Gender Equality in Employment as a Fundamental Human Right. Why is important to address gender inequality in employment?


Gender equality is a fundamental human right. At the same time it also makes good economic sense because it means using the country’s human capital more efficiently. It can have profound benefits not just for women themselves but also for families, communities and national economies.

Although policy frameworks often posit trade-offs and dichotomies between equity and efficiency and between the economic and the social, there is mounting evidence that equitable employment policies have a strong symbiotic relationship with economic efficiency. The separation of the economic and the social has had many negative effects on women within the policy arena, with women’s issues often relegated to under resourced and under prioritized social policy.

The implicit assumption is that women are not dynamic economic agents but rather are passive recipients in need of assistance. Separating the economic and the social lends itself easily to perceptions that equality is a luxury of higher income economies or even that equality can be counter-productive because of short term costs.

Empirical evidence and theoretical discussions emerging from capabilities analyses are now however, increasingly recognizing that gender equality is not only an end in itself but also a key means of achieving wider development goals, ranging from poverty reduction, increased productivity and aggregate output, reduced fertility, lower infant mortality, and less child labour to greater decision making and bargaining power for women within households. 

All these factors contribute to economic growth either directly or indirectly. Conversely, gender inequality can be a significant drag on economic growth, with some countries with the highest levels of inequality often being those with some of the lowest levels of per capita income.

The separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘social’ has had many negative effects on women during the development of policy. The implicit assumption is that women are passive recipients in need of assistance rather than being dynamic economic agents in their own right.

Despite some progress over the last few decades, gender equality in employment remains an elusive goal in all societies. Women continue to face disadvantage and discrimination in all areas of economic life. Nevertheless, while one should not assume that all women want to work, it is safe to say that women want to be given the same freedom as men to choose to work if they want to; and if they do choose to work, they should have the same chance of finding decent jobs as men.

Why is it important to address gender inequality in employment?

The rights based equity arguments are grounded in the need to address the vulnerability, discrimination and disadvantage that women or men face in economic life as a matter of basic rights and justice. The economics based efficiency arguments recognize that both women and men can play a critical role as economic agents capable of transforming societies and economies and in breaking the poverty cycle from one generation to the next.

This is followed by a review of some international policy instruments and frameworks that oblige countries to mainstream gender within their poverty reduction and development strategies. The section ends with an examination of some of the key challenges and misconceptions that policy makers face regarding gender and employment.

In 2008, some 1.3 billion women were either employed or looking for work, yet many millions of them face discrimination in access to training and jobs, are confined to certain occupations with little chance of mobility, are offered lower pay for work of equal value or are unable to earn enough income to support themselves and their families.

These types of inequalities deprive women of choices and opportunities in employment and inimical to normative considerations of fairness and justice.

The elimination of discrimination is at the heart of the ILO’s mandate for Decent Work as a matter of social justice and human rights. The following 15 points give evidence on women’s position in the labour market. The points demonstrate why promoting gender equality forms a core principle in line with the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

1. Women face a double burden of paid work and reproductive work in the household

The gender division of labour within the household means that women bear the greatest burden of tasks. Unpaid work in the household and in society is not recognized as being of economic value and is not usually counted in systems of national accounts. Unpaid work in the household underpins much labour market inequality. Studies from around the world indicate that family care responsibilities and lack of childcare options severely constrain women’s choices in employment. Public expenditure cuts in food subsidies, health, education, transport, infrastructure, childcare and social services affect women to a greater degree than men since it increases their household responsibilities and burdens.

2. Poverty is increasingly feminized

Poverty rates are measured by income and are usually taken from household surveys. Such statistics are hard to disaggregate by sex and are therefore unhelpful in understanding the gender dimensions of poverty. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that women account for a large proportion of the world’s poor.

3. Women make up a large proportion of people working in the informal economy where decent work deficits are most serious

In many developing countries the proportion of working women in the informal economy represents a larger source of employment for women than formal employment. Over 60 per cent of working women are in informal employment outside agriculture, and when agriculture is taken into account the figures are even higher.6 Within the informal economy women tend to be concentrated in the lower end where decent work deficits are the greatest. In general women work in the least protected and most precarious forms of work including domestic work, unpaid contributing family workers and industrial outworkers. Despite these constraints, however, evidence from many regions in the world demonstrate how women working in the informal economy are major contributors to their families’ incomes, play an important role as community mobilizers and have managed to organize to improve their voice and bargaining powers.

