ILO: Women Represent 60 Percent of Working Poor

April 2, 2004
Women are entering the global labor force in record numbers, but they still face higher unemployment rates and lower wages and represent 60 percent of the world's 550 million working poor, says a new report by the International Labour Office (ILO).

At the same time, a separate updated analysis of trends in the efforts of women to break through the glass ceiling says the rate of success in crashing through the invisible, symbolic barrier to top managerial jobs remains "slow, uneven and sometimes discouraging."

"These two reports provide a stark picture of the status of women in the world of work today," says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "Women must have an equal chance of reaching the top of the jobs ladder. And, unless progress is made in taking women out of poverty by creating productive and decent employment, the Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty by 2015 will remain out of reach in most regions of the world."

"Global Employment Trends for Women 2004,", an analysis of female employment, says more women work today than ever before. In 2003, 1.1 billion of the world's 2.8 billion workers, or 40 percent, were women, representing a worldwide increase of nearly 200 million women in employment in the past 10 years.

Still, the explosive growth in the female workforce hasn't been accompanied by true socio-economic empowerment for women, the report said. Nor has it led to equal pay for work of equal value or balanced benefits that would make women equal to men across nearly all occupations. "In short, true equality in the world of work is still out of reach," the report states.

The study found that while the gap between the number of men and women in the labor force (the sum of the unemployed and employed) has been decreasing in all regions of the world since 1993, this decrease has varied widely. While women in the transition economies and East Asia where the number of women working per 100 men is 91 and 83 respectively have nearly closed the gap, in other regions of the world such as the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, only 40 women per 100 men are economically active, the report says.

Meanwhile, female unemployment in 2003 was slightly higher than male unemployment for the world as a whole (6.4 per cent for female, 6.1 per cent for male), the ILO said, leaving 77.8 million women who were willing to work and looking for work without employment. For young people in general, but specifically for young women aged 15 to 24 years, the difficulty in finding work was even more drastic, with 35.8 million young women involuntarily unemployed worldwide.

In developing countries, women simply cannot afford to not work, the report says, noting that low unemployment rates thus mask the problem. The challenge for women in these countries is not gaining employment they have to take whatever work is available and are likely to wind up in informal sector work such as agriculture with little, if any, social security benefits and a high degree of vulnerability but in gaining decent and productive employment.

What's more, of the world's 550 million working poor or workers unable to lift themselves and their families above earning the equivalent of $1 per day 330 million, or 60 percent, are women, the report says. Adding the 330 million female working poor to the 77.8 million women who are unemployed means that at least 400 million decent jobs would be needed to provide unemployed and working poor women with a way out of poverty.

The report also found that women typically earn less than men. In the six occupations studied, women still earn less of what their male co-workers earn, even in "typically female" occupations such as nursing and teaching.

"Creating enough decent jobs for women is only possible if policy makers place employment at the center of social and economic polices and recognize that women face more substantial challenges in the workplace than men," says Somavia. "Raising incomes and opportunities for women lifts whole families out of poverty and is drives economic and social progress."

And file this under "more bad news": "Breaking Through the Glass ceiling: Women in Management - Update 2004" finds women's share of professional jobs increased by just 0.7 percent between 1996 and 1999, and 2000 and 2002. And with women's share of managerial positions in some 60 countries ranging between 20 and 40 percent, the data show that women are markedly under-represented in management compared to their overall share of employment.

In politics, the proportion of women representatives in national parliaments remains low, increasing from 13 percent to 15.2 percent between 1999 and 2003. However, the update did find recent increases in the number of women in traditionally male-dominated cabinet posts, such as foreign affairs, finance and defense.

Women's overall share of professional jobs in 2000-2002 was highest in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), largely due to long-standing policies supporting working mothers. Women's share of professional jobs in South Asian and Middle Eastern countries was markedly lower, at around 30 percent or less, due, the report says, to societal views of women's labor force participation and to women prioritizing family responsibilities.

Data show that, in general, countries in North America, South America and Eastern Europe have a higher share of women in management jobs than countries in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, the report indicates, "In female-dominated sectors where there are more women managers, a disproportionate number of men rise to the more senior positions and in those professions normally reserved for men, women managers are few and far between."

More information about vulnerable workers women, immigrants, young workers and older workers, will be available in the April issue of Occupational Hazards magazine, mailing April 7. Look for the article "Protecting Vulnerable Workers" on the home page on April 7.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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