Gender equality

What causes gender gaps in the labour market?

Despite the considerable progress that has been made towards achieving gender equality in the world of work, certain factors seem to be preventing it from accelerating.

Comment | 01 August 2017

Gender gaps are one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work today. Globally, women are substantially less likely than men to participate in the labour market, and once in the workforce, they are also less likely to find jobs than men. Indeed, their access to quality employment opportunities remains restricted. Overall, for example, women are more likely to work longer hours than men when both paid and unpaid work is taken into account. Moreover, when in paid employment, on average, women work fewer hours for pay or profit either because they opt to work part-time or because part-time work is the only option available to them.

These gender gaps persist despite the preference of most women worldwide to work in a paid job – underlining the fact that women’s choices are constrained by a number of factors.

Using data from the 2016 ILO-Gallup survey, the World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends for Women 2017 report assessed the extent to which personal preferences, socio-economic constraints, and gender role conformity were driving gender gaps in the labour market. The analysis by ILO economists, covering 142 countries and territories, found the following:
  • Having a spouse or partner reduces the probability for women to participate in the labour market in emerging, developed and the Arab States and Northern African (ASNA) countries. In developing countries, however, the effect is reversed: partnerships/marriage have a positive effect on participation (3.3 percentage points). This latter finding highlights the economic necessity to work, despite partnership status, in developing countries.
  • Women suffering from severe poverty are more likely to participate, irrespective of gender norms. In developing countries, the probability of participating in the workforce increases by 7.8 per cent; in emerging, by 6.4 per cent; in ASNA, two regions with the widest gap in participation rates, the probability increases further, at 12.9 per cent.
  • Globally, the lack of affordable care for children or family members affects women’s participation negatively. In ASNA countries, it decreases the probability to participate by 6.2 percentage points; in developing countries by 4.8 percentage points; and in developed countries by 4.0 percentage points. Having children, however, has a small negative effect on participation but it is not significant; in fact, in developing countries, there is a small positive effect (0.7 percentage points).
  • Limited access to safe transportation is the greatest challenge to participation that women face in developing countries, reducing their participation probability by 15.5 percentage points.
  • Religions embody a complex system of values that extends to gender roles. In developing countries, the probability to participate is substantially reduced by religion, a proxy indicator for more restrictive gender role conformity. In developed and emerging countries, the results are mixed: in some cases the effect is positive, in others negative.
A comprehensive approach to address the multiplicity of challenges is merited in order for women to realize and achieve their full economic empowerment.

See the table below for all results across regions:

By Steven Tobin, ILO Senior Economist.