4. Labour force participation rates of women have been growing over the last few decades but still remain below that of men

The smallest gaps being some 82 women to 100 men in many developed countries and the biggest gaps in South Asia with 42 women per 100 men in the labour force, and the Middle East and North Africa with 37 women to 100 men.

5. Women often experience higher rates of unemployment even in cases where women may have higher rates of education

In 2007, some 81 million women around the world were actively looking for work. The global unemployment rate for women was 6.3 per cent compared to 5.9 per cent for men.8 In times of economic crisis, an inherent male breadwinner bias often results in women being the first to lose their jobs. Unemployment rates also hide the large numbers of women who may be discouraged workers or who are taking a break from the labour market for child rearing.

6. Serious wage and income differentials exist between men and women throughout the world

This is one of the most persistent forms of discrimination and there is little evidence that the trend is narrowing. According to the European Commission, where data on wage gaps are reliable, the pay gap in the European Union between men and women has remained virtually unchanged at 15 per cent across all sectors in recent years and has narrowed by only one percentage point since 2000.9 Wage gaps are not only characteristic of low-skilled occupations, where they are admittedly the widest, but can also be found in high skilled jobs such as accounting and computer programming10. Contrary to popular belief women’s lower educational qualifications and intermittent labour market participation are not the main reason for the gender wage gap. Other factors such as occupational segregation, job classification systems, biased pay structures and weak collective bargaining are important contributors to unequal pay.

7. Varying levels of direct and indirect forms of discrimination

In different countries limit women’s access to productive resources including land, credit, information, technology, markets, skills and networks.

8. Occupational segregation and segmentation is common in labour markets around the world

Approximately half of all workers in the world are in occupations where at least 80 per cent of workers are of the same sex.12 This has significant costs including rigidities in the labour market, higher male-female wage gaps, underutilization of women’s labour and lower levels of output and future growth rates. At the higher end of the labour market, there are fewer women in management positions and women are less likely to be in occupations that require science and technology. At the lower end of the labour market women make up the majority of those in the low-skilled, low paid occupations including domestic work, home work, agricultural work and the service sectors. Though incomplete, the data that is available suggests that women make up80 per cent or more of home workers13, one of the least protected and most vulnerable segments of the labour market.

9. Women are migrating in greater numbers. Faced with few opportunities in their home labour markets, increasing numbers of women are searching for temporary work beyond their borders

While both men and women may face vulnerability in the migration process, women tend to be concentrated in the 3D jobs: dirty difficult, dangerous. Some women, nevertheless, can become empowered through the migration process and have improved status once back in their home country.

10. Women often face greater barriers to starting a business because of limited access to entrepreneurship training and capital, and lack of mentoring and network support

Women’s businesses are often smaller than men’s for the same reasons of limited access to productive resources. Market saturation and low productivity make for high failure rates of women’s micro-enterprises – particularly in enterprises that use only women’s traditional skills such as cooking, sewing and hairdressing.

11. Information gaps reinforce skills gaps thus hampering employment opportunities

Not only do women face limited access to labour market information systems, they also suffer from lower rates of literacy and skills due to uneven access to education and training systems. Some 64 per cent of the world’s non- literate population are women.14

12. Increased ‘flexibility’ in the labour market may have a negative impact on women in particular

Women are often concentrated in part-time, temporary and casual work. On the one had this may offer advantages by being able to be combined with family responsibilities, but may on the other hand be without the attendant benefits and protections of permanent status. For example, with less flexibility and possibility to work part time more women would probably be totally excluded from the labour market. The problem is therefore the lack of security which is usually associated with flexibility.

13. Women from every strata of the labour market

Often have less access to social security (especially pensions) particularly due to breaks from the labour market for childrearing.

14. Age discrimination constrains the choices of women in employment at both ends of the age spectrum

Young women are amongst the most vulnerable to unemployment and labour market discrimination and older women are vulnerable to poverty due to inadequate pensions and breaks in their employment history. Rates of unemployment for young women are higher overall than for young men in a number of regions, with the most pronounced differences in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa.

15. Few women have been able to break the glass ceiling. Family responsibilities, child rearing and fewer promotional opportunities have hampered many women’s career development

In 2000-2002 women’s overall share of managerial jobs was between 20-40 per cent in 48 out of 63 countries for which data was available. Regional variations were marked with North America, South America and Eastern Europe having a higher share of women in managerial jobs than in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.16 Only 10 Fortune 500 companies were run by women in 2006. One study by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in the UK, suggested that it would take 60 years for women to be equally represented in City boardrooms. It is important to note that it is not in only management positions in the public and private sector that women are under - represented. There are also fewer women in trade unions than men, and particularly in leadership positions.