enforcement mechanisms, cultural attitudes and public awareness. Effective implementation of these policies will require a supportive legal framework, strong enforcement mechanisms and widespread public awareness and support.