Women Work More, But are Still Paid Less


Press release | 25 August 1995


GENEVA (ILO News) - In every country in the world, women continue to be paid less for comparable work than men, says the ILO, and the wage gap narrowed only slightly over the past decade. By the year 2000, women will make up at least one-half of the work force in most countries, as opposed to one-third in 1990. The massive entry of women into active economic life has only rarely been matched by a corresponding improvement in their living or working conditions, says the International Labour Organisation. Inequality of treatment marks virtually all aspects of women's working lives, beginning with wages and employment opportunities and extending to access to decision-making and managerial positions.

"Women's progress in the workforce over the past 10 years has not meant greater access to quality jobs, nor has it brought an end to discrimination", says Mary Chinery-Hesse, ILO Deputy Director-General and leader of the ILO delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, September 4-15). "Despite gains in some areas, women earn an average of just two-thirds of men's wages, and they are often denied access to opportunities leading to the best jobs."

In addition, while more women work outside the home, a greater percentage of women than ever before act as the sole breadwinners for their families, contributing to the feminization of poverty. "This cycle of poverty cannot be broken until women receive fair wages," says Ms. Chinery-Hesse.

Depending on the country, says the ILO, women earn between 50% and 96% of men's wages (see table). Other trends illustrate the persistence of the obstacles faced by women in the workplace:

Women's employment is primarily concentrated in a narrow range of sectors (especially services, where access to jobs is easier but wages are often lower and job security minimal). Even within those sectors, women find themselves clustered at the lower echelons.

Women make up a greater percentage of workers in "informal" and other precarious forms of employment, which tend to lie outside the purview of labour regulations and inspection, and are therefore more prone to exploitation. In the industrialised countries, between 65 and 90% of all part-time workers are women.

Women compose 90% of the part-time labour force in Germany and Belgium, 65% in Italy, Greece and the United States, and 63% in the Netherlands.

A very high percentage of women in developing countries work in the informal sector. These jobs do not provide the benefits of full-time work in the formal sector including steady wages, adequate occupational health and safety conditions, job security and social protection. In the absence of policy measures to improve earning and employment opportunities for women, there is little evidence that the situation will improve soon.

The main reason that women hold part-time jobs: they cannot find full-time jobs. Child care and work in the home are the other main factors.

Part-time or full-time, women's jobs are often the least secure. "Women still tend to be the last to be hired and the first to be fired," says Ms. Chinery-Hesse.

Men dominate the highest corporate and institutional positions everywhere in the world. The ILO estimates that, at the present rate of progress world-wide, it would take 475 years for parity to be achieved between men and women in top level managerial and administrative positions.

Despite the many obstacles they face, most women need and want to work. An ILO survey of women in the Czech Republic revealed that only 28% of married women said they would stay at home if their husbands made enough money for them to do so, only 20% of Bulgarian women would, and just 10% of German women wanted to stay at home.

Statistics fail entirely to reflect the amount of work women perform for no wages at all. World-wide, women work much longer hours than men when work at home is added. "The work many societies expect women to do without compensation amounts to an extra tax on women," says Ms.

Job segregation

Job segregation remains an important factor accounting for wage differences between the sexes. In the industrialised countries, 75% of women are employed in historically low-paying, service-sector jobs; 15 to 20% work in manufacturing; and some 5% in agriculture. In many of the export-processing zones of industrialising countries - where most of the work is labour-intensive, low-cost manufacturing - 80% of the workforce is female.

In Southeast Asia, women who gained access to jobs in export-led manufacturing industries are paid significantly less than men. For example, in Singapore, women in non-agricultural industries earned the equivalent of 72% of men's wages in 1993; in Hong Kong it was 63% and in the Republic of Korea, it was 57% that year.

Even when women enter traditionally "male" sectors of the labour market, they earn less than men. In Canada, for example, female managers are estimated to earn 15 to 20% less than their male counterparts.

"Universally, the work of women is not as highly valued as that of men," says Mary Chinery-Hesse. She adds that, "the idea that women are only good for certain types of occupations is simply false."

Wage discrimination

Wage discrimination is decreasing in the developed world, albeit slowly. And in some countries there has been little or no change. For example, according to The ILO Yearbook of Labour Statistics, in 1992 salaried women in Belgium and the Netherlands earned, respectively, 75% and 77% of what males earned - the same figure as in 1984. In Germany, female wage earners (in non-agricultural activities) in 1984 collected only 72% of what their male counterparts earned: by 1993 that figure had edged up to 74%. In France, women's earning fluctuated between 80% and 82% during the period 1984-1993. In the UK, women wage earners, who took home 69% of male earnings in 1985, saw an increase of only 2%, to 71% of male earnings.

