Gender Inequality

Women's pay equality has slipped back 50 years. What can we do?

Women sort freshly harvested oranges at a plantation in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, China.

Women sort freshly harvested oranges at a plantation in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, China. Image: Reuters

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Undersecretary-General and Executive Director, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN WOMEN)
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Gender Inequality

• The project pay parity date has slipped from 202 to 257 years.

• Globally, women remain trapped in unstable and insecure forms of employment.

• The burden is disproportionately born by women in their reproductive years.

This year’s Global Gender Gap Report shows us a world of work for women that is in crisis. Yet again the equality horizon in this sphere of life has receded – by a half century. The gap between men’s economic participation and women’s is now projected to take 257 years to close, up from 202 years in 2018. Just a handful of countries are approaching parity. On average, only 55% of adult women are in the labour market vs. 78% of men, and the quality of women’s employment is generally poor, unsteady and unequally paid.

This is a deep worry, not only because of the limited proportion of women at work, but because work offer them such little scope to break entrenched cycles of poverty.

Harsh trade-offs

Large numbers of women remain concentrated in uncertain and unstable forms of employment without security. Globally, more than half (58%) of employed women are in the informal economy. The fact that they continue to bear more than their share of unpaid care and domestic work amplifies their labour-market disadvantages. Globally, women spend three times as much time on unpaid care and domestic work as men; in Asia and the Pacific, it is four times as much. As a result, women often face harsh choices, finding themselves stuck in less well-paid and secure jobs, or being forced to drop out of the labour force altogether. Women face severe penalties, both in terms of labour force participation and pay, when they have children.

This is bad for everyone. For women, the disadvantages add up over time, with effects that last into old age, and that cascade out into families and society. Over a woman’s lifetime, taking into account lower rates of labour-force participation, gender pay gaps and less access to pensions and other social protection, there can be large income gaps – amounting to up to 75% of what men earn.

The effects are concentrated around the reproductive years. We know that women aged 25-34 globally are 25% more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. This shows that the responsibility for “reconciling” paid work and unpaid care falls disproportionately on women’s shoulders. For many, this implies harsh trade-offs: either leaving their children unattended, or sacrificing an income that could lift them and those very same children out of poverty.

For this to change, we need men to do more, but also a supportive policy framework that enables women and men to care for their loved ones without being condemned to poverty. This includes affordable childcare services and paid maternity, paternity and parental leaves. Women the world over need supportive public policies that lead to progress for them, their families and, ultimately, national economies.

Insecurity is becoming the norm

We have to recognize, and act on the fact that the current economic models have failed to generate progress and prosperity, and in many instances are not protecting and supporting women’s rights. Overall, there is a sense that the fruits of development have not been shared equally, that wealth and power is increasingly concentrated among a small percentage, while insecurity is the norm. Social tensions and violent conflict are on the rise. Rapid technological and demographic changes are impacting on every aspect of economic, social and political life, creating both new opportunities and new risks.

We need to rethink how to create economies and societies that work for women – and therefore work for all. This is going to take accelerated investments in childcare and long-term care services, so that women have a realistic choice about how to spend their time and can do so productively. Such investments in service expansion help create new jobs and raise tax revenues.

To get economies that work for sustainable development and gender equality will need intensified efforts to formalize informal workers who currently do not have basic labour rights and entitlements. It will take scrutiny of global supply chains, where women tend to be over-represented and in the most vulnerable forms of informal work. It will require action to prevent further informalization because of austerity and technological change. And it will require addressing the major issue of labour market segregation, by increasing women’s representation in male-dominated sectors such as STEM and also getting more men to enter female-dominated occupations.

Leveling the playing field

These policies need to be joined by swift action by the private sector to redress some of the worst aspects of unequal employment, such as the gender pay gap, which remains firmly in place, supported by enduring social norms.

Commitments to ensuring a sustained and inclusive economic recovery for all workers will need to be reinforced by active labour market policies that link women workers to jobs and seek to break down gender-based discrimination and occupational segregation in labour markets. In addition, tackling harassment and violence in the workplace is important, especially for vulnerable and highly feminized sectors such as domestic service and some agricultural work.

Many governments have already prioritized action to address many of these issues. In a recent survey, three-quarters of the countries that responded had introduced or strengthened maternity, paternity or parental leave or other types of family leave over the last five years.

Have you read?

This is having some effect, though clearly not yet enough to close the yawning gap between men and women. WEF’s latest projections for the widening economic gap are yet another warning of crisis that must not go another year unchecked, and needs both public and private sectors to respond. That is why we need to build strong coalitions, including through UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign, to intensify and accelerate urgent action.

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Related topics:
Gender InequalityFuture of WorkEconomic Progress
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