Education, GDP growth no silver bullets against gender inequality at work—report

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 20 February 2014 17:43 GMT

Job seekers line up at a job fair at Tianjin University, China, November 22, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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No country, developed or developing, has yet reached gender wage parity, and cultural constraints still severely limit women's ability to work, although this holds back a country's economy

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Economic growth and more widespread education – their impact often blunted by cultural constraints – have not proved to be the silver bullets once expected to end the inequality of women in the world of work, according to a study released by the World Bank on Thursday.

Gender At Work,” a 106-page companion study to the 2013 World Development Report on Jobs, paints a portrait of a world where, despite some advances, women still consistently earn less than men, women’s participation in the workforce has stagnated at about 56 percent over the last two decades, and no country has reached gender wage parity.

“Gender inequality in the world of work has been stubbornly persistent across multiple dimensions, despite relatively large gains in recent decades in women’s health and education,” the study said.

In one of its most sobering conclusions, the report found that “Women lag on virtually every measure, including labor force participation, earnings, productivity, job quality, experience, and career mobility, among others.”

“I think the global finding which surprised me personally the most was the stagnation in labor force participation rates over the past three decades,” said Jeni Klugman, the World Bank’s director of gender and development, in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation before the release of the report.

“I think the underlying sense of many of us, including those working in various developing countries, was that expansion of education and economic growth in many countries was creating opportunities for women to be able to participate in market work and whilst we do see that is happening in some regions, for example in Latin America - that’s where the largest growth was - in other places it’s pretty much stagnated,” she said.

Latin America and the Caribbean region saw women’s labor force participation grow by 35 percent since 1990, the steepest increase of any region.  Major reasons for this include greater investment in women’s education combined with a decline in fertility and delays in the age of marriage, according to the report.

While reasons vary from region to region, there are some clear causes of this stagnation, Klugman said.

In very poor countries, such as Ethiopia or Mali, women’s participation in the labor force may be quite high because they often have no choice, even though the work may be menial, difficult or poorly paid, she said.

“But, as countries move up the income ladder, more girls stay in school, so they’re not participating as much in the labor force.  And, if you’re doing a job that is hard and unpleasant and not particularly well paid, if you have a choice, you may well choose to withdraw,” she said.

“An additional factor that I think is very important, although we haven’t fully unpacked it, is the role of social norms,” Klugman said.

These cultural and social norms can pose an array of constraints and barriers to women’s participation in the workforce, even when women are well educated and living in countries experiencing economic growth.

“For example, there may be countries where it’s considered appropriate for girls to attend secondary or even tertiary education, but the line is kind of drawn at paid work,” said Klugman. 

Saudi Arabia, for example, has a large number of female university graduates but also one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force at about 18 percent.  In the kingdom, although restrictions are loosening, women have been discouraged from working outside the home by a combination of cultural, social and religious norms, including those denying women the right to drive cars, barring them from mixing with unrelated men in the workplace and requiring them to be accompanied outside the home by a male relative.

In many countries, the demands of domestic responsibilities, such as care of children and the elderly, fall disproportionately on women and form another barrier to paid work.  The report found that when women do work, their earnings often decline when they have children - a situation experienced by 71 percent of women under the age of 30 and 88 percent of women aged 30 to 39.

 However, men of all ages with children are likely to have higher earnings than men without children, which is not the case for women in any age group, according to the study.

Other barriers to women’s participation in the labor force include pressure to marry, the need for spousal permission to work and laws that discriminate against women in terms of the ability to get credit, own land, conduct official transactions and even get an ID card.

“If we know that 128 countries around the world have these barriers, I think they’re also reflective of deeper social norms as well,” said Klugman, referring to laws which differentiate between men and women. The report found that of 143 economies, 128 had at least one legal differentiation between men and women in 2013.

All these obstacles impede women’s “agency,” their ability to choose whether or not to take paid jobs and what kind of work to do. As a result, the International Labour Organization estimates that globally 48 percent of women’s productive potential is underutilized, compared with only about 22 percent of that of men.

The economic loss this represents to countries is significant. The report cites a Booz & Company study that found that raising the rate of female employment to male levels could boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 34 percent in Egypt, 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 10 percent in South Africa and 9 percent in Japan.

When it comes to women in the labor force, Klugman said, “The point isn’t necessarily to maximize the participation rate, but to ensure that there are real choices.”


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