Workplace Gender Inequality Still Alive Worldwide

Feb. 23, 2010
Despite big changes over recent decades, workplace gender inequalities endure in the United States and other industrialized nations around the world. According to University of Washington sociologists, these inequalities are created by facets of national social policy that either ease or concentrate the demands of care giving within households and shape expectations in the workplace.

In the new book Gendered Tradeoffs: Family, Social Policy and Economic Inequality in Twenty-One Countries, Becky Pettit and Jennifer Hook contend workplace equality for women boils down to not only whether women are included in the work force but on how they are included. Pettit is an associate professor of sociology and Hook is research scientist in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington.

The book, which looks at levels of women’s employment, number of hours worked, occupational integration, and wage equality, draws on the ongoing Luxembourg Income Study. The study is a repository of data collected in a number of countries, and for the book, the UW authors look at Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Canada, Australia, Austria, Russian Federation, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Belgium, Poland, Italy, Spain and the United States.

There are vast differences in women’s economic fortunes in these countries, and in no one country do women do well on all measures of equality. Italy, for example, ranks first in wage equality but is 20th in the number of women employed. Sweden is No. 1 in women’s employment but is only 14th in full-time work. While Belgium is first in occupational integration, it is 18th in women’s employment.

Policies governing gender equality and inclusion in the workplace vary drastically in these countries, and Pettit contends that in order to understand gender inequality in the workplace it is necessary to consider to how a nation’s family policies affect the division of household labor.

“Our argument is gender inequality in the workplace is in a large part due to bearing and rearing children. There are economically successful women everywhere but exactly how women manage the dual demands of work and home varies a lot. The biggest differences come when people have children and when those children are young,” Pettit said.

“Some countries support working women publicly by providing child care. What we have in the United States are private solutions to child care,” she continued. “People who have more resources can maximize their employment and pay for child care. Some nations are more generous and the U.S. is way behind them in providing early childhood education, child care and paid maternity leave.”

Even so, state subsidized, family-friendly policies don’t guarantee women can achieve equality in the workplace. Some of these policies foster the growth of part-time employment – which is a dead end for advancement – work segregation and wage inequality, the authors said.

So where is the best place for a woman to work and live?

“My answer depends on what a woman wants, how much education she has and what resources are available to support her and her family,” said Pettit. “If you want to be a stay at home mother, Germany has a very extensive home leave policy. If you want to work full-time and have kids, the U.S. isn’t bad if you can afford quality child care. If you want to work part-time, Sweden and Denmark have very good child care. And if you want to have your husband involved in child care, Finland is a good choice.

“In the U.S., very well-educated women are more likely to use substitute labor for child care. But this is not the case for low-income women, and this can lead to a two-tiered economic system that penalizes many women,” she said.

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