Wage gains were slightly more pronounced in Australia, rising from 86% of men's salaries in 1980 to 90% in 1993, for non-managerial employees. Sri Lanka, where women's earnings are 96% of men's earnings, is one of the most balanced among the countries listed.

In the United States, the average hourly wage of women working full-time rose from 72% of the male equivalent to 82% over the course of the decade.

"These gains over a 10-year period are simply too gradual, and even where progress was considerable the wage gap is still unjustifiably wide", Ms. Chinery-Hesse says.

In Denmark, female wage earners lost a percentage point, from 84% in 1984 to 83% in 1992, and in Iceland wages for unskilled female workers dropped from 94% of male earnings to 90% during the same period. Women workers also lost ground in Japan (from 52% to 51%), Portugal (70% to 68%) and Turkey (97% to 93%).

More working women

Women make up two out of every five workers in the industrialized world and they are growing as a percentage of the workforce. From 1980 to 1992, the number of economically-active women in the member States of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) grew by 24%, twice the rate for men.

In many developed countries, a high percentage of women are in the workforce: Sweden and Denmark, 75%; United States, 60%; United Kingdom, 59%; Canada, 58%; France and Germany, 57%; and Switzerland, 53%.

Developed countries that have lower female participation rates of women in the workforce include: the Netherlands, 38%; Italy, 37%; Ireland, 36%; Spain, 26%.

More than 60 million women now work globally in the manufacturing sector, and they represent more than one-third of the total manufacturing workforce.

In developing countries, women make up only 31% of the formal labour force. These women, however, often face discrimination and are rarely able to rely on an organization to protect their rights. The ILO has found that economic hardships in developing countries resulting from structural adjustment programmes were forcing more women into the overcrowded, informal sector as men lose jobs in the formal sector.

Countries with the highest rates of labour force participation by women (aged 15 to 64) include China, 80%; Vietnam, 77%; Mozambique, 78%; Benin and Burkina Faso, 77%; and Thailand, 67%. Women make up 80% of the food producers in some African nations.

Latin American women have a lower participation rate - 32% in Argentina, 33% in Brazil and Chile, and 32% in Mexico.

Arab countries have the lowest official rates, with just 8% of women employed in Algeria and 10% in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan, where social, cultural and often legal barriers exist against the entry of women into the labour market.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a global problem. Between 15 to 30% of working women questioned in surveys conducted in industrialized countries say they have been subjected to frequent, serious sexual harassment - unwanted touching, pinching, offensive remarks and unwelcome requests for sexual favours. These offensive and demeaning experiences often result in emotional and physical stress and related illnesses, reducing morale and productivity.

"The full picture is incomplete because a large percentage of cases go unreported in every country," Ms. Chinery-Hesse says.

Some studies reveal that sexual harassment caused between 6 to 8% of women surveyed to change their jobs. According to the ILO, the proportion of one out of 12 women being forced out of a job, after being sexually harassed, could apply to many countries world-wide.

But surveys do reveal that concerned awareness of the problem - in the workplace and nationally as well as internationally - has come a long way in a short time.

ILO action

The ILO has developed 176 Conventions which establish labour standards and are subject to ratification by member States. While the great majority apply equally to men and women, some concern women only.

From 1919 to the 1950s, emphasis was placed on protecting working women. The first standards in this area, which concerned maternity protection, were supplemented by prohibiting women from doing certain jobs (utilization of lead, underground work) and working certain hours (night work) in which women were, or thought to be, subjected to greater dangers and exploitation than men.

As working conditions improved in many countries, the attitudes also evolved and special protection for women was, in most cases, seen as a source of discrimination. Therefore such action was increasingly criticized, firstly because it hampered the full integration of women into economic life, and secondly because it perpetuated preconceptions about their role and their aptitudes. The accent was placed on promoting equality of women at work, and by 1975 there was agreement on the principle that equality requires equal opportunity and treatment for men and women in all areas.

The first manifestation of this evolving attitude was shown by the adoption in 1951 of Convention No. 100 and Recommendation No. 90 on equality of remuneration. The 123 States which have ratified the Convention have undertaken to promote equal remuneration between working men and women for work of equal value. To this end, jobs must, as much as possible, be evaluated according to the tasks they involve and not on the basis of the persons who perform the tasks. Examples of other relevant Conventions are: Nº 111 concerning discrimination in employment and occupation which seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including sexual discrimination; and Nº 156 on workers with family responsibilities.

In addition to standard-setting Conventions, ILO also provides direct technical assistance in many parts of the world. Such assistance has covered employment promotion; entrepreneurship development; poverty alleviation; women migrant workers, disabled and other vulnerable women; mobilization of women into groups such as cooperatives, grassroots associations and trade unions; vocational training and assisting governments; employers' and workers' organizations to design and implement comprehensive policies addressing women workers' and gender equality concerns.