Women join the labour force in record numbers, but equal opportunities, equal pay and poverty remain problems

A new report prepared for International Women’s Day by the ILO finds that women are entering the labour force in record numbers worldwide, but still experience higher unemployment and lower wages than men.

Press release | BANGKOK | 08 January 2004

Bangkok (ILO News) – Women are entering the labour force in record numbers, both globally and in the Asia Pacific region, but they still experience higher unemployment and lower wages than men, according to a new report prepared for International Women’s Day (March 8th) by the International Labour Office (ILO).

At the same time an analysis of women’s efforts to break through the so-called glass ceiling found that in the Asia Pacific countries there has been little progress in the last few years – and in some countries the situation has actually got worse.

“These two reports provide a stark picture of the status of women in the world of work today,” said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. “Women must have an equal chance of rising to the top of the jobs ladder. Unless progress is made in taking women out of poverty by creating productive and decent employment, the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 will remain out of reach in most regions of the world.”

“Global Employment Market Trends for Women 2004”, an analysis of female employment, found that more women work today than ever before. In 2003 1.1 billion of the world’s 2.8 billion workers (or 40 per cent) were women, representing a worldwide increase of nearly 200 million women in employment in the past 10 years. But women also make up 60 per cent of the world’s 550 million working poor, those who work but do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the poverty line of US $1 a day.

While the gap between the number of women and men in the labour force has generally decreased in the last decade, progress in the Asia Pacific region has varied widely. The countries of East Asia have the highest female labour force participation rates in the world and also enjoy a small gender gap – there are 83 women in the labour force for every 100 men. In South-East Asia the figures are 75 women per 100 men, while in South Asia only 40 women per 100 men are economically active – not very different from the situation in the North Africa.

Equally, in almost every part of the Asia Pacific region more women than men are still looking for and failing to find work. The exception is East Asia where unemployment rates for women (at 2.7 per cent) and young women aged 15-24 (5.8 per cent) are lower than those for their male counterparts, (3.7 per cent and 8.1 per cent respectively).

But the explosive growth in the female workforce hasn’t been accompanied by true socio-economic empowerment for women, the report says. Nor has it led to equal pay for work of equal value or the balanced benefits that would make women equal to men in a wide range of occupations.“In short, true equality in the world of work is still out of reach,” the authors say.

Women still typically earn less than their male counterparts, the report, even in "typically female" occupations such as nursing and teaching, An analysis of six occupations, revealed that in Singapore,male first-level education teachers earned approximately 6 per cent more than their female counterparts, and male nurses made 21 per cent more. What is more, there are no clear signs that the situation is improving.

If the 330 million women who are part of the world’s 550 million working poor, and the 77.8 million women who are unemployed, are to find a way out of poverty, at least 400 million decent jobs will be needed.

The glass ceiling – still intact

When it comes to quality of work and breaking through the glass ceiling into top jobs the picture in Asia Pacific is mixed – as it is worldwide. “Recent global statistics show that women continue to increase their share of managerial positions, but the rate of progress is slow, uneven and sometimes discouraging,” say the authors of “Breaking through the glass ceiling: Women in management -- Update 2004”. In 2000-2, women in the Philippines held 65 per cent of professional jobs – only a marginal increase on the 1996-99 figures. Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, showed similar, slight improvements, with around 55 per cent, 45 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. In politics, the proportion of women representatives in Asia’s national parliaments marginally exceeded the global average of 15.2 per cent, standing at 15.5 per cent. In the Pacific the figure is 12.1 per cent. However, the new report did find recent increases in the number of women in traditionally male-dominated cabinet posts, such as foreign affairs, finance and defence; and five out of 10 female Heads of State represent Asia Pacific nations. The ILO’s Linda Wirth, Director of the ILO Gender Bureau and author of the original study said: “Women continue to have more difficulty obtaining top jobs than they do lower down the hierarchy. A handful of women are making headlines here and there as they break through, but statistically they represent a mere few per cent of top management jobs. The rule of thumb is still: the higher up an organisation’s hierarchy, the fewer the women.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad. Many women in Asia Pacific seem to be choosing to work for themselves. In economies as diverse as New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the number of women employers rose in the last 5 years.

In Thailand more than 40 per cent of businesses are now owned or operated by women, the highest proportion world-wide.

The study also found some employers are beginning to shift attitudes and businesses now understand that family-friendly policies, improved access to training, and stronger mentoring systems encourage female staff retention and can improve productivity. And governments and unions are advocating the reform of employment and welfare legislation to ensure that mothers can maintain seniority, benefits, and earning potential.

For more information please visit: /public/english/employment/strat/stratprod.htm or /gender

Sophy Fisher
Regional Information Officer
ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Tel: + 66 2288 2482
Fax: + 66 2288 1076