Challenges and Opportunities for Women at Work

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, October 26th, 2017


Women at Work: Trends 2016, Published by International Labour Organization (ILO), 2016, ISBN: 978-92-2-130795-2, Pages 138


We are living in the world which is undergoing deep changes and global challenges affecting both women and men. Throughout their working lives, women have to continue to face significant obstacles in gaining access to decent work. Only marginal improvements have been achieved since the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, leaving large gaps to be covered in the implementation of the ‘2030 – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Inequality between women and men persists in global labour markets, in respect of opportunities, treatment and outcomes. Over the last two decades, women’s significant progress in educational achievements has not transformed into a comparable improvement in their position at work. In many regions in the world, in comparison to their male counterparts, females are more likely to become and remain unemployed, have fewer chances to participate in the labour force and – when they do – often have to accept lower quality jobs. Progress in surmounting these obstacles has been slow and is limited to a few regions across the world. Even in many of those countries where gaps in labour force participation and employment have narrowed and where women are shifting away from contributing family work and moving to the services sector, the quality of women’s jobs remains a matter of concern. The unequal distribution of unpaid care and household work between women and men and between families and the society is an important determinant of gender inequalities at work.


To mark the commitment of International Labour Organization (ILO)’s constituents to gender equality and as the Organization approaches its centenary in 2019, ILO has launched the ‘Women at Work Centenary Initiative’ with the objective of taking stock of the status and conditions of women in the world of work, and identifying innovative action that could give new impetus to the ILO’s work on gender equality and non-discrimination. The ILO report “Women at Work: Trends 2016” is an important contribution to this centenary initiative. It provides a picture of where women stand today and how they have progressed in the world of work over the past 20 years. It examines the global and regional labour market trends and gaps, including in labour force participation rates, employment-to-population rates and unemployment rates, as well as differences in the type of and status in employment, hours spent in paid and unpaid work, sectoral segregation, gender gaps in wages and social protection. The report also presents an in-depth analysis of the gender gaps in the quality of work and explores the key policy drives for gender transformative change. The discussion and the related recommendations focus on three main dimensions: i) sectoral and occupational segregation; ii) the gender wage gap, and iii) the gaps in the policy framework for work and family integration.


Despite some encouraging advances, major gender gaps at work remain. Between 1995 and 2015, the global female labour force participation rate decreased from 52.4 to 49.6 percent. The corresponding figures for men are 79.9 and 76.1 per cent, respectively. Worldwide, the chances for women to participate in the labour market remain almost 27 percentage points lower than those for men. In regions where gender gaps in participation have been high, they have remained so. In Southern Asia and Eastern Asia, the gap has grown even wider. Women’s lower participation rates translate into fewer employment opportunities, with little variation over time, which negatively affects women’s earning capacity and economic security. Women are more likely to be unemployed than men, with global unemployment rates of 5.5 per cent for men and 6.2 per cent for women. With the exception of Eastern Asia, Eastern Europe and Northern America, male unemployment rates are lower than female unemployment rates in all other regions of the world, with the highest gender unemployment gaps found in Northern Africa and the Arab States.


Globally, youth unemployment remains an issue of concern. Unemployment is affecting young women more than young men in almost all regions of the world. In Northern Africa and the Arab States, the female youth unemployment rate is almost double that of young men, reaching as high as 44.3 and 44.1 per cent, respectively. In contrast, youth unemployment is higher for young men than for young women in Northern America, Eastern Asia and Northern, Southern and Western Europe. As a result of the financial crisis, this inverse gender gap in youth unemployment has even increased in Northern, Southern and Western Europe and in Northern America; in this last region, however, there have been some signs of the narrowing of gaps in recent years.


The quality of women’s jobs remains a big challenge. In 2015, a total of 586 million women were contributing family workers. Some progress has been made, however, in closing the gender gap in this regard. Globally, the share of contributing family workers has decreased significantly among women (by 17.0 percentage points over the last 20 years) and to a lesser extent among men (by 8.1 percentage points over the same period), resulting in a decrease in the gender gap from 19.5 percentage points in 1995 to 10.6 percentage points in. This trend is part of an economic restructuring shift away from agricultural work, which largely consisted of subsistence and small-scale activities. That said, however, many working women remain in employment statuses and in occupations that are more likely to consist of informal work arrangements. An analysis of 142 countries also shows that women remain overrepresented (compared to their share in total employment) as “Clerical, service and sales workers” and in “Elementary occupations”.


Gender inequalities at work obviously result in gender gaps in access to social protection, in particular maternity and old-age benefits. As a consequence of gender gaps at work, coverage by contributory compulsory social protection schemes is lower for women than for men, leaving an overall gender social protection coverage gap. Globally, the proportion of women above retirement age receiving a pension is on average 10.6 percentage points lower than that of men. Nearly 65 per cent of people above retirement age without any regular pension are women. This means that 200 million women in old age live without any regular income from social protection (old age or survivors pension), compared to 115 million men.


The ILO publication “Women at Work: Trends 2016” undertakes to demonstrate that, for substantive gender equality to be achieved, it is essential that societies recognize that both women and men have a right to work and care. As discussed in the report, genuine gender equality benefits our societies and economies in terms of increased job-rich economic growth, reduced poverty, inequality and social exclusion, and overall improved well-being. It is therefore time to take affirmative action.


The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail:

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