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International Women’s Day 2010

More women choosing to work, but gender equality remains a long way off

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, according to a new report by the International Labour Office.

Press release | 05 March 2010

GENEVA (ILO News) – 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, according to a new report by the International Labour Office (ILO).

The report, entitled Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges, says that more than a decade after the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted an ambitious global platform for action on gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender biases remain deeply embedded in society and the labour market.

The ILO report shows that the rate of female labour force participation has increased from 50.2 to 51.7 per cent between 1980 and 2008, while the male rate decreased slightly from 82.0 to 77.7 per cent. As a result, the gender gap in labour force participation rates has narrowed from 32 to 26 percentage points.

The increases in female participation were seen in all but two regions, 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. In almost all regions, though, the rate of increase has slowed in recent years. It was in the 1980s and early ‘90s that gains in numbers of economically active women were strongest.

At the same time, the share of women in wage and salaried work has grown from 42.8 per cent in 1999 to 47.3 per cent in 2009, and the share of vulnerable employment decreased from 55.9 per cent to 51.2 per cent.

“While there have been areas of improvement since the Beijing conference and more women are choosing to work, they still don’t enjoy the same gains as men in the labour markets”, said Sara Elder of the ILO’s Employment Trends unit and main author of the report. “We still find many more women than men taking up low-pay and precarious work, either because this is the only type of job made available to them or because they need to find something that allows them to balance work and family responsibilities. Men do not face these same constraints.”

The report shows that there are three basic areas of lingering gender imbalances in the world of work. First, nearly half (48.4 per cent) of the female population above the age of 15 remain economically inactive, compared to 22.3 per cent for men. In some regions, there are still less than 4 economically active women per 10 active men. Second, women who do want to work have a harder time than men in finding work. And third, when women do find work, they receive less pay and benefits than the male workers in similar positions.

“Labour markets and policies must be much more attuned to a broader paradigm of gender equality, one that adapts and builds on the unique values and constraints of both women and men,” Ms. Elder said. “Faster and broader progress towards equality in occupations and employment opportunities is required and possible”.

The ILO report says the initial impact of the global economic crisis was felt in sectors dominated by men, such as finance, manufacturing and construction, but the impact has since expanded to other sectors – including services – where women tend to predominate.

The ILO estimates that the global female unemployment rate increased from 6.0 per cent in 2007 to 7.0 per cent in 2009, slightly more than the male rate which rose from 5.5 to 6.3 per cent. But in four of the nine regions, it was the male unemployment rate that rose more than the female. In 2009, female unemployment rates were higher than male rates in seven of nine regions, and in the Middle East and North Africa the difference was as high as 7 percentage points.

The report also says that while women and men workers may now be almost equally affected by the crisis in terms of job losses, the real gender impact of the crisis may be yet to come.

“We know from previous crises that female job-losers find it more difficult to return to work as economic recovery settles in,” Ms. Elder said. “That’s why it is important to ensure that gender equality is not a fair weather policy aim that falls aside in the face of hard times. It should be seen as a means to promote growth and employment rather than as a cost or constraint”.

Jane Hodges, Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality, noted that the 15 years since Beijing had provided important lessons in terms of what works for working women and gender equality. She said the resolution on Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work, adopted by the 2009 International Labour Conference, will guide ILO constituents’ efforts towards a labour market in which all women and men can participate freely and actively, including efforts to facilitate women’s economic empowerment through entrepreneurship development, address unequal remuneration between women and men, enhance social protection for all and strengthen women’s participation in social dialogue.

On 8 March, the ILO will mark International Women’s Day at its headquarters in Geneva and other offices around the world. The Geneva event will bring together experts from governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations from diverse countries and backgrounds for a panel discussion on “What works for working women”.

For more information on the report or to request interviews, please contact the ILO’s Department of Communication at +4122/799-7912 or