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International Labour Office (ILO)

Global employment trends for women

International Labour Office (ILO), Brief

March 2007

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During the 1980s and 1990s women’s participation in labour markets worldwide grew substantially. This gave rise to expectations that increased opportunities and economic autonomy for women would bring greater gender equality. To help determine the extent to which such hopes are being realized, it is necessary to analyse women’s labour market trends in more detail. To this end, the Global Employment Trends for Women Brief 2007 focuses on whether the tendency toward increased participation has continued more recently and whether women have found enough decent and productive jobs to really enable them to use their potential in the labour market and achieve economic independence.

The approach is based on updates and analysis of a number of major labour market indicators. These include: labour force participation; unemployment; sector and status of employment; wages/earnings; and education and skills. Taken together, they show whether women who want to work actually do so, whether women find it harder to get a job than men, differences in the type of work done by women and men and equality of treatment in areas ranging from pay to education and training.

Main findings are:

  • In absolute numbers, more women than ever before are participating in labour markets worldwide. They are either in work or actively looking for a job.
  • This overall figure only tells part of the story, however. During the past ten years, the labour force participation rate (the share of working-age women who work or are seeking work) stopped growing, with many regions registering declines. This reversal is notable, even though it partially reflects greater participation of young women in education.
  • More women than ever before are actually in work1. The female share of total employment stayed almost unchanged at 40 percent in 2006 (from 39.7 per cent 10 years ago).
  • At the same time, more women than ever before are unemployed, with the rate of women’s unemployment (6.6 per cent) higher than that of men (6.1 per cent).
  • Women are more likely to work in low productivity jobs in agriculture and services. Women’s share in industrial employment is much smaller than men’s and has decreased over the last ten years.
  • The poorer the region, the greater the likelihood that women work as unpaid contributing family members2 or low-income own-account workers. Female contributing family workers, in particular, are not likely to be economically independent.
  • The step from unpaid contributing family worker or low-paid own-account worker to wage and salaried employment is a major step toward freedom and self-determination for many women. The share of women in wage and salaried work grew during the past ten years from 42.9 per cent in 1996 to 47.9 per cent in 2006. However, especially in the world’s poorest regions, this share is still smaller for women than for men.
  • There is evidence that wage gaps persist. Throughout most regions and many occupations women get less money for the same job. But there is also some evidence that globalization can help close the wage gap for some occupations.
  • Young women are more likely to be able to read and write than 10 years ago. But there is still a gap between female and male education levels. And there is considerable doubt that women get the same chances as men to develop their skills throughout their working lives.
These trends show that despite some progress, there is no cause for complacency. Policies to enhance women’s chances to participate equally in labour markets are starting to pay off, but the pace with which gaps are closing is very slow. As a result, women are more likely than men to become discouraged and give up hope of being economically active. And for women who work, there is a greater likelihood to be among the working poor – they work but they do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Given finally the persisting lack of socioeconomic empowerment for women and unequal distribution of household responsibilities, there remains some way to go to achieve equality between men and women.

At a time when the world increasingly realizes that decent and productive work is the only sustainable way out of poverty, analyzing women’s role in the world of work is particularly important. Progress on full, productive and decent employment, a new target within the Millennium Development Goals, will only be possible if the specific needs for women in labour markets are addressed.3

  1. The expression “in work” summarizes all people employed according to the ILO definition, which includes selfemployed, employed, employers as well as unpaid family members. The words “employed” and “in work” are used as synonyms in this GET for Women Brief 2007.
  2. The expressions “unpaid contributing family workers”, “unpaid contributing family members”, “contributing family workers” and “contributing family members” are used as synonyms.
  3. This brief is a condensed version of the ILO working paper “Global Employment Trends for Women 2007”, forthcoming 2007.

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